A lot of new artists want to know the best way of choosing the right colors all the time. I understand that because it was once one of my biggest concerns too.
I learned through experience that there really isn’t such a thing as “The Right Color.” The more horses I drew, the more I learned that I could create realistic colors by combining many different colors.
Even more important, color really isn’t the most important thing to get right. Value is. Get those values right, and you can make almost anything look realistic no matter what color it is.
Choosing the Right Colors All the Time
Meet Pee Wee.
No, she’s not a magenta-colored cat, but she looks just as realistic in magenta-colored light (above) as she does in green (below.)
Both of those unique color selections could make a more interesting portrait than Pee Wee’s actual color.
Well. Maybe not for everyone.
The point is that it’s not the color that makes each of these three images look like a cat in general and like Pee Wee specifically. It’s the values, the details, and an accurate drawing.
What I’m really trying to say is that if you can draw a realistic looking cat with the wild variations in color above, then it really doesn’t matter which shade of gray or brown you choose to draw the cat’s actual color.
Two Things to Consider when Choosing the Right Colors for Your Drawing
Consider the Lighting
Lighting affects color selection more than anything else because the color of the light changes the way colors appear.
During the day, snow in our front yard looks “normal.”
At night, the snow still looks normal, but the colors I’d use to draw this scene are very different from the colors I’d use for the first snowy scene. The interesting thing (to me anyway) is that the snow in both images reads as natural.
If I were to draw this street scene but use whites and grays for the snow, it just wouldn’t look right.
Whether the light comes from a natural source like the sun or moon, or from an artificial source like street lights or Christmas lights, the color will affect the way you see the colors in your subject.
Consider the Surroundings
The things around your subjects also influence the colors in your subject, especially if your subject has a reflective surface. The more reflective a surface is, the more other colors show up in it.
Water, for instance, usually reflects the color of the sky. That’s why it looks blue, and that’s why it can look so many different shades of blue.
But water also reflects the colors of the objects floating in it. If you’re drawing a duck swimming in the water, then the colors in the duck will also appear in the water.
The same is true of metallic objects like the Christmas ornaments shown below.
When you look at these three ornaments, you immediately think “red, blue, and yellowish-gold.” Right?
But look at the red and blue ornaments. The blue ornament shows some nice purples in the areas that are near the red ornament. And the red ornament also shows some nice purples (though slightly different purples) in the side that faces the blue ornament. That’s because red and blue mixed together create purple.
The yellow ornament also reflects the colors of the other two ornaments. To draw these ornaments so they look real, you have to use those additional colors.
Even objects that aren’t shiny can be influenced by reflected light. Ordinarily, you’d never consider using bright reds to draw a white kitten, but look at this little guy. Sitting on a red towel that’s bathed in bright sunlight, he turns red! Quite bright red in some areas.
Other factors also play a role in how you choose colors, but light and surroundings are the two most obvious.
The Bottom Line
What it all boils down to is that you need to study your reference photo closely, and then draw what you see in the photo, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. It takes practice and the ability to trust your eyes and not what your brain is telling you, but it can be done.
Would You Like More Information on Choosing the Right Colors?
I’ve written several posts on the topic of color selection. The most helpful of them is 3 Ways to Find the Right Colors for Any Drawing. For additional articles, type “choosing colors” or a similar keyword phrase in the search bar at the top of the side bar.