A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

When I answered the reader question that published this past Wednesday, I was reminded of a color mixing method I learned from a book for oil painters. It’s quite a simple 3-step process for choosing colors, so I thought I’d share an adaption of it for colored pencil artists.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Color selection and color mixing can be a confusing and complicated looking process. That’s why I was so impressed with the process I’m about to describe. When I first read it, it seemed quite simple and logical. I wished I’d have thought of it on my own, it was so obvious!

Let’s look at a sample project. Here’s bright and cheerful rose bud. The colors are vibrant, so they’re perfect.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Step 1: Identify the Main Color

The first step is identifying the main color for each area. This rose has a pretty strong shadow as well as strong highlights. To keep things basic, let’s start with the highlighted part of the rose.

The main color is clearly red. But what type of red? Is it a warm red with a lot of yellow in it, or is it a cool red with blue in it?

The beauty of colored pencils is that you have several options in the red color family. So don’t just choose a red out of the box and call it good. Since you can’t mix colored pencils the same way you can mix wet media like oil paints, find the closest match possible for the red in the sunny parts of the rose.

I chose two colors, then made these color swatches. It didn’t take much more to show me which color was closest.

NOTE: If you make swatches, make part of the test swatch as saturated as possible so that the paper doesn’t influence the appearance. I make a saturated bar at the inside ends of each swatch, so I could compare them more easily.

STEP 1: Test your initial choices (if more than one) to find the best match for the base color.

I’m not naming colors because this isn’t about color names. It’s about selecting colors from the pencils you have. This method works with every brand of pencil.

Step 2: Choose the Influencing Color

Unless you happen to have an exact color match (not impossible, but also not very likely,) you next need to figure out what color you need to add to the red to get a closer match.

How do you do this?

Look at that rose again. What is the second most obvious color you see in the sunlit part?

I see a lot of yellow, so I chose two colors, yellow and yellow-orange, and layered them over the swatch of red color I made in step one: Yellow on the top half, yellow-orange on the bottom half.

Then I layered the base red over half of each one of those.

So what you see here is red-yellow-red on top, then red-yellow, then red-yellow-orange, then red-yellow-orange-red on the bottom.

Choose an Influencing Color for Each Area

The colors above are for the petals on the front of the rosebud.

Look at the petal in the back. That’s a little cooler than the petals in the front. There is some yellow, but yellow isn’t a clear influencing color.

Nor are the colors I’ve chosen good influencing colors for the shadowed parts of the rosebud.

Once you choose the base color or colors, you can further fine-tune the colors by choosing different influencing colors for each area.

I’m not naming specific colors; I’m describing a process. I don’t know what brands of pencils you have or what this rose looks like on your digital device.

But you can do this. Take your time examining the rose, and the pencils you have for each step of the process.

Step 3: Do You Need a Tint Color?

Many times, once you’ve decided on the base color and the influencing color, you find that you need to make additional adjustments. You need a third color to tint the mix of the first two colors.

At this point, other factors start to play a bigger role. Things like the type of paper you use, your drawing method, and how you want the finished drawing to look. All of these things determine whether or not you need a tint color and what color you choose.

If you do want a tint color, continue trying colors on your color swatch.

That’s the 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors that I Learned as an Oil Painter

I have no doubt this process will work for colored pencils, and for any other medium you use.

Are three colors all you’ll ever need for any subject? No. There will be times—probably lots of times—when you’ll find it necessary to add more colors for details and those little adjustments that come at the end of a drawing project.

Also be aware that in most cases, you’ll have to cycle through the three colors you’ve chosen in order to develop full color saturation and vibrancy.

But it is a workable method for choosing colors for any drawing you’ll ever want to do, and in any medium.

And once you understand the principle, it won’t take long for this 3-step process for choosing colors to become second nature.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

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.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

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.

Choosing the right colors

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.

Consider reflected light when choosing the right colors for your drawing.

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.