Tutorial – Colour


Learn how to control your colours, and take advantage of different colour theory principles to make your art pop!

There is a lot of theory and studies on colour principles, and you don’t need to know them all to be able to create good compositions. You can push your art a lot further by simply taking advantage of a few of the most commonly used principles.

(C) Henning Ludvigsen

Hands down, on the ranking of the most important art principles, you find colour theory on a solid second place, only beaten by the most important theory; values. From all of the different aspects of art studies, colour studies are probably the most studied of them all, and it’s probably also the hardest one to master. Staying on top and handling the most important principles of art will give your advantages in the art scene for sure and shouldn’t be overlooked.


The main characteristics of colour

The principle of colour might seem simple enough, but taking the four main characteristics of colour into consideration; hue, value, saturation, and temperature, there are really no limit of what you can do with this if you know a little about how it all works. There’s a lot of theory and studies on colour principles, and you don’t need to know them all to be able to create nice compositions of colour, but knowing a few of them is a good start for any artist.


Simultaneous contrast

All colours and even greyscale values are influenced by their surrounding colour, and can be used in several ways to create the expression you’re aiming for. This is important to keep in mind when choosing your palette, and if you’re planning on having a strongly saturated and dominant background colour, make sure to put the influence of this colour into account early in the process when blocking in your composition.

Surrounding colours also influence grey-scale surfaces. Look at the centre example and notice that the grey circles seem to absorb some of their surrounding colour. This can be used to create some very special and interesting effects in your compositions. The grey circles at the bottom all have the same greyscale value, but are influenced by their surrounding value and therefore appears to be different from each other.


The power of complimentary colours

The good, old colour wheel can still have a purpose in a digital world. It’s a good tool to find complimentary colour variations.

Now, let’s take a look at that slightly intimidating device known as the colour wheel; what would an article about colour be without one, right? When working digitally, the importance of the three primary colours (the triangle in the centre) aren’t that important as you mix colours differently on the computer, but you can still use this wheel to figure out your complimentary colours. If you look at the outer ring, the colours positioned perfectly opposite each other are complimentary to the other; red versus green, blue versus yellow, and so on. These colours have the strongest contrast, colour-wise and are a good choice to use in areas of interest to bring out attention to specific part of your painting. Mix the two complimentary colours, and you end up with a neutral colour.

(C) Simon Dominic

Simon Dominic is using complimentary colours on this painting to bring out the purple birds towards the green main element in the composition.


Colour weight

(C) Magic The Gathering / Philip Straub

Colours have weight, and it’s quite simple; the darker the colour, the more solid and heavy the painted object will appear. The brighter colour and values, the lighter and more delicate the painted object will seem. You should use colour weight to balance your composition, and for creating striking moods.

Philip Straub is using colour weight to bring out the main element in focus and balancing the composition in this painting. This is a great way to empathize areas when you’re working within a limited colour range and don’t want to use complimentary contrast as an attention seeker.


Stick with it

Think in advance, and plan your approach on colour usage. When you’ve settled for a palette, stick with it throughout your painting process. Changing your mind too much during the painting process can mess things up.

Once you’re in the process of deciding on a colour scheme, no matter if you’re starting off with colours from of the first rough, or if you already have a grey-scale version ready of your composition; create your colour scheme and stick with it. Altering too much throughout the process might mess things up more than you think. Minor tweaks are naturally a necessity if needed.

(C) Henning Ludvigsen


Add depth with colour


(C) Gary Tonge

An efficient way of supplementing depth to a painting with already good values is taking advantage of the effect of warm and cool colours. This can be done quite simply by using warm colours on elements close to the viewer, and keeping the background elements and backdrop with cool colour. This is because warm colours seem to come forward and cool colours seem to recede away. You can also use the same effect to also create striking contrast in mood, as shown on this beautiful landscape by Gary Tonge.


Light, shadow and colour

(C) Izzy Medrano

When painting any subject, light and shadows are what will build the shapes in the piece. Values are extremely important to be settled early in the process, and when the final thrust of the creative effort is set by adding colour to the light and shadows, your piece will really spring to life.

Keep what was mentioned earlier in mind about adding depth with colour and settle for a colour for your main light source, and a colour for your ambient light. The ambient light is the space that your character or scene is set inside. If you have a clear blue sky, your ambient will be blue because of the massive blue sky-dome covering the scenery, and this colour will influence all of your objects from all angles, and especially the shadowed areas. This is why we often see that blue or purple shadows or backlights/rim-lights always seem to work out nicely in paintings.

Here, Izzy Medrano is using a main light source from the left, and using the surrounding, blue, ambient light make up the shapes of the shadowed side of the character.


Environmental influences

Being aware of and controlling your ambient setting in your art can make for some beautiful moods.

(C) Levente Peterffy

If you want to take the previous principle about light and ambient light and complicate it a bit further, you can start thinking about what material the different surfaces in your scene is made out of and how they all will reflect and bounce off light. The light will then cast shadows which will have to be sorted out as well. Looking at this alley painted by Levente Peterffy, you will see that he has taken advantage of ambient lighting to establish depth, and shadows for grounding the lit parts of the composition. Softening out the lit and saturated parts makes it appear as if the air around appear lit, which makes for the delicate and soft expression in this piece.


The same goes for semi transparent colourful surfaces, or solid yet strongly saturated elements where the colour of the surface will bounce off and tint the surrounding areas, both the air and surfaces, as Daniel Kvasznicza is nicely showing on his Chinatown conceptual sketch.

Colourful surfaces will emit and bounce off coloured light and influence their surrounding environments.

 (C) Daniel Kvasznicza


Areas of interest

(C) Simon Dominic

The same way as using strong contrast when working with values, adding attention to specific areas in your composition can and should be done with colours as well. Therefore; hold your horses, and don’t use your colours on full strength all over your canvas, but reserve the strongest hues for areas of interest. Using complimentary contrast or simply stronger hues of a specific colour will work as an automatic attention seeker, and can be used cleverly if you are aware of how to take advantage of this effect. Remember that a painting with dull hues all over will be hard to read. You need strong colours to function as eye-catchers, but only in the right places.

In this painting, Simon Dominic has taken great advantage of colour saturation to empathize the unique features of the main character, and left the rest of the composition less saturated, yet within the same colour range. Add more saturation to the background and the painting would be hard to read.


Single-coloured surfaces

Unless it’s the expression you’re aiming for, having clean, single coloured surfaces can make your painting seem a lot duller than it could be, no matter how strong that colour is. Texture is key; try messing up that surface a bit with some textured brushes, or a simple noise and you’ll see that simple measures like this can create interesting surfaces and make your painting come to life, even if the noise is within the same colour range as the clean base colour.

Add more life to your dull, single-valued surfaces with some simple textured noise; Texture is key and can add a lot of life to your painting.

Extra tips!

Using complimentary colours to bring out areas of interest

(C) Philip Straub

An expressive and efficient way of adding depth and settling where to put the areas of interest is by using complimentary colours. On this painting by Philip Straub, he is using the complimentary contrast of the red mushrooms and the green backdrop to make his composition easy to read. He is also taking advantage of colour saturation to bring out the foreground by keeping the background duller both in values and colour saturation.


Using warm and cold colours to create depth

(C) Gary Tonge

Gary Tonge is showing a great example of how good composition and colour handling can make a painting really pop. By using warm colours close to the viewer, and cooler colours further away, the combination of colours will add depth to the piece because warm tones seem to come out towards you and cool colours recedes. The nice perspective of this specific piece and the placement of the point of interest are also helping.


Colours influenced by environment (ambient light)

(C) Gary Tonge

The atmosphere in this painting by Gary Tonge is bathing in a beautiful, golden light (ambient light), which is influencing the entire scenery. Any other stronger colour or complimentary contrasts would break the wonderful mood he has created here. He is also relying on colour weight to make the structure closest to us appear more solid and heavy.

Breakdown on the creation of “Summon”

Step 1, getting the base values up

As already mentioned; having good values is crucial for your painting to work. No matter how well the colours are composed, bad values can still break the piece and it will be hard to read. If it works well in grey-scale as well as in colour, then you’ve succeeded.


Step 2, applying basic colour

I wanted to create depth to this painting, even though it’s a very simple composition. I decided to use a cool colour for the background because cool colours appear to recede back into the canvas. I wanted the woman’s skin and dress to consist of a warm palette, along with the closest tentacles to drag them closer towards the viewer and away from the cool background.


Step 3, adding the final pass

Adding more contrast around the woman’s head will work as an attention seeker, and I also applied a blue backlight-rim around her and on the closest tentacles to link them to the blue background. If you look at the top of her dress, you can see how the blue light is bouncing off her dress, and also how her raised arm reflects some warm shades of light as well.

Published by

Henning Ludvigsen

Norwegian digital artist geek!

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