The fascinating subject of color has many aspects, and those students who wish to pursue it more fully can find books devoted to each of its facets.  The average painter, however, can best learn about color by experimenting with his own pigments.  When he has mastered the basic laws regarding pigment mixture, there are still many areas to be investigated.  Perhaps the two most important to a painter are the visual effects of colors when seen in combination and the physical behavior of pigments in combination.  Often, in practice, the two overlap as you will quickly discover.



Everyone who is at all sensitive to color has noticed that objects often seem to change color when viewed in different lights or in close proximity to objects of another color.  A chair, for instance, that appears to be an uncompromising blue in the daylight may seem gray in lamplight, blue-green against a reddish violet background and blue-violet against a green background.  It’s all a matter of color relativity.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, a teacher showed his student artists a picture of a child kneeling in a darkened room at the side of a bed with a multicolored patchwork quilt, then asked various students to name the different colors.  After all had designated a certain square as “yellow,” he covered the whole picture with a sheet of white paper pierced with a hold through which the square in question was exposed.  The “yellow” was a pure green.  The artist had given a strong bluish cast to the entire scene, representative of night, so that the green seemed yellow in relation to the overall blueness.

All colors are affected by their immediate neighbors.  The scientific reasons for the various changes that appear to take place are too involved for discussion here.  However, the most important effect can be described briefly: When two colors are placed in close proximity, each one appears to subtract its own color from its neighbor or, reversely, to add its own complement to the other.  For example, red next to orange tends to subtract the red from the orange, making it appear yellower.  Purple next to blue tends to add its complement (yellow) to the blue, making it appear greener.  In the case of the patchwork quilt, the over-all blue tone extracted the blue from the green and made the green seem yellow.

The rule of relativity may seem difficult to remember, but if you memorize the following list, it will server you well.

Red makes adjacent colors look greener.

Orange makes adjacent colors look bluer.

Yellow makes adjacent colors more violet.

Green makes adjacent colors appear redder.

Blue makes adjacent colors seem more orange.

Violet makes adjacent colors look yellower.

Relativity applies not only to hue against hue, but also to dark colors versus light colors, dull colors versus bright colors, large masses versus small masses, and, in fact, to all combinations of opposites.

Dark colors emphasize the lightness of contiguous colors, and vice versa.  As one painter pits it, “It is the shadow that makes the sun shine.”  You will have a difficult time representing bright sunlight without shadows.

Dull or dirty colors make adjacent colors seem brighter, while the bright ones tend to make the dull ones even duller.  Take a drab-looking area such as a stone wall in sold dirty gray shadow, add a few definite accents of even darker gray, and immediately the shadow will appear transparent and lively.

Using only subdued colors, one can sometimes develop a sparkling low-key composition by judiciously playing one against the other.  For discipline, some artists occasional restrict themselves to a neutralized palette using Raw Sienna or Raw Umber for yellow, Indigo or Payne’s Gray for blue, and Indian Red for red.



A musical chord can be infinitely more pleasing than a single note, but its success depends upon the relation of the notes within the chord.  The same is true of color chords.  To work out a color pattern for a picture, start with one dominant color.  Then, referring to the scene or subject or to your imagination, decide what other color or colors will harmonize with the first.  Even when painting directly from nature, it is necessary to weight the suitability of the color of each part, accepting only those that harmonize with the dominant color.  If a color does not agree, it should be changed.

There is no arbitrary limit to the number of colors that may be used.  You may use four, five or more colors in your composition if you wish, but remember that none of the subordinate hues should equal in importance the dominant one.

The importance of color in a picture depends on two factors: the size of the color area and the brilliance of the hue chosen.  Thus, a small bright red space is likely to be more noticeable than a much larger gray-brown one.  Be sparing with the gaudy colors.  A good formula is to have large areas of muted colors, grays, browns, and olives, contrasted with much smaller areas of intense color.

Art supply stores sell packages of 3” x 5” colored papers which include hundreds of different hues, shades, and tints, collated in spectrum order.  Some artists make their own color samples on similar cards.  Either can be very useful for suggesting color chords.  With a white or black paper on the table, drop upon it swatches of the approximate colors and relative sizes you would like to use and see if they harmonize well.  If necessary, substitute other tints or shades until the combination is complete.  Then follow the general formula in the actual painting.



Any color can have a great many values and the value is infinitely more important than color.  As mentioned earlier, the value of a color is its depth of color.  Pale blue is light in value, and dark blue is dark in value.  A medium blue and a medium red are entirely different in appearance though they may be exactly the same in value.  For many it is difficult to separate value from color and to determine whether the values of a variety of colors are the same or different.

It is useless to say that a given tree, for instance, is green without defining its value.  Green may be nearly white or nearly black, or any tint or shade in between.

Different colors of equal value have a tendency to merge visually.  Changing the value of one will tend to separate them.  For example, to suggest distance between a nearby tree and a distant mountain, the two must differ in value.

It is not necessary for the hue of every object in a painting to exactly match its hue in nature, but it is essential that values correspond to each other properly.  A great range of value can completely upset the picture’s visual balance.  A tree, to take a single example, may show a great deal of detail and strong contrast between its lighted and shaded spots, but it will also have an over-all value that may be quite different from neighboring parts of the picture.  It is this over-all value that holds the tree together artistically.  In painting the tree, the student may render the light parts lighter than the sky and the dark parts so dark that the tree is no longer a cohesive unit.  This should not be done.  The tree as a whole must be lighter or darker than the over-all values of the adjacent parts of the picture from which it is to be separated.  The rule applies to every part of your picture pattern.



Many beginners wonder if they will ever learn to assess the exact local colors of a subject and be able to duplicate them with the pigments on their palettes.  Such ability comes only as a result of long practice, a knowledge of the rules and theories of color, an analytical eye, and thorough familiarity with the characteristics of the pigments in one’s color pan.  But while you are gaining such knowledge and experience, keep in mind that the relation of the colors in the picture to each other is far more important than their relation to the colors in the scene.  In your painting, you may often have to change individual colors to make them harmonize with each other.  Whether or not they match the subject is irrelevant.  The painter is an artist, not a camera.

Eventually, of course, you will develop a more sensitive and analytical eye.  You will learn to see the subtle differences and to detect the chroma content of each muted color passage.  You should also, of course, acquire complete familiarity with the actual pigments in your palette.  Then, after practice, you will be able to scan any given color and know instinctively that it will require, say, Sepia with a touch of Cadmium Orange, or Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow, with a bit of Cobalt Blue to gray the mixture slightly.  



Most painting is actually done with tertiary, or neutralized, colors.  It is seldom that a color is used at full saturation.  Many of the colors used might be called grays, that is, gray with a yellow tinge, or gray inclined toward red or blue.

Tertiary colors can be mixed from any number of pigment combinations.  Thus, the grayed color produced by the red, yellow and blue combinations mentioned above could be duplicated in a mixture of Raw Umber and Cadmium Orange.  In fact, you could start with any color in your pan and then add one or more additional pigments to create the particular grayed tint or shade you have in mind.

For my own work, I usually keep on hand, in one or more mixing pan wells, a residue of earlier mixings which I call “dirt colors” or “shadow colors”––both warm grays and cool grays.  When I need a grayed hue, I start with the dirt color and add whatever is needed of red, yellow and blue.



The careless use of black can have unfortunate consequences, making grays and shadows appear funereal.  If used judiciously, however, black is a useful color.

Don’t use plain black or watered black for shadows.  A more luminous gray results from mixing browns with blues, browns with greens, or complementary colors with each other.  Cobalt Blue and Raw Umber make a good gray which can be made cooler with more blue or warmer with more brown.

When I use black I seldom leave it pure unless the subject is black, such as a black velvet dress.  For a very dark accent I might first apply a blob of black, then while that is still wet, add a drop of local color and leave it to mingle unevenly with the black.  This gives a bit of life to the dark and counteracts the funereal appearance.

One of the Old Masters admonished: “Never paint any passage so dark that it couldn’t be made even darker.”  It is generally agreed that darks can be made much more intense than pure black by mixing two or three dark, pure colors such as Thalo Blue, Thalo Green and Alizarin Crimson.  Of course no such mixture can really be darker than black, but its vibrancy will make it appear so.

I use Sepia more often than black for extreme darks.  Applied at full saturation it is almost as dark as black, but has more life and warmth.  If necessary, I add blue, green, or red to the Sepia.



Despite a traditional feeling to the contrary, there is no reason why Chinese White or other opaque whites cannot be used in connection with transparent watercolor, provided the picture is planned that way and the treatment acknowledges the method.  Many artists use opaque color to pick out light spots on an otherwise finished painting.  Chinese White does not have the lucency of clear white paper, however, and its use to overcome errors in a picture patently intended as a transparent rendering is usually not at all satisfactory.



My own palette includes five greens.  By adding a touch of other colors to these five, I can quickly produce a wide range of verdant hues: light, dark, grayed, yellowed or bluish, thus avoiding monotony in my green passages.  Alizarin Crimson mixed with Viridian can provide a really new note: a green violet.  Oxide of Chromium seems a very dull green in the pan, but can be excellent for reproducing bright grass.

Greens in nature are usually a good deal darker, as well as less brilliant, than we think.  If you hold a spectrum-green card at arm’s length against a background of natural green, you can see that the latter looks dull by comparison.  Then check a sunlit tree or a lawn against a blue sky, and you will note that even the sunlit parts are considerably darker than the sky.  Yet many students use too pure or too pale a green wash in the mistaken conviction that sunlit verdure is bright or close to white.  It is good practice to start your trees and grass with a fairly substantial green, use that for your lighted areas, and then darken the shadows relatively.

Green is such an all-pervading color that at times it becomes monotonous in a picture unless care is taken to subdue it somewhat or to introduce variety of shade and value.  For a long period, prior to about 1900, traditional artists were so alert to the possible danger of green in a picture that its use was virtually taboo.  Trees were painted in brown.  That is an extreme measure, but it is advisable in painting an all-green landscape to exaggerate the natural differences of shade, value, and grayness.  Some of the trees, or groups of trees, can be rendered a little more yellow, a little more blue, darker, lighter, or grayer.  Watch the greens carefully as you apply them.  It is better to understate than overstate.  A symphony of greens can be magnificent but a monotony of green is unbearable.  Too vivid passages can be reduced by washing a film of violet or red over them.



Fall maples and oaks in New England provide a blaze of reds, yellows, and greens probably unsurpassed in the world, and many artists translate this color to paper or canvas in screaming hues.  But few people can stand prolonged excitement.  The splendor of the autumn foliage is enchanting because of its contrast with the staid colors of the other seasons.  Actually, autumn colors are not as glaring as we think.  Comparisons made with color swatches or with color meters show that the arboreal colors are far from pure.  Nor does nature provide a whole forest of red or yellow.  It includes a good deal of gray, green, and brown.  The artist, however, is likely to extract only brilliant individual features and paint them in even more vivid pigments direct from the tube.  This is a case where understatement is more eloquent than hyperbole.  Shouting is not required.

The actual model for the painting “Ruddy Veteran” on page 54 was unbelievably red, but to make it acceptable for long-time viewing all areas were grayed somewhat.  Inspection will show that washes of complementary green have been flooded over the whole tree, especially at the top.  The finished tree is still sufficiently brilliant, especially in relation to its neighboring muted colors.



Every painting has an over-all super color that is more important than the hue of any of the individual parts––a yellowish flush, a pinkish cast, a blue-gray appearance.  At an exhibition of paintings by different artists a glance will show how the over-all color (or color combination) of one painting differs from that of its neighbor.  The super color is usually the prime indicator of the mood of the picture.  A fog scene is often an over-all gray; a tragic scene may be blue-black; and Arizona sunshine is likely to be a warm orange-brown.

Eileen Monaghan, two of whose paintings are shown on page 73, has painted a number of Spanish wheat fields with a fascinating golden glow.  To achieve the foundation for this effect, she flooded a very pale was of Cadmium Orange over the whole paper before painting.  This gave a suggestion of gold to every part of the finishes work.  In painting the picture she of course developed further the golden grain areas, but the preparatory tint gave her the key for the whole composition.