My Color “Theories”

I had a friend ask me about color theory and so I thought I would post my thoughts on the matter here for her benefit and for my personal reference.

When she asked me I first thought, “I don’t really have any books I can list off for you.” I pondered for a second then, rather than dismissing the question, I began to recall all the brushes I’ve had with color and color theory.

First I mentioned that the most important tool to color theory is knowing the color wheel. I am not saying that I have one with me every time I sit down to color something. However, if you are going to take on the world of color, it is a good place to start. I tasked her with one of the most helpful assignments I received from my  color theory class:

Paint the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors into a color wheel as cleanly, and perfectly as you can with just the colors red, yellow, and blue. She also had us color complimentary squares but I don’t remember enough of that part of the assignment to share. It’s important to note that part of the assignment is to paint it cleanly and in the fashion of the color wheel. Spending that much time with it really helps to bring the lesson home. I did it with acrylics and doing this really helped me understand the media. My teacher stressed cleanliness and I think I ended up having to redo things at least 3 times. I may have grumbled at the time, but it was well worth the effort and I am very grateful for her.

Color Wheel

That was my springboard. From there my instinct was to tell her to look at impressionism, my favorite being Monet. The colors they choose to express shadows and subtle tones really gets you looking deeper than “this section is blue and this one is orange”, which is very important!!!!! I cannot stress that enough. I told her to look at paintings and look at them closely. My favorite American painter is Albert Bierstadt. Not only are his works great, but his name means “beer city”!!! I could look at his stuff for days and still find more to look at. The best frame of mind to have when looking at other works is to think of colors as layers. An orange flower is not an orange flower; it is yellows that show more brightly in the light and reds that show darker in the shadows and blues when it is shaded by a tree.

I feel it is only after gaining a firm understanding of color in it’s complicated contexts should you start to look at the more stylized uses. My favorite example is Watchmen. David Gibbons sings a lot of John Higgins’ praise in Watching the Watchmen. I won’t quote anything from it but I will talk about what I drew from the book regarding color theory. For those of you haven’t looked at the coloring styles for the Watchmen book, I urge you to either pick it up or give it another look. Here is one of my favorite panels:

Sugar Cubes

Note that Mr. Higgins doesn’t use literal color language (he does that a lot throughout the book) and has the cool subdued colors frame Mr. Dreiberg in his reaction to Rorschach’s unsettling news. It’s a lot of fun going through and thinking about how the eye is led, not just by frame composition, but by color planning as well.

Another thing my friend asked of me was for some recommendations regarding the principles and elements of design. I wish that I had a nice, well thought out answer for her, but I all I can think to write is my rules of thumb for when I tackle pieces. I learn situationally and really can only speak from experience, but I will do my best to flesh out my thoughts. This should be good for me. PS some of these are practices of mine rather than having solely to do with color theory:

Sicily’s Rules of Thumb for Approaching Color Projects (in no particular order of importance)

• Always have a sample of the material you are working with that way you can test the colors on them. What you see on the pallet isn’t always going to be what you get on the bristol or illustration board.

• If you want a good understanding of color, learn to mix a good brown and make variations only working with the colors yellow, blue, and red. By this I mean that you should be able to look at a piece of wood and know how much yellow you need. My favorite recipe is the make a nice even purple and introduce it into some yellow until you get a nice brass.

• Never use black in a mixture unless you are making gray or using ink after you’ve painted. Black is very overpowering and can instantly throw a color out of wack. It doesn’t occur in nature anyways and so you shouldn’t be using it in the first place. Oh, you said you saw a black rock in your landscape? Well unless it’s obsidian, you are not trying hard enough. And even then I would not use it as a mixture. Let me show you

obisdian 3

If I saw this and thought I should paint it (not really my cup of tea but for the sake of argument let’s say I am doing this) then I would start with a very light and very blue purple and then maybe layer in some gray and when i get to the darker parts consider using black.

obsidian 1

If I were to tackle this guy I would start with an emerald color then and in a very blue heavy brown as I worked it.

obsidian 2

I see some yellowy browns and greens in this guy….by now you get the drill. You are welcome to disagree with these statements, but I remember having it pounded into my head that black is a lazy color and should only be used in very very very very special moments…. unless you are drawing, then all you have is your ink 8D

• Plan ahead and work in as many steps as you can when working on a piece so that when you are laying down your colors you do not have regrets. For example: my process for my competition pieces was as follows:

  1. draw up the idea
  2. draw up the idea in the size format
  3. trace that idea onto your final media (illustration board or bristol board usually)
  4. don’t touch it for a day
  5. lay down the basic colors (for the cat I did a water color of blue, yellow, yellowy brown, and red)
  6. don’t touch it
  7. add the next layer of colors (usually the same color but just another layer)
  8. add in the highlights and shadows
  9. draw in the colors texture
  10. ink in the outlines where needed

I am not a pro in any way, shape, or form, but working this way is making really helping me to hone my skills.

• Shadows are blue

• Translucent things are still solid. if you are painting something that is sheer then it will affect the color of whatever is behind it, even if it’s glass. This goes for drawing too. If you are rendering a shape, drawing something that is on the other side of the window does not mean that you just draw it. It is a different shape entirely and you must render it as such.

• Water makes everything more difficult. Whether you are using it as a media or trying to render its image, it will give you hell. But if you work with it anyway, then the results are usually very rewarding.

• The hardest part about painting is learning to speak in the language of light. Even if you are cartoonist you have to know this. You are not just drawing/ painting an item there, you are also rendering the light that you use to see it, however dim or bright it is. The best lesson I ever learned about this was from The Art of Comic Book Inking by Gary Martin. I love this book so much I could cry. I have poured over its pages many times. Here is a good page for illustrating what I mean. It works with just ink, but it is a good reference.

Reference Page from The Art of Comic Book Inking

I suggest you go in and read that. To be honest, it’s not really relevant to my point, but his words are gold. Sorry about the poor scan. The relevance is really more with the images. Notice the weight of the line, especially in her chin and nose. You would expect that she is being lit from above, right? Being conscious of this is important for drawing and painting. Don’t believe me? Check this out:


Besides being totally badass (because DARK SOULS MUTHA FUGGAH), there is a lot of light play going on in this painting. If the artist didn’t paint the light then you would not see the rain drops. If you want to look at something more obvious, look at our undead friend and his crow pal. The artist shaped the colors based on light and shadow. This might sound like gobbilty gook. I am not sure. I am sure, however, that I am starting to get rambly and should probably stop.

To the friend that asked this of me, I hope you find this, at least in some ways, helpful. If I think of more things, I will share them with you. If people have questions or tips of their own, I would love to hear from them.

Much obliged,

Sicily Lawson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s