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How to make your colour more interesting

Creative use of colour

How to make your colour more interesting

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

Everyone loves paintings that use colour creatively. When I paint plein air passersby often say the same thing: ’Nice colours’.

To start thinking about how you can use colour creatively, first determine what ‘creative colour’ means to you. Have a flip through some of your watercolour resources (books, clippings from websites or magazines) and find paintings you really like, where you think the colour is done creatively. What exactly are the artists doing that makes their colour interesting?

Painters are called ‘colourists’ if they use wonderful colour; at the other extreme are ’value painters’. Because you don’t have to have creative colour at all. Look at the masterful, muted work of value painters Andrew Wyeth and Dean Mitchell. The spot-on tonal values make for powerful paintings, no additional colour interest needed.

In contrast, a colourist will always be a colourist, even when handling a subdued subject; it seems to be something you can’t just switch off. The early work of Monet uses the traditional muted colour of his time yet the colours are interesting in themselves, and designed to interact with each other. A good example to look up online is Argenteuil, the bridge under repair (1872). Notice how colourful the low intensity image is, for example the smoke is a greyed blue-green against greyed red-purple trees; these are the intentional colour choices of a colourist.

An example in my own work is the sky in Do not alight here; it changes from pink on the left to lavender on the right. The pink on the left provides a stronger, more enjoyable contrast with the blue shed than lavender would have. Whereas on the right I wanted an interesting colour contrast with the orange-pink colour of the post, so I pushed the pink to a lavender (this also matches how the the light is coming from the left, and the right side is darker/cooler).

There are many different approaches to creative colour, but all involve firstly the choice of colours used, and secondly, how those colours are applied in paint.

Let’s look at how to make colour choices that are ‘creative’. Remember that creative colour doesn’t have to be bright or obvious; it can be like Monet’s subtleties that lift a quiet painting out of the predictable. Mainly it means going beyond what is in front of you to invent your own colours for the subject, and moving beyond habitual or traditional combinations. Innovative artist Frank Webb says, ‘Don’t be model-bound.’ How do you come up with these colours?

There are two things that will give your colour experiments the best chance of working.

Firstly, stick to the appropriate tonal values. Surprisingly, as long as the tonal value is roughly correct, almost any colour can be substituted for another and the painting will read coherently. (Look at the purple stone in my Stonehenge painting Encounter.) So if a shape needs to be a light colour in the painting’s composition, experiment with light colours not mid or dark ones.

Secondly, repeat your colours in other parts of the painting. Otherwise the painting may simply look a mess. Use each colour a few times, and repeats can be quite subtle. (In my painting Waterloo man I invented the red-orange that is repeated across the painting, and echoed subtly in the foreground. In Do not alight here the strong blue is also used in the foreground and halfway down the right side; the red is similarly repeated in the foreground land and halfway up on the left.) Your goal is to have a set of colours weaving across the painting, working together to say what you want to say, creatively.

The easiest way to make your paintings more interesting in terms of colour is to ‘push’ the colour that’s already there. Think of where the hue lies on the colour wheel and move it towards a neighbour. If you’re painting a red apple, push the red colour by painting the apple as red-orange in some places. You could also push the red to red-purple in other parts of the apple for additional colour interest. (This is what I did with the t shirt stripes in Boy with crab.) I see so many paintings that would benefit from this simple strategy.

You can simplify the infinite choices of colour by using a limited palette. There exist rules for selecting three or four colours from around the colour wheel (‘triads’ and ‘tetrads’), but you are also free to just pull out three or four tubes of any colours you feel like playing with and see if you can make the whole painting using just those colours. Make a variety of two-colour mixes with the tube colours, varying the hue, tonal value, intensity and temperature as needed. (See Amaryllis in blue and green as an example.)

You can also make a painting look ‘creative’ simply by using non-routine colours. A sky could be hot pink, trees could be purple. Try making an entire painting with unexpected colours just for fun, while keeping your tonal values correct and repeating the colours in other parts of the painting. Do you like the result? Are there some colour ideas you could use again in a more serious painting? (My painting Hand on knee uses invented colour for everything but the flesh tones.)

Another starting point for creative colour is to make every individual colour ‘creative’, by not using straight tube colour. Next time you are looking at paintings, notice how many have recognisable tube colours, yielding predictable colour combinations. Jean Dobie, author of best-selling book Making colour sing, suggests varying every tube colour a little before you use it so that it’s not the same as everyone else’s. For example, you could vary a blue with another blue, a bit of turquoise, a touch of purple, or a touch of anything else before you use it. (None of the blues or reds in Do not alight here are straight tube colours.) It is amazing how adding even a tiny amount of a different colour creates an entirely new colour. Even if you do nothing else about creative colour, your paintings will look a bit different from the rest. And you’ll expand your colour repertoire in the process.

A problem more often encountered is how to find another colour for your painting as you’re going along. There may be some figures and you realise you could make their clothing any colour you wish. How do you come up with those colours, to work with what you already have?

A lot of my colour choice is intuitive. I paint what I like. Most artists have personal favourite colours that you see in many of their paintings. While you’re painting, stay open to any intuitive nudges of what you feel like seeing in that part of your painting, or what colour you feel like painting with today - can you make these colours work? (I had fun playing with colours in Cambridge busker.)

Sometimes I’ll have a memory of a colour combination I have seen using a colour I already have on my painting - like having ripe strawberries in the kitchen and thinking of a recipe you like that uses strawberries. You’ll have more colour ideas in your repertoire if you start noticing colour combinations around you. Capture them on your camera. If these colour combinations please you, they are then your personal colour choices, part of your individual style. You could use these combinations in any part of any painting. Here is an example I recorded as a quick colour swatch: I noticed the colour of bright lychee peel against the colour of the lychee stones; now I have a favourite colour idea for future use.

Lychee colours

Lychee colours

Beyond intuition and favourites, you can use deliberate strategies for coming up with additional colour for your painting.

An important concept in combining colours is colour temperature.

Artists talk of colours being ‘warm’ or ‘cool’. There are generalisations such as ‘any hue with blue in it is cool, the others are warm’, or ’yellows that lean to red are warm yellows, yellows that lean to blue are cool yellows’. But some colours are hard to categorise in this way. The traditional system suggests that blue-green is cool and blue-purple warm. Yet you may think of blue-green as warm tropical beaches and skies, while blue-purple reminds you of cool rain puddles and icy snow. Artists sometimes comment on this issue - the categorising of blues as warm or cool appears to be arbitrary. Really the naming doesn’t matter as long as you understand the principle.

The main thing about colour temperature is that it is relative. Any time you have two colours, they will react against each other; one will look warmer in some sense, the other cooler. What effect do you want here, do you want the initial colour to look warmer or cooler? And do you want a lot of difference between the two or just a little? (Notice the colour variations in the right post for the sign in Do not alight here; these were intentional changes to interact with neighbouring colours.) Now you have some idea of what sort of colour to introduce.

You can make the same choices for intensity and tonal value. Do you want your first colour to look bright? Then make the neighbouring colour duller. If you want your first colour to look lighter, put a darker colour next to it. You are already well on the way to finding a suitable next colour to use.

Here are some other ways to find another colour to use in your painting.

If you are someone who tries out your brush colour on little scraps of paper, keep these collections of random combinations of colours and try the following exercise. Select one of your painted scraps of paper. Can you think of a colour that would work as a background to all those random colours? There is nothing at stake here, so just try the first thing that comes to your mind and enjoy the result. Better still, only paint half the background, then try out a different colour for the rest of the background. You could get more technical here and think of using complementary colours or analogous ones (close together on the colour wheel); or just use your intuition, whatever pleases you. Here is one such example. You could keep these finished swatches to flip through anytime you’re looking for colour ideas.

Swatch with background

A rough working swatch with different background colours added later to come up with new colour combination ideas.

Another approach is that used by Shirley Trevena. She clips colour swatches from publications and files them by hue (red, red-orange and so on). When she is looking for a colour to use, she picks out some swatches she thinks might work and holds each one next to her painting to see which effect she likes the best. There is a nice element of randomness in a box of swatches, leading to unexpected combinations.

The good thing about clipping printed swatches is that you end up with a wide variety of colour ideas beyond what you may have thought up yourself. A large colour chart for pastels cut up into chips or a large set of coloured pencils may be helpful in the same way.

Here’s a more mathematically random way to choose a new colour. Find your first hue on the colour wheel and then pick a low number at random and count along that many spaces on the colour wheel to select the next. Can you make some version of this colour work - by varying the temperature, tonal value and intensity? For example, if you’ve just painted some sort of yellow, and you choose three as your random number, three spaces along is red-orange (or blue-green, going the other way) - can you make some version of red-orange that will work here? This randomness will push you beyond using your habitual combinations to come up with some surprising combinations and maybe new favourites.

The other aspect of creative colour is how you apply the paint. Your creative colour combinations will look even better if you apply the colours in interesting ways. This is where watercolour technique gets exciting.

Here are some of the common ways to apply colour creatively in watercolour.

Paint part of the shape in one colour on dry paper, and while it is still wet paint more of the shape in another colour next to the first, and so on. The edges merge and the colour gently changes from one hue to the next, all within the one shape. Obviously the colours need to have a similar tonal value, and preferably a similar hue, or the shape may not read as one shape. But it is quite easy to do as you go along if you don't rinse your brush and instead mix it with a bit of a related colour waiting on the palette so the next few strokes are a variation of the colour of the first strokes.

Paint the whole shape in one colour and while it is still wet, drop in or brush in another colour - preferably with the paint a little thicker or you could end up with a paler result, as the shape is already wet enough. The result is a shape with a charming variety of colour variations. Again, it is preferable to use similar tonal value colours; however you can use quite a different hue for this technique. Play with it and see.

Once your shape is dry, you can paint over it with a different colour or ‘glaze’. This works if your colours are fairly transparent - just try it and see what result you get with the paint tubes you have. A beautiful example of glazing is in the background of my Morning glory painting, where I glazed purple over a dark phthalo green (both stained glass-like colours) and a rich brown.

Glazing specific shapes works particularly well if your glaze is slightly ‘out of register’ with the first shape, that is, the second shape is not quite lined up with the shape under it. Then you get to see several different colours instead of just a single two-layered glaze: in places you see the first colour, not covered by the glaze; in other parts you see the two-layer glaze colour; and at some edges you see a different two-layer glaze colour where the second colour has run over the edge of the shape and glazed the surrounding colour.

A different use of glazing is the ‘blobs’ style of US artist Ted Nuttall, which I had played with in my painting Cambridge busker. Watery blobs in contrasting colours are painted over dry shapes in a loose manner. You can also let it drip down the page if you like that effect.

This sort of loose after-glazing has featured in London watercolour shows in recent years, but usually as an unconvincing add-on gimmick used over tight underpaintings (buildings drawn with a ruler then carefully painted within the lines in unadventurous colour) as if that somehow renders the finished work ‘loose’. The result is an inconsistent artistic statement (which the judges still select).

Once you have finished your shape and it is starting to dry a little, add touches of a contrasting colour. Use thicker paint so the accents don’t run much but stay sharply in focus.

A different way of doing this is often used by Charles Reid and others - double-dipping your brush. When you go to paint an accent, dip your brush in the main colour you want but then dip a little bit into another quite different colour, then stroke it on - somewhat uncontrollable but the stroke is usually easy to adjust.

Have your paint fairly liquid, and spatter by tapping the metal ferrule of the brush against the finger of your other hand, held over the painting. You can quickly mask areas you don’t want spattered by covering them with torn bits of kitchen towel. To spatter lighter colours over dark in watercolour, you need more opaque paint colours.

Here is an example of paint applied creatively, using a subject of golden yellow leaves against a blue door.

Applying colour creatively

At left, a traditional painting; in the centre, some swatches exploring colour possibilities; on the right, creative colour, applied creatively.

The first study shows the traditional use of colour - just golden yellow, a green stem and the blue background. Colourful but predictable.

In the centre you can see swatches where I explored other colours I could include in the painting to make the colour more exciting. On the left is a swatch for the stem colours, where I’m simply pushing the yellow-green stem colour to its neighbouring colours on the colour wheel - yellow to gold to a gold-sap green to sap green to a turquoise. That will certainly make the stem more interesting.

The other exploration swatches, one for the leaves and one for the background blue, again push the colour to neighbouring colours. For the leaf swatch I pushed the colour to the neighbouring high intensity orange but also to a lower intensity golden brown. And I decided to include some Permanent Rose - a lot further from yellow on the colour wheel, but I like the look of it with the other colours.

On the right is the second, more colourful study, where the colour was applied creatively.

First I painted the leaves and stem, mostly using merges (just painting one colour on dry paper, then another similar colour next to it, then another). For looseness I also softened some edges, and let colour bleed into the unpainted background area, as you can see at the tip of the lower leaf - I left that area untouched when I painted the background.

I finished with colour accents of crimson on the leaves, in thicker paint so they didn’t blend much but provided a sharp contrast.

Once the leaves and stem were dry I painted the blue background. I used merges for the green and turquoise paint against the blue paint - you can see those colours have been painted onto dry paper and have a strong colour identity.

The purple in the background was painted wet-in-wet, and you can see that the purple is quite diffused into the blue. Finally while the background was still quite wet, I blended more, less wet blue with the other colours anywhere the colour variation needed to be more subtle.

I hope this article has given you some ideas of how to make the colour in your paintings more exciting. Spend time exploring colour ideas and you’ll eventually find the colour techniques that suit your personality and artistic style.

- March 2017

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.