Color Planning For The Artist

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You have selected the subject for your painting, determined the support and the medium you will use. The next task is laying out your palette.

If you are a beginning art student, the colors in your tabouret may be minimal. You have fewer choices to make.

However, if you are past the beginning stage or are just a paint junky, you may have a drawer overflowing with tubes of paint.

If you are unable to resist the impulse to buy every new color that comes along, you have to decide which hues will work best with the color scheme you have in mind for your painting. Do you have a color scheme in mind?


Whether or not you plan to paint a still life in the colors you see before you or create an abstract that is entirely non-representational, you will decide several things about your palette. There is a basic question of lightness and darkness. Will the painting have high contrast or will you use understated passages of light and dark? Are the colors vibrant or subdued? Will the paint choices be analogous, complementary, limited palette, monochromatic or a full range of hues?
A conscientious decision of these factors will help the artist formulate a color plan for his painting. If he fails at least to think of these things, he may end up with a jarring, unappealing or boring painting merely because he chose the wrong colors.


Just as the student plans his composition, he may find it helpful to plot his color layout. Strong contrast will draw the eye to that area. It will become a focal point or center of interest. Complementary colors or strong lights and darks used adjacent to each other will attract the viewer’s attention. Plan where you want your focal points, as well as passages that will lead or direct the eye to the center of interest.

Monochromatic Is Not Boring

Just because an artist chooses to use only one hue in a painting, it does not limit the painting in terms of contrast. Selecting one color and either white or black gives a wide range of contrast with which to add drama to a painting. A monochromatic palette is typically used with a neutral tone, but can be used with a color as well.

If a color is paired with white, the range will vary from pure white to the color used in its full strength. When pairing a color with black, the lightest shade will be the color and the deepest will be pure black.

Limited Palette Does Not Limit Creativity

An artist may elect to use a limited palette in his painting. A limited palette is generally one each of the primary colors, plus white or black. This simplifies a number of things for a student. By employing a limited palette, the student will find it easier to achieve color harmony with a small range of hues. Controlling and mastering the use of few colors is less demanding and mixing neutrals is straightforward.

Analogous Palette For Harmony

When using an analogous palette, a student will select a primary color and one on either side of it on the color wheel. Using these three colors as the main theme makes blending easy, although mixing neutrals is limited. An analogous palette is harmonious and results in a painting that is peaceful and soothing. This painting will not be dramatic, and if excitement were the goal, a better choice would be complementary colors.

Complementary Palette Brings Compliments

If an artist wants a painting that is vivid and exciting, he will select complementary colors to heighten the drama in his painting. Colors have more energy when placed adjacent to their complement. This draws the viewer’s attention and is effective in directing the eye to the focal point of a painting.

This technique allows for rich colors and strong neutrals to give high contrast to the composition. Variations in hue are almost limitless, and the student must learn to look for subtle distinctions in color temperature and intensity.

Unlimited Palette For Limitless Choices

Limitless choices may not be such a great idea. A student may want to add all their favorite tints to their palette in a virtual rainbow of colors. This might be fine for cartoons and painting actual rainbows, but it makes for difficulty in creating a harmonious painting. Even if a painting is meant to be jarring, there should be a reason behind every color the artist has selected for his palette. Too many choices give even an experienced artist a problem with unity and harmony in his painting. A student should slowly add to his palette as his skills in observation grow and he learns color theory to back up the reasoning for his additions.

Color Sketching To Test A Palette

If an artist is unfamiliar with a group of colors he plans to use on a painting, he should test his theory with a color sketch of his composition. This sketch does not need a lot of detail, but it should include enough to develop the colors he would use in his final painting.

What seems like a waste of good paint and time can save much more later on if the initial palette selection proves to be a poor choice. A palette with which the artist is comfortable and has experience may not require preliminary color sketching and a student will develop this skill and confidence with practice and time.

Live With It For A Day

Painting does not need to be done in a hurry. A novice painter is so eager to see his completed work that he sometimes lacks the patience to let an idea gel before rushing headlong into paint flinging. The artist may make several compositions and color sketches, which may each have potential for completed paintings. Setting them aside for a brief period can allow the artist to return to view them with fresh eyes. Conversely, having them in view for a day or two can allow the artist to ponder the good and bad points, allowing new ideas to ferment. In either case, time is not of the essence unless there is a deadline looming on the horizon.

An artist can deviate from any color scheme and create a successful painting. The potential for this occurring improves exponentially with the student’s growing experience and ability to observe. These suggestions are ones that an artist of any level can incorporate into their painting habits, and even the most experienced of painters utilize some of these tenets at some level.

There is no one way to approach a painting. Color choices change with the artist’s mood and what seems appropriate one day may be out of the question another. Save all those color sketches.

One day a color scheme that seemed ridiculous may suddenly be the exact theme you need for your project.

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