Step 4 in the Drawing Process in Art: Find the Right Colors
A color scheme is a harmonious group of colors that express a feeling or idea in an artwork. How do artists create bold color contrasts? Which colors produce a tranquil feeling? Because there are so many choices, beginning artists get confused about how to choose a color scheme for a drawing. Here’s a guide to popular color schemes in art and how to use them.
Choose a Color Scheme With the color wheel
A Brief History of the Color Wheel
The easiest way to find pleasing color combinations is with the color wheel.
The first color wheel was invented by scientist Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Newton discovered that white light is composed of multiple colors, and he arranged these colors on a wheel in the order he found them.
‘…Newton compared colors in the spectrum to a run of musical notes. To this purpose, he used a Dorian mode, similar to a white-note scale on the piano, starting at D. He divided his colour wheel in musical proportions round the circumference, in the arcs from DE to CD. Each segment was given a spectral colour, starting from red at DE, through orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, to violet in CD….
The middle of the colours…are shown by p, q, r, s, t, u, and x. The centre of the circle, at O, was presumed to be white.’ (Image and text from Wikimedia Commons)
The Color Wheel Explained
On a color wheel, colors are arranged according to their relationship to each other. Red, blue, and yellow are primary colors, and reside equidistant from one another. Orange, purple, and green are secondary colors, made from an equal mix of two primary colors. For example, blue and yellow make green. Secondly colors also sit equally distant from each other. Intermediate (tertiary) colors are the combination of equal amounts of primary and secondary colors. Looking at the relationships of colors on the wheel, an artist decides which colors are best for the subject and feel of the drawing.
The 3 primary colors, yellow, blue, and red, comprise the center triangle. Secondary colors, green, orange, and purple, make up the 3 outer triangles. Cool colors are blue, green, and purple. Warm colors are red, orange, and yellow.
Color Tints, and Shades – the Secret to Tonal Variety in a Drawing
Colors on the color wheel are pure colors. It’s the tints and shades of colors that produce tonal variety and interest in a drawing. The terms tints and shades sometimes confuse a beginning artist. A tint is a color with white added to it. For example, white added to red is pink, so pink is a tint of red. The more white added to a color, the lighter the tint. A shade is a color with black added to it. Black added to red produces maroon, so maroon is a shade of red. The more black added to a color, the darker the shade.
Here are color swatches showing colors, tints, and shades. Starting at the left column are the lightest tints, proceeding to the pure colors in the middle column, to the darkest shades on the right column. For any color, the lightest tint is white, the darkest shade is black.
It’s the tints and shades of colors that produce three dimensional depth in an artwork. In artwork with a monochromatic color scheme we easily see the use of tints and shades to create three dimensional depth.
Simple Color Schemes That Really Work for Engaging Art
Monochromatic Color Schemes
A monochromatic color scheme uses a single color, including tints or shades of that color, to produce an artwork with a unified, and somewhat reserved feeling. However, a monochromatic color scheme need not be boring. Careful contrast of light and dark values creates a drawing that is very interesting. In fact, when transitioning to color, I recommend beginning artists first experiment with the monochromatic color scheme.
Levitan, Monet, and Monochromatic Color
To the left is Landscape by Isaac Levitan who uses the full range tints and shades of yellow in this work of art. The background sky is a yellowish-white, and the trees are very near black. The foreground varies in-between tones. On the right is Monet’s Morning on the Seine which employs various blue tints and shades. Both pieces of art evoke a neutral feeling, neither calm nor exciting, but they are engaging works of art nonetheless.
Analogous Color Schemes
An analogous color scheme uses colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel. Analogous colors tend to evoke feelings of calm and tranquility. This color group is particularly good for nature scenes.
Monet, Fragonard, and Analogous Color
The Water Lily Pond by Monet on the left uses blue, green, and yellow colors for a peaceful feeling of still water in a garden laden with green foliage. On the right is Young Girl Reading by Fragonard. A range of orange and yellow tints and shades depicts a young girl quietly immersed in her reading.
Complementary Color Schemes
A complementary color scheme utilizes colors that sit directly opposite each other on the color wheel, like yellow and purple. Complementary colors in a drawing elicit a bold and energetic feeling. Take care that this combination isn’t too strong by adding a third color for an accent.
Van Gogh, Sargent, and Complementary Color
Wonderful examples of artwork using complementary schemes are the two paintings shown above. On the left is Alychamps by Van Gogh. The blue sky and the orange trees reside next to one another producing a striking, almost jarring, contrast. Bedouins by John Singer Sargent on the right, clothes the nomadic figures in bluish-purple and reddish-orange. These colors are less intense than in Van Gogh’s painting, and elicit a restful, yet interesting feeling.
Split Complementary Color Schemes
The split complementary color scheme employs a base color and two colors that are on either side of the base color’s complement. This color combination is similar to the complementary color scheme. However, because the complementary color is split into two colors, the energetic effect is a bit less intense than with using the direct complement alone.
Vermeer, Matisse, and Split Complementary Color
Examples of artwork utilizing a split complementary color scheme is The Milkmaid by Vermeer shown on the left, and Paysage by Matisse on the right. Vermeer uses a strong royal blue color for the young girl’s apron complemented by tints and shades of orange elsewhere in the piece. There’s also a touch of blue-green on her arms and in the tablecloth. Matisse employs similar colors in his art, slightly muted blue orange and green, in his hills water and sky. Both works of art suggest peaceful, day to day, living.
How Toned Paper Effects Color
Toned paper is any paper color that isn’t white. Beginning artists sometimes aren’t aware that colors appear different on toned paper than on white paper.
On dark toned paper, darker colors are less noticeable, but lighter colors really pop. Conversely, on light toned paper, lighter colors are less noticeable, but darker colors are bolder. Colors may appear to advance or recede depending on the paper tone.
Here are examples of how colors differ on white versus toned paper:
Toned paper is extremely useful for artists who let part of the paper color come through as a background color cast. This color cast alters the mood of the artwork. Brighter paper colors elicit happy and positive emotions, while darker paper colors evoke a more serious sentiment. A more reserved feel is accomplished with neutral paper colors like gray and beige.
I suggest beginning artists try out colors on a swatch of toned scrap paper before starting to draw and experiment with varying color combinations of media and paper. For more information on toned paper visit What Kind of Drawing Paper Should I Use?
Guidelines on How to Choose a Color Scheme for a Drawing
To choose harmonious colors for your drawing, consult the color wheel. For the beginning artist, first experiment with the basic color groups of monochromatic, analogous, complementary, and split complementary color schemes before moving on to more complex color combinations. Here’s a brief summary of the various color schemes and the feelings they elicit:
- Monochromatic – neutral and reserved
- Analogous – calm and tranquil
- Complementary – energetic and exciting
- Split Complementary – interesting and compelling
A useful online resource to learn more about color theory is Canva. Canva describes both basic and complex color schemes, and also features an interactive color wheel to help find harmonious color groups.
Forward to Step 5 in the Drawing Process in Art: Choose the Right Paper
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