top of page

The practical use of color

The practical use of colour

What is the role of colour in a painting? how to create colour harmony and balance? the importance of colour harmony. how to choose colours for a painting? how to create mood with colour?


What is the role of colour in a painting?

colours are used as a tool in conjunction with shapes and values to create the design of a painting. they play a big role in creating atmosphere, life and harmony, and although colour is important to a painting’s structure, their most powerful role I believe, lies in their ability to create emotion. the emotional impact a painting leaves on a viewer can be very powerful. We have all stood in front of a painting at one time or another that has brought us close to tears, captured all of our senses for minutes on end, triggered thoughts and memories to a point where even when we are no longer in front of that painting, and even years later, we can still remember clearly the effect that painting had on us at that time. conversely, we will not remember the use of tonal values nor the balance or composition of the painting. Emotions make a mark. does this mean that the emotional charge is the most important aspect to a painting and therefore that colour is the most important element in painting? no colour and emotion play an important role, as do composition, shapes, tonal values and subject treatment; their roles are complementary, not replaceable. it is the effect of the whole that is important; the chocolate alone does not make the chocolate cake. colour is an ingredient like any other. The secret of all good painters is that they never lose sight of the whole by concentrating on one area more than another. Finding the right balance between the technical elements in a painting to enhance its overall outcome is essential to the painting’s success.


How to create colour harmony and balance

an artist will need to determine a colour harmony for each painting depending on the result or message that he/she wants to put across. A colour harmony in traditional painting ought to remain subtle, letting shape, composition and tonal values step to forefront. when colour steps to the front of the stage, meaning tonal values take a step back, the shapes in the painting will automatically appear more abstract. if you are painting with the objective of representing your subject as closely as you can, you will need to pay close attention to local colour. If however you are more interested in creating an atmosphere or an emotion, then you will almost always need to modify the colours and values within your subject to ensure they obtain the desired outcome and that colour harmony is maintained. let’s take a close look together at how this works in practice.


The importance of colour harmony – choosing the « right » colours

Colour harmony refers to the relationship between the colours used in a painting. Colours that are similar in appearance create little contrast and therefore sit easily next to each other. Colours that are very different in appearance create more contrast and will either stimulate each other, creating an interesting energy between them, or they will not sit well and disturb the viewer. How and why colour relationships work is very much based on context. Two exact same colours may not work together in one painting, yet be great in another! this is where a common misconception is made, as there are no good and bad colour harmonies, there are just colour choices that work well in a particular context, should the context change they may no longer work. again we see that all of the ingredients in a painting must work together for the whole to work.




I will choose a colour scheme that I feel comfortable with for this subject. Here is a breakdown of my thought process in chronological order. You will notice that I do not start off by having all the answers, but as the idea develops the unanswered questions will be resolved.

THE TECHNIQUE: I have chosen to use a loose alla prima style, as I like to emphasise the atmosphere of my paintings to create greater impact. A loose style here will help me to step away from the reality of the subject, in which case representation of the local colours of each object are not of importance to me.

MESSAGE: What is the message that I want to portray? I want to create a loose sketch of my painting material. I would like the sketch to have a fair bit of life to it.

THE GLASSES: I will either use a neutral colour or a colour close to the dominant colour in the painting, which is not yet determined, to paint the two glasses. The values will vary from dark to light to illustrate the reflection of light and to create volume.

THE BRUSHES: All of the brushes that I have used for my models are Raphaël 803 mop brushes, their handles are a yellow-orange colour. I will respect to a point this colour in order for the viewer to better understand the subject. The colour will appear brighter closer to my focal point and duller in both areas far away from this point and also for the brushes in the background to create a feeling of depth in the painting. The tonal values will vary from light to dark to illustrate the effect of light and

shadow, which will also help me to create an illusion of volume.

THE FOCAL POINT: My focal point in the sketch will be located on one of the brushes in the glass in the foreground. The table is physically too far away from my focal point to give it much attention.

THE BACKGROUND: The purpose of the background in this sketch is simply to support the subject. As the brushes are a yellow-orange colour and I am looking at creating life within the painting, I will choose a cool colour for the background, a colour that contrasts strongly with the brushes.

THE FINAL: As you may have noticed, apart from simplifying all of the shapes I also reduced the height of the bottle of white spirit. This was done to improve the composition. I have respected my ideas to the end to create a colorful harmony.



When choosing the colour for a particular part of a painting there are three standard questions that need to be asked. It is essential that these questions are answered taking into account both the message or goal behind the painting and also the colours and values of the surrounding areas to ensure that the painting works as a whole.

◆ What colour (hue) should I use? Should the colour be cooler or warmer than the surrounding shapes?

◆ What colour intensity (saturation) should I use to ensure this area stands out or remains discreet?

◆ What value should I use to ensure the shape is given the attention or discretion it requires for the good of the whole painting?

Choose the message before painting

As I already explained in the sketch of ‘brushes’ above, any subject: a landscape, a portrait or paintbrushes in a jar should be considered in the same way. The emotion or message that the artist wishes to convey needs to be determined before beginning to paint if the artist is to make the best choices possible (what colours to use/what saturation and where/what is the tonal value range of the painting/what technique will best enhance the message/ what composition will create the best impact, etc.).


bottom of page