Are you afraid to paint with color? I have been—but I’m doing better now.
It’s not that I don’t like color; I really do. Thinking back, the paintings that get my attention most are the colorful ones in which, what I call, the ‘movement of color’ catches the eye. By that I don’t mean that the color necessarily overwhelms you, although it can. It’s the way the color works with the subject, even if it’s abstract, so that the viewer really looks into the painting.
I’m not just talking about ‘traditional’ paintings from centuries past either. I’m also including other more recent genres or periods, such as Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and even Op Art, for example.
The paintings can be from the Impressionists with their wonderful way of catching colors in the fleeting light, or from the 20th-century, such as Andy Warhol’s bright canvases. These artists used color to express the mood and character of their paintings. Color and emotion are closely tied.
No matter your skill level as a painter, you absolutely must have an understanding of color theory. That means going to a library, a bookstore, or online and finding a book or article that explains color theory. It should be written in such a way so that you can easily understand it and be able to build upon the knowledge piece by piece.
Don’t try to “get it” all at once. Start with the color wheel and learn about the primary and secondary and tertiary colors. Then get your paints out and experiment with what you’ve learned. From there, move on to learn about warm and cool colors, for example. Then experiment and paint some more with those.
There is no better way to learn about color than by the actual experience of mixing them yourself. You can read all you want, but you must paint the colors to really know about them.
You absolutely must understand the power of complementary colors, two colors opposite from each other on the color wheel— for example, blue/orange, red/green, purple/yellow. They are almost magical in their ability to react to each other and their surroundings. They intensify each other and can actually make your work shimmer on the canvas—the ‘movement of color.’ As you grow as a painter, you, too, can pass along this phenomenon to those who view your work.
You absolutely must also understand the power of triads (three colors opposite each other on the color wheel.) With this powerful knowledge, the colors in your paintings will relate to each other and your motif so that the viewer will experience your beautiful and harmonious palette. The Impressionists understood this and produced beautiful masterpieces.
You should also learn how the nuances of neutrals can enhance your art and provide realism or abstraction if that is your intent. Learn about neutrals and mixing neutrals, and you will have given yourself a broader range with which to create and express.
I think I was initially afraid of color because one of my favorite motifs is southwest US landscapes. As you may know, the main colors of southwest US landscapes are earthtones—colors of the desert, the mountains, adobe, and just plain sand and rock—and not particularly colorful. Even the greens of plants are usually washed out to a gray-green, typical of cactus and other succulents.
But, I’m learning and growing and experimenting with other motifs and color. Use it to its fullest extent and do not be afraid of color!