I love colour. I get great joy out of playing with my acrylic paints, mixing them up and creating all sorts of different hues, tints and shades to use in my paintings. But when I first started, I did not know what brand, colour or kind of paints to buy. I am a self-taught visual artist and even if I did take a painting class here and there when I was first learning, when it came to choosing the colours for my own projects I was often lost and confused. I was told that mixing primary colours (red, blue and yellow) were supposed to be able to make any other colour you wanted, but did not know how to do it. And, which red, blue and yellow were the right ones to use? Bright red or Alizarin Crimson or another red? Lemon yellow or yellow ochre or Hansa yellow? Should I buy ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, etc? Which of the many kinds of red, yellow or blue should I work with? Not knowing made me frustrated and for a while I just didn’t do anything. Then I decided to begin despite not having all the information I thought I needed.
Disregarding what little I already knew about colour mixing, I instead just started with what I had. Choosing my three favourite paint colours at the time, plus white, I just began experimenting and playing. Being strategic about it, I mixed one colour at a time with white and painted a swatch of what I mixed onto a sheet of paper, then I mixed the colours with each other and swatched each time changing the ratios. I also recorded my ‘formulas’. After a while I was able to fill up a whole sheet of 9 x12 paper with around 30 different colours. I did the same exercise with another set of three colours, and when I filled out another paper, I did the same once more with another set of three colours. Most of what I know about paint and colour I learned this way — by mixing, swatching and recording my findings.
It has been a few years since I started working as an artist. Because there is so much to learn about colour and so many colour combinations and possibilities, I still use the same technique to start a new painting or series of works. Not only does the exercise help me choose and refine a colour palette for my project, I use it as a warm up to get myself ready to do the work.
I am also an art instructor who teaches acrylic painting. The very first exercise I give my beginner students is very similar to the one above. By doing this exercise they get comfortable with using the material and learn about colour, and because the act of working with colour is calming, it helps allay any anxieties they might have about trying something unfamiliar or developing a new skill.
If you are new to painting and wish to learn about colour, you can enrol in a colour theory course. There are many online classes nowadays that you can enrol in and view at your convenience. But there is also great value in just messing about with whatever colours you already have, so I also urge you to try this exercise and see what you can learn on your own just by playing.
*Struggling with colour? Choosing a colour palette for a new painting can sometimes be frustrating and overwhelming. You might have just started painting, or you are stuck using the same colours over and over in your art and want a fresh new look, or you wish to extend your favourite set of colours that you usually use. If you can related to any of these, download my “How to choose a colour scheme or palette for your artwork” PDF where you’ll get techniques that will help you find that perfect set of hues to use in your art pieces.
The 17 page PDF will:
- Suggest excellent places to look for inspiration for new colours and new colour combinations you’ll love
- Provide info on digital tools that will make your colour decisions a wee bit easier
- Share with you my tried and true hands on technique for discovering new colours in my studio
- Give you some considerations when deciding what colours will work for your art