Some interesting stuff about color

Back again, after a few months’ hiatus! And it’s nice to be back!

“Ray Bans” 6×6″ oil on Gessobord. Thanks to Lena Dementieva of dA (alas, now a defunct account) for the stock photo I used as reference!

So anyway, this post is going to be an attempt (just an attempt, mind you) to explain a few of the intricacies of color, and in particular, color with the portrait.

I won’t explain the basics of Color Theory here (like the color wheel and so forth), though my main site does have a little overview of using color. (And you know what? Yikes, when I look at my site—circa 2002, mind you—I think I really need to update it! Pronto!) Okay, so we know about the color wheel, and nice harmonious color combinations, and warm and cool colors. But when painting the portrait, there’s more to it than that.

The first thing is to know what to look for in the colors we are seeing. “Paint what you see” is something you’ll be told. But what do you see? Do you really look? Do you know how to look?

This is something I thought I knew, for many years, but I was wrong. There’s a lot more to it. I almost feel like it’s some sort of “secret” that most artists don’t find out, but yet it’s in plain sight, and always has been. Some artists talk about it, and yet the rest of us don’t listen.


Or maybe it’s just me, and I’m the fool that didn’t listen! 😉 But I know it’s not just me, because I see many artists afflicted with not “seeing” the color around them. And I’ll confess that it’s still a struggle and an ongoing learning process for me.

What are the colors you see?

Pink is pink, and blue is blue. But are they?

All objects in the world, including people, are reflecting light. We paint that light. We paint the light reflecting off their skin, their clothes, and their hair. And the light is usually “cool” or “warm.”

You can imagine this—a warm sun beats down on someone’s face, giving their face a nice warm glow. That’s warm light. And where there is a warm (yellow, gold, orangish) light source, the shadows are “cool.” (That’s a law! I stupidly didn’t know it for years, but it’s an Art Law. Write that down! 😉 ) So warm glow on the highlighted parts of the face means cool (blue, green, etc) shadows.

And a cool light, like an indoor lightbulb on someone’s skin, will create a warm shadow. Art Law, remember!

So let’s see this in action:


The highlighted part of her nose is “cool,” because the light hitting her face was cool. In this painting’s example, the most highlighted spots (tip of nose) actually looked almost blue, so I painted it as a pinky-blue (more like lavender, if you look closely).

Up a bit on the side of the nose, it’s almost blueish (more like grey) because cool light—meaning cool highlight, remember?

The upper side up the lip is warmer (not blue) because presumably it’s in shadow a little? But if you look at the highlighted area right below that spot (right above the upper edge of the lip) you’ll see that it’s a very slightly subtle coolish greenish color.


Ah, it’s all so subtle. But beautiful! And fascinating!

Now, on to the next illustration:

“Layers” or stripes of warm-cool-warm, yadda yadda.

The shadow is quite obviously warm against the cool of the flesh. See that strip of kind of a brownish color at the edge of the jaw? I tried to get a sample of the brown, but it just looks “dark” when seen by itself. But when you see it compared to the blue around it, it definitely looks brownish, aka “warm.” And then as the edge of the jaw turns to the light (gets a little lighter, not quite so much in shadow) it goes blue—a little cooler! Because the light source is cool.

I’m still learning the complexities of it myself. The key thing is, to look. Really look. And look at the surrounding color and see how it compares—is it cooler than the color you’re trying to paint? Warmer?

There will be more talk of this color stuff in the future, but this is enough for now!

2 thoughts on “Some interesting stuff about color”

  1. Hi great article.

    Im trying to grow the old artist in me i had a few years back and love reading a few of your articles- they help.

    But i do have a question, after i draw something lets say in a white paper how do i put it on my blog or fb and make look hd.

    1. Hi curioli, so sorry to take so long to respond to you! Thank you for your kind comments.

      To answer your question, I would recommend scanning your drawing and then editing in Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements). It takes a little tweaking to get right, but after a while you get used to doing it. I probably should write a tutorial on how to prepare and edit scans of artwork to show online!

Leave a Reply to curioli Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *