Australian Fine Artist

Learning Colour

Third in a Semester of Five Still Life Workshops with David Chen

The contrast that we give colour in our paintings adds the drama. Whether we use the methods from the early 15th-mid 19th Century or those from the Impressionists, or later, the way we apply colour and the tonal values we give it in any given part of a painting is what will make it stand out.

Before the Impressionist era, painters relied on the contrast between light and dark. The colours available later on were not in production so artists created drama with light and tone. Look at the works of Rembrandt or Vermeer for example, very few colours but lots of use of light and shade.

Beginning with Turner, who to many is the one who really began the Impressionists’ movement with his amazing use of colour, we see how much of a painting can be kept muted with receding colours and the addition of only a few higher key colours to create the frame and draw the viewer into the exact point the artist wants you to concentrate on.


Contrast in colour can be broken into a basic five methods. They are as follows:

  1. Complimentary Contrast
    The application of a varying amount of each colour to create drama. For example a larger use of purple against a smaller are of yellow. The proportions used are very important.
    You can break these down into 3 areas as well:
    Light vs dark areas
    Warm vs cool areas
    Intense colour used vs muted colours (areas of high key colour in a mostly muted painting)
    So, how do we apply these when painting? We use different proportions, larger are of one vs smaller areas of another (balance).
    Split complimentaries can be used in the same manner, making sure that we use one major colour and two minors. Look at Monet for examples of how this works. In particular his water lily series.
  2. Composition in Colour
    How and where to place colour.
    Strong colour goes in areas of interest, usually in one spot in the work so it isn’t too busy. when you are designing your painting, look at where you will place your focal point and think about your use of colour as well as you compose it. The strongest colours must go in your focal point, so decide now what colours you are going to use and where.
  3. Intensity Contrast
    When putting your painting together try to keep areas with “muted” colours and the focal point with the stronger colours. Have a look at Turner’s work to see how he draws you into the painting wight he clever use of colours where he wants you to look. Objects you want to highlight in your painting can be made more outstanding by keeping the colours around them softer and muted. Also keep the colours in the direct background in other colours, by that I mean if you have a blue vase in a still life, try to paint a muted colour in another colour such as a complimentary so that the vase doesn’t disappear into the scene.
  4. Tonal Contrast
    In many cases tonal contrast is much more important the colour contrast. Artists in general tend to be “tonalists” or “colourists”. As you are learning to paint you need to decide which you are by how you paint. Is the contrast and placement of colour more important to you or the tonal values not matter what colour you are using? Look at some traditional portraits and still life paintings for hints on how tonal paintings work. The may be only in a couple of colours, but the use of tone to build up the form of the items in the painting will be of major importance. I suggest John Singer Sargent and Max Meldrum to start with.
  5. Temperature Contrast
    Each colour has a temperature or emotional value. Red for example can imply heat, anger or energy. Blue can imply coolness, calmness or peace. A painting can be designed to create atmosphere or emotion in the gallery or room where it hangs. By that I mean if you are asked to paint a commission for a client, try to find out where it will hang. If the room is normally quite warm with direct sunlight, it would pay to paint in muted and cool colours, it would also pay to advise the buyer not to hang your painting in direct sunlight so that it lasts longer as the sunlight will damage the paint over time. Get to know your client and what they like, their personality, their likes and their home or hanging environment may have more impact on your design decisions than you may at first realise. You can also think about the colours you design with if entering an exhibition or holding one yourself. Think about what emotions or atmosphere you want to convey as people walk around looking at your work and your choice of colours may change to reflect that.

As you can see there is a lot more to colour than just picking a couple of complimentaries or going with analogous colours or split complimanteries. You can mis up these methods in the one painting, you can design to move emotions, to change the feeling of a whole room with your art. You can create drama, or peacefulness, you can move the eye of the viewer with colour alone.

I hope this information has prompted you into further investigation into the wonderful world of colour for artists. Happy Painting.

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