08-Inventing Color

I love using photo reference, but at times I like to make just a nod or a gesture to my reference. Sometimes I want to use it only as a jumping point. So, how do I do that? Well, first of all, I have to be able to assign values and hues to the shapes or elements in my composition. Having a steady handle on color theory helps me do this. Only then, can I truly be free of the limitations of a photo and begin to be really creative with my color choices. I teach an entire workshop dedicated to this called Color Confidence.

First of all it’s a good idea to use Photoshop or a similar method to turn your reference into a black & white image, so you have only the value information to guide you. That’s enough and that way you aren’t tempted by the local colors!

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There are a number of approaches I use. One really interesting and effective techniques is to use a limited palette. Pastel particularly lends itself to this because you can just pick a number of sticks and use only these in your piece. Fifteen is a good number of sticks to give you a nice range of value and hue. I like to pick three hues, five values each. Color masking is a great way to help make choices. Check out James Gurney’s blog postings on color masking. When it comes to working with a limited palette, there are many many ways to put those limits into effect. Color masking is just one of them.

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Another thing I love doing, is using two sources; one for composition and another for color. I might look at a masters painting for the color idea and a photo I’ve taken for the composition.

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The most creative and intuitive approach I use for inventing color is to just kind of wing it! I start by putting one or two colors down in the shapes I’ve established for my composition and then respond to what is there. Put something else down and then respond to it. This is primarily what I did when I did my 100 Variation series. I did over 100 versions of the same simple composition. Most of them were done in this manner. I didn’t try to do seasons or times of day, rather just tried to make the color and value “work” within each piece. Consequently, it turns out you can make it work quite a few times! Working in a series is a great tool for developing your color “chops”!

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Inventing color is a great way to learn to orchestrate the three aspects of color; hue, value and saturation and thus make stronger more dynamic color choices in your work. It’s also a terrific way to move away from your reference material.

Don’t be afraid of anything on your palette!

With Warmest Regards,

Marla