Colour is one of the basic fundamentals of art, and everybody should learn about it when they first learn to draw. It doesn’t get as much attention as the other fundamentals, possibly because it isn’t considered as tricky as perspective or anatomy.

I think it’s not talked about because it’s hard to talk about. So many aspects of colour are a matter of taste, whereas taste isn’t part of the picture when learning to draw a hand correctly.

A drawing of a hand is either correct, or it isn’t. But who’s to say blue is pretty and orange isn’t?
Because questions like that are hard to answer, most colour theory lessons only go so far as to teach which colours harmonise well, and that’s the end of it.

This post aims to better inform you than your “How to Draw” books probably did. Here are the top three reasons why colour is essential and some hints to guide you as you learn.

Reason 1: Realism 

One must pay attention to colours in nature because our brains are highly skilled at recognising when something isn’t right. The trouble is that while our brains quickly tell us that something is off, we have to train ourselves to know what exactly needs to be fixed.

No amount of instruction will replace practice, but I can give you a couple of vital hints that will go a long way to help you.
The first thing to remember is that natural green is not as vibrant as the green that probably came in your paintbox. Natural green has more brown in it.

Here’s a painting I did a while ago that would have looked much better had I toned down the green.
Before I show you my second example to prove this point, I will share my second hint. It isn’t just the sky that changes colour based on the lightIt’s everything. When you look at this second painting, notice how I painted everything a little pink just because the sky is that way. 

Also, the grass here is much browner and, therefore, much more accurate than the previous painting. If the image were set in summer instead of early spring, there would be more green, but it would still be toned down compared to the first picture.

Reason 2: Focal Point

Value is a considerable part of creating successful contrast and focal points, but colour is also a good chunk. Keep your colour wheel handy and use contrasting colours to draw out your focal points.

In this illustration, I used orange and blue, which are complementary colours, making the image read well from a distance due to the contrast.
The blue here also adds to the nighttime atmosphere, which brings me to the third reason why colour is important.               

Reason 3: Mood

You may have heard something about colour psychology as it pertains to interior design. Red is supposed to be appetising, yellow is meant to be welcoming, and so on.

You can use these principles in illustration too. However, it’s a little more complicated because you’re representing a space that doesn’t exist rather than enhancing one that does.

Out of all the ideas in this post, colour as a mood influencer is the most subjective. One person’s calm colour might be depressing to someone else. To make colour work for you in the mood department, experiment to see how your viewers respond until you find your “magic”.
I like to edit my paintings in Photoshop to change the colours and see what I like and what I want to aim for in my future work. You can change things dramatically in Photoshop without actually changing anything on the original. Here’s an example.
This was the original colour of the ink, and because the piece is monochromatic, the colour isn’t as suggestive of a time or place as it would be in context with other colours.

When I was making it, I thought of those evenings where the clouds looked like they were on fire.
I did another of the same thing with the same ink then started Photoshopping the colour. I ended up with this blue night scene that is definitively a night scene.

This colour edit also made the value darker, which makes it more of a nighttime scene. However, I think the colour has a huge amount to do with the change of atmosphere. Cool colours don’t have as much inherent light.
Colour can be an intimidating subject because of how many exceptions there are to nearly everything. Remember, though, that making art isn’t a contest. It is meant to be a relaxing way to express yourself.

Experiment intentionally, with the freedom to modify any of these ideas to your own purposes. Happy painting!

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Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 

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