Colour · Painting

How Can I See Colour?

Colour is a whole new area in drawing and painting which sometimes for some complete beginners I think is best left until they have developed some basic drawing skills.  Seeing colour is quite a skill because colour changes depending on changes created by lighting and reflected light.

There is no real easy answer to seeing colour, it takes lots of practice in observation. Learning colour mixing is very important for seeing colour and understanding the minor differences between a ‘warm orange’ and a ‘cool orange’.  Often when we start painting, colours just look like one colour and seeing the differences in variation is challenging.

Like many other areas of art learning to see colour is about fine tuning our eyes.   I set my learners a task around the ‘limited palette’ because it is a really good way of learning to ‘see’ colours.

A limited palette painting exercise
A limited palette painting exercise

In this exercise learners have to look at several objects of a similar colour, which fine tunes our colour mixing skills and makes us really look for variation in colour.

Tone is more important that Colour 

Colour mixing is often a big area of frustration for a lot of my beginner learners who strive to get the exact colour.  I teach colour mixing – see my post How can I learn about Colour? and What is the Colour Wheel? for more advice on how to mix colours.  Understanding how colours are made is certainly an  important step in getting the colours as near as they are in real life but what is more important is tone.

A Tonal Scale – Tone means how dark or light something is

When you look at a lot of artist’s work they don’t represent exact true to life colour, in fact many work in colours that aren’t the real colour at all.  They will however represent the tone, the value of dark and light to get a realistic looking subject.  It is important firstly to capture the tonal values, how dark or light something is rather than the exact colour if you want things to look realistic.  See my post What is a Tonal Value? for more advice on tones.

When light falls on a green bottle for example the lighter areas might appear lime green and the darker areas will look like a different green altogether or even a dark blue.  This is because there will be a mixture of shades, tints and mid tones within the ‘green’ colour.  Judging tone is far more difficult than mixing colours and this is usually what is meant when learners complain of ‘not seeing’ colour.


Capturing tones in colour is more important than the actual colour for creating realistic looking paintings.
Capturing tones in colour is more important than capturing the actual colour

The importance of using the correct tonal qualities in a painting should not be underestimated.

Without tonal range your painting will appear to be flat and lifeless.  Tone gives the illusion of form, space and depth.

It is very easy to confuse colour and tone. In certain light, a dark colour may need to be rendered as much lighter than we know the colour to be; consider the shine on a black object in bright light.   Similarly, the petal of a white flower may need to be rendered a very dark tone when seen in shadow. 

Tips for ‘Seeing’ Tones in Colours

• Try squinting, this will reduce the mid-tones, leaving only the darks and lights.

•  If you are still struggling, try taking a photo of your subject and turning into greyscale, tones are much easier to see in black, white and greys.  When you compare colour with black and white you may find you have some surprises in that what you perceived to be a ‘dark’ or ‘light colour’.

Make a greyscale version of the photograph you are using as reference as a guide to tones. It is easier to see tones without colour information.

• Working from photographs or images is less challenging that capturing colour in real life because of the shifting light, colour values are always changing! Think of how clouds shift along a landscape, this can happen every minute.

• Don’t give yourself too much colour information to work with, keep backgrounds simple and in contrasting tones and colours if you want to make it easier.

There is no doubt that colour and tone in painting is a challenging area, let me know if you have found anything that has helped you in seeing colours and tone.

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