Start with Color

Lisa Larrabee

Why start your drawing or painting on a color?  A background color can set the mood for your artwork and unify the elements from the start.  It has the power to neutralize or enhance the colors layered over it.  Certain background colors can add or reduce energy, affecting the entire piece.  When a single decision has so much influence, it is important to take the time to explore the possibilities!

Effects of a Background Color

There is much to consider when choosing a color to build upon.  Think about how much you want the background color to show through.  You can draw or paint in a way that lets large areas of the background color be visible, or you can let little bits of color show through between the marks or brushstrokes.  You may choose to layer or blend the medium so that the color shows through subtly.  Depending on the medium, you can also cover areas opaquely to hide the color underneath.  How much you choose to reveal the background color will affect your piece's overall style and mood.

Profile on Cool (Whisper) & Profile on Warm (Promise) - paintings by Lisa Larrabee

These two examples have much in common, but each painting captures a different mood.  Both portraits are from the same model. Each has soft edges, reduced detail, and high-key values.  The portrait on the left was painted over a cool lavender background.  The portrait on the right was painted in a warm orange-pink.  It can be very helpful to analyze the effect of a change when other elements stay the same. You can think of it as a scientific experiment where you keep most variables the same to best identify the effect of the change.

Color Considerations

Refers to the relative warmth or coolness of a color.  We can simplify the color wheel by dividing it by temperature (in half).  Red, orange, and yellow are on the warm half.  Green, blue, and violet are in the cool half.  (Temperature is relative, but that is another discussion.)  Choosing to begin on a warm background versus a cool background can set the mood before you even begin.  Warm colors, like a sunny day or a cozy fire, can feel comforting.  Depending on the hue and intensity, they can be passionate or aggressive.  Cool colors can feel refreshing, tranquil, or even melancholy.   The color itself won't create the mood but will affect it.
We often think of contrast in terms of value (light and dark).  However, contrast is simply a noticeable difference.  The farther two colors are from each other on the color wheel, the more different and contrasting they are. Complimentary colors are opposites and create the most color contrast. Color contrast is effective for drawing attention and creating energy between colors. Choosing a background with low contrast (a color similar to your subject's color) allows you to smoothly block in your subject without resistance.  Imagine painting a portrait over a warm, neutral base color.  The background color helps fill in the gaps, and you can add both dark and light values without the starkness of starting on white.  Now, imagine choosing a background color that has high color contrast to your subject.  For example, a soft, warm background can create stunning color contrast underneath a cool, snowy winter scene.
Is the strength or intensity of a color.  You can reduce the chroma of a color by adding white to create a tint, gray to create a tone, black to create a shade, or compliment to neutralize the color.  Choosing a background color with less intensity will make it easier to add colors because it is less demanding of your attention and will have less influence over the added colors.  Working over light blue-gray is very different than working over a soft orange tint or a tan base.  However, working over a high-chroma red or brilliant turquoise is an entirely new challenge.  The more intense the background color is, the more control you must have to make it work.  The colors will do unexpected things!

Color Agency

Color is an incredibly powerful element of design.  It can create a feeling, add energy, and pull the viewer's attention.  It is important that you don't give up your agency to your colors.  To use color with "agency" means to have a feeling of control over your color choices and their consequences. 

Making bold color choices can sometimes make you feel like you lost control and the color took over.  Colors can play tricks on us.  High chroma colors can fool our eyes into thinking that color is lighter in value than it is because our brain perceives it as bright.  We can also get distracted and let colors pull the focus away from what we intended.  Here are some tips for getting control of your color choices:

  • Limit your palette. Get really familiar with fewer colors or color combinations before you add more.
  • Photograph your work and check it on grayscale to see if you have kept control of your value relationships.
  • Create simple studies that let you experiment with color choices without self-imposed pressure to make a great piece.
  • If working over a bold background color, block in large color/value areas immediately to subdue the background and create the context for the other colors.
Painting stages - Chasing Light, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

In my painting, Chasing Light, the glow of the sun and the light on the landscape needed to be dominant. I began with a yellow background to allow the warm, luminous color to show through the brushstrokes.  After blocking in the sun and sky, I wanted to make sure to bring down the values and adjust the temperature of the landscape so that the sun would feel like the brightest object without competing with the yellow in the field.  I had never chosen yellow as a background color before, and I was mindful of how easily such a bold, bright color could dominate if left unchecked.

Choosing a background color can be a game changer, so don't be afraid to try out a wide range of possibilities and see how much it can impact your art!

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject. I recommend a black-and-white reference so you aren't influenced by color.
  • Ensure you have a good range of value shapes from light to dark.
  • Draw or transfer your subject onto different colored backgrounds.
  • Use limited color choices over a variety of colors and create small, quick studies.
  • Draw or paint the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences.
  • On the left, I used black, white, and yellow-orange on gray-green paper.
  • On the right, I used black, white, and light blue on warm tan paper.

In these examples, I chose a warm color on a cooler background and a cool color on a warm background.  You can mix and match whatever combination you want.  Start with simple combinations and add bolder choices as you feel comfortable.  Keep values in mind as you explore color. 

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at
Sponsored by the Art Verve Academy. Enroll in studio art classes for adults in Tucson, Arizona, at

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