Take Risks with Color!

Lisa Larrabee
Value does all the work, but color gets all the credit.

That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but what does that even mean? 

We love color!  Colors can be subtle or dazzling.  Colors are powerful and can be used to get our attention or to communicate feelings.  However, value relationships are often the foundation of a drawing or painting.  Values can be essential to providing structure and creating the illusion of light, form, and depth.

Organize Colors by Value

If you want to experiment and take some risks with color, it can help to consider your values first. In the example below, I started with a black-and-white photo reference with a full range of light, medium, and dark values. I selected the colors randomly based on what looked interesting and made sure to have some light, medium, and dark values. I then sampled the colors on my gray-toned paper from dark to light.

Recently, I was inspired by Viktoria Maliar's drawings. Her bold mark-making and color choices remind me of exercises I did in college when I studied the mark-making of Vincent Van Gogh's portraits. I approached this study similarly to others I did in the past, experimenting with a variety of colors, including some unexpected choices that may not be traditionally associated with the subject. I focused on placing values where they belonged regardless of whether it made sense for the local color of the subject and with zero regard for lighting color or temperature.

I began by putting my lightest color (yellow) where I saw the lightest value. The second lightest color (blue) was used to block in the second lightest value. The teal and mauve are very close in value, so I made artistic choices that helped me clarify different parts within the value range. I used burgundy more for drawing accents than to create dark-value shapes. I never added my darkest value (brown) because I felt the drawing was finished.

If you look at this drawing in grayscale, you will see that there is order to the values.  That does not mean that the values are accurate to the reference.  The original photo reference had much bolder, darker shadow shapes.  I chose to stay in the mid to light value range with the dark color as an accent.   Still, you can see a sense of light and form in the subject due to the values that have a sense of order and observation.  The value tones are doing the work while the color has all the fun!

Artist Tip

Viewing your work in grayscale is simply a tool that will help you see your artwork differently. It can also be used to abstractly analyze your overall composition or design.

Looking at your work without color will help you identify how well you are grouping the shapes by value. If you take a digital photo of your work and switch it to grayscale, you may discover areas to improve the value relationships. This will show you where the value relationships may be out of context and help you see where color may have deceived you when you rendered the light or dark shapes to depict the representational light, form, or depth. 

It is also important to note that your artwork does not have to "work" in grayscale to successfully use color. Many exceptional paintings rely on color and temperature shifts and stay within a reduced value range. This can sometimes make a piece appear flat in grayscale yet be mesmerizing in color. 

Play with Color

There is no wrong way to play with color. Try various color combinations to see what you are drawn to and how the color choices affect the piece's overall mood. Choose colors you think look pretty together. Choose colors you think are hideous. Which colors feel happy, peaceful, or melancholy? Use any colors you want, but place them based on their values.

I digitally replaced colors from my drawing in Photoshop to show an example of how much the artwork would change with different color choices. The subject, mark-making, and value placement are the same, but the drawing feels entirely different. Creating similar multiples provides an opportunity to analyze the differences. For example, there is more unity in the digital variation because I used analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel).

The light blue accent has more color contrast than the pinks and purples but is less saturated, so it feels less jarring. In the original, the yellow highlight against blue has significantly more color contrast because yellow and blue are further apart on the color wheel. The digital version may also feel more comfortable because the pink tones feel more true to realistic skin tones than light blue and teal. (My family thought I had drawn a character from Avatar!). This does not make one version better than the other or right or wrong. It's an opportunity to examine how different color choices affect our experiences, so experiment and have fun!

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 your white or toned drawing paper.
  • If it is helpful to you, lightly map outlines around values shapes.
  • Select colors that include light, medium, and dark values.
  • Order your color choices by their value from dark to light.
  • Use the color that corresponds with the value from your reference.
  • Create the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences. 

You can mix and match whatever color combination you want. Start with simple combinations and add bolder choices as you feel comfortable.

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 lisalarrabeeart.blogspot.com
or visit her website at Larrabeeart.com.
Sponsored by the Art Verve Academy. Enroll in studio art classes for adults in Tucson, Arizona, at ArtVerveAcademy.com.

#buttons=(Ok, Go it!) #days=(20)

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. Check Now
Ok, Go it!