Color Theory Tutorial for portrait artists - lessons on using color for portrait art.

Color Tutorial

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Where do I start to explain color theory for portraits? Well, first off, I probably shouldn't tout this as the end-all and be-all of color theory for portraits. There's a whole wonderful world of things to learn about color—in particular when it comes to portraits. So I'm just going to give you a few introductory concepts, and some things to get you started. And bear in mind that color in portraits is an area where I feel I still have much to learn. (It's a never-ending process of discovery!) So let's get started . . .

color swatches

Here are some exciting color swatches. Hey! It looks like one of those makeup brochures, doesn't it?


Look at the three separate sections of colors on the left in the above illustration. The top rows are of a pinkish color, the middle rows are reddish pinks, and the bottom are brownish-peaches. Each row is just one color - it goes from pale to medium to darker. The second row of colors in each section shows a slightly more grayed-down (a little more neutral) version of the color swatches. I tried to keep them at the same brightness (or darkness) as the swatches directly above them. I just took out some of the color's intensity (vibrancy). They look more dull, and gray. Sometimes a duller version of the color is useful, for shadowed or subdued areas of a portrait.

These colors can be used as variations of flesh tones in portrait work. The lighter shades for lighter areas of the face, the darker shades for shadowed areas of the face. I will show you how this works.

The dark colors (purple, dark blue, brown, etc.) on the top right side can be good dark "accent" colors. (I use colors like these a lot in my portrait work, and you'll hear me mention them again.) And the colors in the black and gray boxes are a few of the same colors from the right side - just put against a black and gray background. They look different when they are up against a different background, don't they? Remember this when you paint or draw on colored paper.

One of the easiest way to approach a portrait is to do a "color study," where you limit your color "scheme." And you'd be just amazed at what wonderful, harmonious effects you can get by using just a few colors in a "color study." So let me show you a few examples...

color sketch - in burgundies

This is a very simple color study. I took one of my ink sketches and just quickly put down a little color over it with Photoshop. (Don't look at it very closely, it is a rather messy job!) But it illustrates my point: While this looks "colorful," only about three colors were used (not counting the black color from the ink sketch underneath).

I used a pale pinky-peach, a medium dusty burgundy, and a brighter burgundy, for the lips. These colors are all related, (which is an important part of many color schemes). These colors are all burgundy pinks—just lighter and darker versions. Just like with the color swatches above, which show lighter and darker versions of pink, peaches and reds.

So, that's all I used for this color study, and yet it looks pretty good. It looks colorful. It looks fine. And because I limited and controlled my color scheme, there wasn't much of a chance for me to mess the colors up!

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