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

Color Tutorial


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Blueish portrait brownish portrait

And now here are some examples of an almost "monochromatic" color scheme. Each of these portraits uses a very limited set of colors. True "monochromatic" is just one color, mixed with white—like blue and white, etc. (A black & white photo is "monochromatic.") These portraits do have a touch of another color in there too, so they are not technically monochromatic—but they're close enough.

The portrait on the left is using a cool indigo blue. There's a pale blue, with a hint of a lilac color for the highlight areas. I created the portrait in Photoshop, where I scanned in a pencil sketch, and painted these colors over it.

The portrait on the left is using subdued brown. The flesh tones are a pale reddish brown, a darker brown in the shadow area, and there is a touch of a redder brown in the lips and in also the shadow area.

In these examples, I am showing that even very limited color schemes can look attractive, and be effective. There are a variety of fascinating "color schemes"— so try them all!

Summing it all up:

In this tutorial I am talking about "color schemes," and you are wondering how that affects you when you are trying to paint Aunt Martha, by looking at an old photo of her. You figure, all the colors are in the photo, I just need to copy them, right? It's not that simple. This color scheme thing still applies.

For instance, how do you interpret the colors of Aunt Martha? Do you use a cool red or a warm red for her shawl? Which color will help make the entire portrait "tie in" together? What color background will you use? Will you make the brown shadows in her face a warmish-reddish-brown, or a cool burgundy-brown? After all, brown isn't just brown anymore, just like yellow isn't yellow anymore.

Which color scheme should you use? You need to always be asking yourself this. Decide on a color scheme. Don't just lay down colors here and there, and think it'll all look harmonious automatically. You have to have a definite color "scheme"—even if you think you are just copying what you see. That's the difference between a painting with pleasing and harmonious colors, and a painting that has ugly or ineffective colors: One had a "color scheme," (even if it was unintentionally done by the artist) and one didn't. So, think and plan as you are laying down the paint.

To get some specific advice on colors to choose for portrait art, go to "Color Palette recommendations" page.

Shameless plug:

If you want to learn more about color, and how to understand how to make pleasing color combinations, check out these excellent books by one of my favorite artists, Helen Van Wyk. I find her painting style to be full of life and freshness, and her colors are just wonderful. I've loved her work since I was 14.

Also, I discovered these very nice books by Faber Birren (and Itten) when I was in art school. (My color theory teacher recommended them to us.) It helped me understand why certain color schemes create certain "moods" or effects. They are good books on color.

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