Real World Color

Or, Color Theory applied to traditional painting, and how that can be applied to digital.


I'm sorry, I didn't know what else to call this tutorial! By "Real World" I mean, theory applied to a finished work, with examples given of how mixing colors and limiting your colors will create a "full color" painting—even when you only use a fraction of the colors available on the color wheel.


In the Portrait Painting Color Tutorial, I talked about color schemes and how you can manage and control your color by limiting color choices to just a few—like browns, reds, and so forth. I thought I'd show you a few examples of how I've done this with real oil paintings that I've made recently.

Emo boy
Emo Boy, oil sketch on 4x5 inch canvas panel, painted using the "Goya Palette."

Emo Boy was painted in oils, with a time-honored palette (that means selection of colors) called the Goya Palette. It harks back to a time when artists only had a few pigments available to them, and had to make do with those, and make the most of them. Blue pigments (like Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Phthalo Blue, and so forth) were either not available or prohibitively expensive. So they'd use blacks (often from burnt bone or some other "natural" source) which had a blueish tint. With the right type of mixing, the artist could create the illusion of having many more colors than they actually did. So, why would we want to do that now, when we have sooo many more colors available? (And we have digital options available too?) Because when we are learning color (or even if we're color theory veterans) it's an exciting challenge to make "more" with "less." And it also allows us to learn more about how color works, how we can find ways to fool the eye. And if we're color theory newbies, it gives us less opportunities to screw up!

 Let's look at Emo Boy up close.

Emo Boy was painted with only four colors on my painting palette: A tube of white (Titanium-Zinc white), a Reddish-Earth Brown (I think it was Mars Red), an Earthy Yellow (Yellow Ochre) and Black (Mars Black, I think).

Emo Boy Close Up
Emo Boy close-up. See how many colors can be mixed with just Black, White, an Earth Red and an Earth Yellow! (Click on picture to see it much larger.)

If color mixing scares you, if you keep on messing it up with trying to use all these clever mixtures of so much of this, so much of that, well, this is the palette for you. Skip all of that. It's simple: an Earth Red (I'll give you some paint names for that later), an Earth Yellow (I'd recommend Yellow Ochre), a White, and a Black. THAT'S IT. Awesome!

As you see from the illustration above, to give Emo Boy his five-o'clock shadow, I mixed black with white and added a little yellow. That gave his skin a slightly greenish tint where the five o'clock shadow would be. I added a "cool highlight" to his nose by adding a smidgen of black to white and dabbing that on his nose (see "grey-blue" area circled in above picture). By using almost pure Mars Red (my Earth Red) for his lips, I created the illusion of rosy-red lips, but they're actually a more natural-looking earthy red. And some white mixed with yellow ochre added some yellow highlights to his face in parts too.

If I hadn't told you that I only used a few limited colors in this painting, would you have guessed it? That's the beauty of this system. You challenge yourself with color, you limit your chances to mess up (especially important if you're a newbie) and you end up with a pleasing "full color" portrait. Pretty cool, huh?

I also talk a little more about Emo Boy (and oil painting) in this blog post. Check it out!

Okay, so how can this be applied to digital art?

It's harder. And I'll be honest, I'm probably not the best person to give you advice on that (as I am totally into my traditional painting at the moment). But I'd recommend using your color picker, picking out a reddish brown color (let's say hex code #7a2222). Put a swatch of that in the corner of your digital painting, and refer to it often. Use your eyedropper tool to pick up that color, and slide it up or down to get a lighter or darker version of that same color. Then pick a warm, earthy yellow (maybe #d5b843). Put a swatch of that in the corner of your digital canvas. Then refer to black and white. The problem with digital, as I see it, is that it's harder to "mix" these colors and see how they react, in the same way that I'm mixing them as pigments on my physical oil (or acrylic) painting.

That's part of the reason why I do think it's important for all artists—even ones who know they're going to be mainly working in the digital realm—to have some background in traditional color application (i.e. mixing pigments on the palette). The concepts of color, and the HISTORY behind it (like the "Goya Palette," which is named after the famed Old Master, Goya) are harder to get in touch with if you only do digital. This is not to say that I'm against digital. I sometimes feel like an old dinosaur, but when I started this web site (in 2002!), digital was more in its infancy and I was embracing it back then. It's a great tool. It's fabulous. But I appeal to you, don't lose touch with your artistic roots—by that I mean, traditional, real-world, physical paint!

Paint recommendations for the Goya Palette (oils, acrylics, or watercolor)

  • Whites: Titanium White, Titanium-Zinc White, Chinese White, Mixed White*, Mixing White, Flake White*, Cremnitz White*, Silver White* (basically any "white," though I'd be leery of Zinc White for oils and acrylics)
  • Earth Reds: Burnt Sienna, English Red, Indian Red, Light Red, Mars Red, Terra Rosa, Transparent Red Ochre, Venetian Red, Transparent Red Oxide (this is a small sampling of earth reds, but enough to get started!)
  • Earth Yellow: Yellow Ochre, Yellow Ochre Pale, Yellow Ochre Light, Yellow Oxide. (Almost anything with "Yellow Ochre" in it, except I'd avoid "Reddish" Yellow Ochres or "Burnt" Yellow Ochres.)
  • Black: Ivory Black, Mars Black, Lamp Black

* The whites with an asterisk by them may contain lead (and lead is toxic!). I love lead whites, but use with caution. Read the health labels on all your paint tubes and use common sense practices when painting.

Read more about limited palettes in this guy's fantastic blog post.

Now on to the next color page, we're going to discuss—Color Theory and Roger the Cowboy!

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| Portrait Painting Color Tutorial | Color palette recommendations | Colored Pencil Portrait Tutorial |

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