Real World Color

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


Now we're going to get a little more complicated, with a more "full color" palette, but one that is limited and controlled as well.


When I painted Roger the Cowboy (aka "Sad Cowboy") I decided I wanted the color scheme to be mostly green, and brown.

Roger the Sad Cowboy
Roger the Sad Cowboy, detail. (Original is oil on panel, 12x16 inches)

Most flesh tones (for most races) are variations on red, peach, and brown. Add a little peach, add a little yellow, add a little red, add a little blue or green—but that's what they all boil down to. I had long liked the color combination of forest green and warm brown. So I crafted this painting around that color scheme. Obviously the flesh tones had to be lighter, so that makes peach, or reddish-tan. Which is kind of a variation on brown.

For the shadows in Roger's face, as well as the background, I used green. I sometimes did a "glaze" (thin transparent film of paint) of reddish-brown over the underlying green paint, to tint the green with a bit of brown. (Digitally, this would entail adding a very transparent layer of reddish brown to your base layer of green.) This effectively tones down the green and gives it an "undertone" of red-brown.

Let's look at Roger close-up.

Roger the Sad Cowboy

There's brown in the shirt, in the hat. There's green (sometimes with a "glaze" of reddish-brown applied on top) in the background. But also there's tints of green in his skin tone. It's subdued, but definitely there. The highlighted side of his face is a creamy yellow (not a cool lemon-yellow).

When I was mixing paint, I'd use a darker green-blue to make my blacks. The shadowed black side of his hat was made with green, mixed down (and sometimes mixed with the brown) to be almost black. I tried to be very controlled and careful about the colors, always trying to keep with the "green and brown" color scheme. And not just any green or any brown. Warm brown (earth red, really) and forest green.

If you use a color picker on the digital image of Roger, you'll see that these are some of the colors used:

color swatches

The brown is decidedly warm. The lighter the brown is, the more reddish it gets. The green is a forest (warmish, not teal) when dark. When lighter, it's got a tinge of warmth (more olive). The yellow is more of an eggshell or egg yolk. It's not a bright sunny yellow.

The thing all these colors have in common is that they're warm. This was a conscious choice on my part.

Does this mean that all the colors you use should be in the warm (or cool) category? No, not at all. There's a lot to explore with color. This is just the tip of the iceberg. (I haven't even got started! And there's so much for me to learn as well!)

One last painting:

simple profile
Simple Profile, oil on 4x4" panel.

This simple little oil sketch uses a color scheme I resort to often—complementary colors. Orange (peachy, red) and blue. (The blue has a green tinge to it.) Her skin is peachy (orange-pink is the origin of this color) and the shadows of her face are blue (with a greenish tinge) and the background is blue (with greenish tinge).

If you remember from your basic color theory classes (i.e. the color wheel) Blue is the "complement" of Orange. Opposite sides of the color wheel. This painting is a simple example of that. (And when you think of it, "Roger the Sad Cowboy" is based on the complementary color scheme concept as well. Green is the complement of red, and the browns I use are reddish browns . . . )

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