Learn from Michelle

The Subtle Art of Color & Temperature

"Your color is boring."

It was like a knife to my heart. 

An artist that I admired agreed to look at some of my paintings and these were the first words they spoke after looking at what I thought were my most accomplished pieces.


This is not a word that an artist EVER wants to hear.

I wanted to give up.  All I could think was, "All those years working in graphite have destroyed my ability to see color as an artist should. I suck." 

I wanted to quit.  But I didn't.

I set out to learn the more subtle nature of color and color temperature.  Little did I know that this journey would completely change the way my paintings are perceived! 

It totally changed the way I paint.

Before I began to study color and color temperature, my paintings looked a lot like this.  The backgrounds were always beautifully colored (mostly because I start with Heather the Painter's curated backgrounds - click HERE to see them) but my subjects had no real variation in color or temperature.  They had form (meaning highlights and shadows that create the three-dimensional feeling) but the color and color temperature were just variations of a single flesh tone.  This results in a boring, visually unappealing subject.

Without an understanding of why the painting is "boring," it is very difficult to identify this problem in our own work. The shifts in color and temperature are so subtle, it is very easily missed.

That word that hurt so much - boring - it was really exactly right and just what I needed to hear to take my work to the next level!

While I'm still not an expert, I have managed to increase my skills exponentially with color in painting.  Anyone can see the improvement in my understanding of color and color temperature variation...

Placing the images side by side makes the change even more obvious...

The human form has a downright shocking amount of color variation. 

Using the Photoshop color picker, I made selections of many colors across the form.  You can see that all of the colors chosen from the highlight side of the form are warm in temperature.  Conversely, the colors from the shadow side are cool in temperature.

Now if we take the "boring" version of the painting and make the exact same color selections in Photoshop, you'll notice that the colors seem to be a variation of the same skin tone with absolutely no variation in color temperature.  The shadow side is entirely too warm and the color variation is just BLAH!  

Skin is not a single color.  Depending on the person and the lighting, it has a range of colors from flesh tone, to blue, grey, green, yellow, purple, brown, rust, and even bright pink!  Skin can be just about ANY color.

It's even easier to see in this side by side chart...

In my ignorance, I was doing the equivalent of taking the "flesh" crayon out of the box and coloring my entire subject. 😱

We all know - the flesh crayon isn't an accurate representation of skin!

As my knowledge of color continues to evolve, I become more and more brave with adding colors to my paintings. You can see I've added many colors, especially into the hair of this particular painting...

Are you using the "flesh crayon" in your paintings?  If so, branch out!  Explore how color and temperature can make your paintings more interesting.

Happy painting! 

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