“My choice of colors does not rest on any scientific theory, it is based on observation, on feeling, on the experience of my sensibility.”
– Henri Matisse
It’s important to note that I am entirely self-taught, meaning I have not had any formal education or training around color theory. Beyond knowing a little bit about the color wheel, I do a ton of trial and error, playing with mixing different colors until I get the color I’m after. You will see this in action many times throughout the demo videos! What I can tell you is that, for me, it comes down to heavily relying on finding color inspiration first, and then experimenting with mixing colors second.
With all of this in mind, I want to share a few ways that I first gather color inspiration and then I’ll share a few basics around color theory and mixing colors.
The world is full of brilliant color combinations if we’re willing to see them. Before I stepped into the creative life it never occurred to me to look at my surroundings through the lens of being inspired by color. But once I started looking, I saw inspiration and color everywhere. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to find me snapping several iPhone photos during a walk with my son to the park. Did you see how that flower had a gorgeous blend and orange and pink? Snap. Oh, check out that old pipe with distressed blue and rusty brown! Snap. Holy cow, that yellow and green leaf with specs of red is utterly brilliant. Snap.
Not only is capturing color inspiration throughout our days a great way to notice the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary but it’s a beautiful way to teach ourselves (and our kids) how much joy there is in finding beauty. I keep a color inspiration folder in my iphone camera roll, but another great idea is keeping a color inspiration journal, filling it up with your photos and other scraps of color inspiration.
There are many other ways to find color inspiration in our everyday lives. Below are just a few suggestions. Your mission? To become a seeker of color inspiration in your everyday lives and to capture it all so that you’ve got a great treasure trove of color combination ideas to refer to when you’re painting. Be sure to put your color inspirations somewhere – whether in a journal or camera phone folder or Pinterest board or in a folder on your desktop so that you can refer to it later.
I will often look in my closets and notice patterns and colors in my clothes. Chances are if we’re wearing it, we’re already drawn to the colors. And often there are color combinations in our clothes that we would have never considered. Wow, I love that shade of brown paired with pink and yellow polka dots on that skirt! Do you have a few favorite colorful skirts, shirts, jackets? Snap a photo of them and tuck it into your color inspiration folder to refer to later. If you have kids, be sure to check their closets as well. I have been known to snap a photo of adorable little girl tights for inspiration. Which reminds me: Don’t forget your sock drawer – often full of quirky color combinations!
Friends, the fabric store is an awesome treasure trove of color combination. Five minutes in the fabric aisle and I can guarantee many color combination ideas. Don’t forget bedding! Sometimes I will do a Google image search for “colorful bedding” and save the images to a Pinterest Board or another folder on my desktop to refer to later. Same goes for online clothing shops. I love Boden, Sundance, and Anthropologie – all great online sources for gathering color inspiration!
Magazines, greeting cards, and more:
Look through your magazines and catalogs, and cut out any colors combos that call out to you. Put them in your color inspiration folder to refer to later! Also, one of my favorite things to do is to work next to a greeting card and refer to its color combinations as I paint my canvas. You’ll see me do this in early demo videos. It’s a great way to get color combination ideas! Other paper ideas for gathering color combinations: wrapping paper, wallpaper, scrapbooking papers, junk mail. The options are endless.
Nature, of course, is full of earth tone color combinations. While you’re out and about in your day, look up, look down, and begin to notice and see the rich color landscape around you. Snap photos of what delights you to refer to later.
Food! Don’t forget to look at what’s on your plate. Food is a vibrant source of color inspiration and combinations, especially fruits and veggies.
“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make an arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
Once I have my color inspiration, I work on mixing my paints to get the colors I want. I don’t necessarily mix every color I put on my canvas. As you will see in the demo videos, I often layer colors on top of colors in the beginning stages of a painting, and often those colors are straight out of the bottle. As the painting progress, I blend my paints to create just the shade of color I’m after. Often this process involves some trial and error, blending colors together, adding a touch of white to make it lighter, a touch of black to make it darker, a touch of raw umber to tone it down, and so on.
It’s important to understand a little bit about color theory before you head off into the land of trial and error so that you can maximize your experimental efforts!
Below are a few basics that you’ll need to know. Please know that there are books and all sorts of resourceful websites about color theory. It can get quite complicated, but for the purposes of this class, the basics noted below are only needed.
Primary colors = red, yellow, and blue. These are the colors you’ll need to create other colors.
Secondary colors = green, orange, and purple. These colors are formed when you mix primary colors. More specifically, yellow + blue = green, red + yellow = orange, and red + blue = purple.
This is where it can get fun experimenting with mixing colors. Let’s say we want to create a purple. If we mix a traditional primary red with a primary blue, we’ll get one hue of purple, but if we mix a different hue of red, let’s say magenta, with a different hue of blue, let’s say turquoise, then you’ll get an entirely different hue of purple. Same is true for greens. If we mix primary yellow with a primary blue, you’re going to get a different hue of green than if you mixed yellow with a teal. Have fun with this – mix and experiment with all the different hues of red, yellow, and blue to get a ton of different colors.
Working with white & black
Once you’ve mixed your colors, try adding in white to lighten your color, or black to darken your color. And if you want to take it further, try adding in both white and black to get a range of tones for that color. Again, this is about trial and error when it comes to how much white and/or black to blend in.
Warm colors & cool colors
It’s important to note that if you mix warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) with cool colors (blues, greens), you’re more likely to get a muddy color. There are few exceptions. For example, purple. Depending on how much red (warm) or blue (cool) was mixed to create your purple will depend on if you’ll get mud when mixing it with a warm or cool color.
Mixing colors can be quite fun. It’s a constant game of discovering new shades and colors. If you want to remember how you got that awesome color, be sure to note it. I’ve never done this, but I’ve seen lots of folks create their own DIY cheat sheets/journals that show all the colors they’ve mixed along they way, notating how much of XYZ colors they mixed to achieve the colors. Something to think about and consider!
Thank you so much Kelly Rae for inspiring me to see the world a little differently.. it’s night time here in Australia now and I seriously can’t wait for tomorrow to come so I can go looking for amazing colour combinations and start taking photos of them.
I’m lucky enough to work in a most amazing gift shop / cafe / florist and my mind is boggling at the inspiration I’ll find there in the morning.
Love love love this lesson and feel so blessed to be doing your class Kelly Rae xx
PS. Hoping y’all realise we Aussies spell colour with a ‘u’. Each time I see that little red squiggly line I have to decide whether to take it out. When I do it just feels wrong, like I’m betraying my country. So it’s staying for now 🙂 Oh and we also spell realise with an ‘s’.
I loved this post of yours as well! Your workplace sounds amazing – my idea of a dream job (other than yoga teacher or chocolate tester!) I related to your comments on the different ways we spell certain words here – grey, favourite and centre are a few more! But I will keep spelling them the Aussie way too! 🙂
Thank you, Phillipa. And here’s to coloUr! And inspiration everywhere!
I love the idea of a “color inspiration folder”! I find great inspiration in the paint section of the hardware store…I have gathered several paint “chips” for home projects.
Thanks so much for your encouragement – you are a total sweetheart! Thanks also for the book recommendation – I need all the help I can get at the moment! And yes, I need to keep reminding myself it’s all about having FUN, not about getting it ‘right’!
You are so welcome, Lesa! It wasn’t that long ago (well, okay, maybe it was long ago.. 😉 ) that I was starting from NOTHING, so I know what that feels like… I’m always happy when I can make the path a little less rocky for someone else. 🙂
Thanks so much for your encouragement – can I ask a silly question? How do you get those cute yellow smiley faces and pink hearts that I have seen some ladies use to appear at the end of your messages? I still haven’t figured this one out!
Haha! I’m simply typing in a “:” and “)” next to each other, and Kelly Rae’s website converts them into the little characters automatically. For a winky face, I use ; and ).
In a WordPress website, there’s a setting that the website owner can check or uncheck, which will convert emoticons into those little cartoons. 🙂
Thanks so much for the ‘lesson’!! – here’s to small victories! 🙂 <3
Dear Kelly Rae,
Thankyou so much for this lesson and for the advice to look for colour inspiration in my world first before sitting at my table and wondering what on earth to combine with what! I love the idea of keeping a Colour Inspiration folder, and having just purchased an Ipad, this will give me an opportunity to have a play with taking photos on it! Having an actual journal full of colour inspiration photos and magazine clippings/fabric samples is very appealing too – there is something special about being able to physically flick through something you have created by hand. Thanks for the wonderful ideas!
Quick tips on color mixing:
How to mix clear, vibrant colors
Primary colors will always have a bit of a “bias” toward one of the secondary colors on either side of them, and to get the most vibrant secondary colors possible, mix two primaries that have a *bias* toward the secondary you’re going for.
This is known as the “split primary system,” because instead of ONE blue, ONE red, and ONE yellow, you’d always have TWO of each:
a yellow biased toward orange
a yellow biased toward green
a blue biased toward green
a blue biased toward violet
a red biased toward violet
a red biased toward orange
Here’s an example:
Ultramarine blue is more of a violet-tinged blue, while cerulean blue is more of a green-tinged blue. If I want a clear, vivid violet, then, I would pick ultramarine blue over cerulean.
Permanent magenta or alizarin-hue is more of a violet-tinged red, while cadmium red is more of an orange-tinged red. If I want a clear, vivid violet, then, I would pick permanent magenta or alizarin-hue over cadmium red.
Figuring out which primary is biased toward which secondary takes a little work to get to know the tube colors, but once you know, it makes it ever so much easier to get a clear, vibrant secondary color, rather than mud!
How to darken colors without muddying them
Black is the go-to color for darkening a color, but another way to do it, which keeps your painting from getting flat, is to mix the complementary color.
For example, if I wanted to darken red, I’d mix in just a little green.
But which green???? Well, to get as close to opposite on the color wheel as possible, look at your red and ask if it’s got a violet bias or an orange bias. Then pick the green that has a bias toward THAT complement.
The closest complement to an orange-biased red would be a green with a bias toward the complement of orange (ie, blue), so a blue-biased green.
This is easier to explain in pictures than in words, but ultimately, the best thing is to play around and experiment, and see what happens! 🙂
Dear Melissa D,
Thanks so much for your detailed tips on colour mixing – I am feeling very intimidated and out of my depth here, knowing that there are many accomplished artists undertaking this course, but I guess we all have to start somewhere! I have read through your advice about four times already, and I am hoping that after about the 50th time it will begin to make sense to my overwhelmed brain!
You’re welcome, Lesa! I know it’s a lot to absorb… But please don’t feel intimidated (though I certainly understand the feeling… I almost always feel intimidated whenever I’ve started something new. And yes, everyone starts at the start. 🙂 )
When I started making art, back in the mid-90s, I picked up a book called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by Michael Wilcox. That book explained color mixing to me so that it actually made sense! Still, when you buy paint, it doesn’t tell you whether it’s a “green-biased blue” or a “violet-biased blue,” they all have crazy names like cerulean and ultramarine and cobalt and pthaloziazine, which mean nothing until you’ve actually used those colors… and even then, they’re different depending on which company you buy them from!
Rest assured it really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re having FUN! You’ll learn all sorts of things along the way, too. It starts to make a LOT more sense when you DO it. And then pretty soon you’ll be the one sharing tips with others. 🙂
Hey thanks, Melissa!!!
You bet! Color can be so darn mysterious… and FRUSTRATING, when all you get is mud… I’m a big believer in intuition, AND using tips if I know any. And I love to share whatever might be helpful for others. 🙂
Michael Wilcox’s book, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, opened up a whole world of understanding for me. 🙂
Looking forward to the journey! My sister is taking the course that started earlier.