Colour Schemes: Gail Sibley, "Bowser View," Unison pastels on UART 400 grade paper, 12 x 9 in. Available.

Colour Schemes And How I Don’t Use Them

I was asked a couple weeks ago by a subscriber what colour schemes I use for soft pastel paintings. My response was that I didn’t use colour schemes. Instead, I look closely at my subject and plan my colours more in terms of what I’m seeing. From that observation, using a limited palette I build up my painting. I realized that this was a rather glib answer and so I wanted to talk more in-depth about his question here.

I am aware of different colour schemes but I don’t consciously use them when I paint. That’s not to say that I don’t use them; I perhaps use them in an unconscious way. But like I said it’s really from looking deeply at the subject that I choose my colour palette. Quite often what’s there in front of me coincides nicely with a colour scheme, for instance, complementary, split complementary, triad, or analogous.

I think using a limited palette helps keep a painting unified and harmonious in the same way that a colour scheme does. I recently painted on location at the home of my brother Brett and his wife Janine in Bowser, BC. I realized later that the colour scheme of the painting was primarily analogous. So I decided this would be a good example to use as I talk about this topic of colour schemes and not using them.

First let’s look at the view I painted.

Colour schemes: Photo of the subject I painted en plein air
Photo of the subject I painted en plein air


I was working from life and so could see more colour than you see in this photograph. Still, it helps explain what attracted me to this subject.  So what captured my eye? It was the pattern created by the trunks and the contour edge of the trees against the blue water. And the water looked really really blue, a surprisingly warm blue for this cooler clime. Initially, I was going to include a much larger scene but I decided to hone in on what attracted my attention to the scene.


Of course I created a couple of quick thumbnails:

Colour schemes: Initial bxw thumbnails

You can see on this sketchbook page that I first contemplated painting the larger scene but then made a thumbnail focusing in on the trees only. You can also see where later I examined more closely the contour edge of the trees and the pattern of the tree trunks.


Colour schemes: Sketchy drawing in charcoal on UART 400 paper.
Sketchy drawing of subject in charcoal on UART 400 paper.

Here’s the very sketchy drawing I made in charcoal. I’m working on UART 400 grade paper. You can see that I’m not fussing with the drawing. I just get down the basics, thinking about the big shapes and the three main value areas.



Colour schemes: First three values in three colours go on.
The first three values in three colours go on.

Here’s the dry underpainting of three colours in three values. In an earlier blog post, I talked about how to cope with summer greens using purple and sometimes orange as underpainting colours. Here, however, when I looked closely at the trees, I saw darkness and blue and so rather than go with something of a formula, I went with the colour I saw.

The water was a really warm blue and so I decided for my middle value to use a cool green, the green being warmer than the blue I would put on top. It was also going to be used in an area of the trees and is cooler than the warm green I’d use over it.

As to the sky, it was full of pale clouds with some blue sky showing. In the moment, I chose a very light green as my underpainting colour. I used this colour to warm up the coolness of the sky.

I then started to layer.


Colour Schemes: Beginning to add a second layer
Beginning to add a second layer

I began adding a dark green in the dark blue foliage areas and a deep purple on the tree trunks. Pale blue was added in the light area of the sky, and a turquoise in the sea. You can also see some stray colours around the piece  – these are try-out colours as in, “Will this colour work here?” And most have not been used again (because they didn’t seem to work).


And here’s this stage in black and white to check on values:

Colour schemes: Beginning to add a second layer - seen in bxw
Beginning to add a second layer – seen in bxw


As you can see, it’s pretty much an analogous colour scheme – one of blues and greens – although I didn’t think of it that way as I planned and then pastelled.

As I worked though, I began to feel the whole scene was looking too cool. It needed warmth.


Colour schemes: I suddenly bring in an orange colour in the sky.
I suddenly bring in an orange colour in the sky.

So I reached for a very light orange and added it to the sky. Immediately it felt more interesting and improved.

Yet the orange doesn’t easily fit into a colour scheme. Orange is the complement of blue but there’s also greens and purples in the painting, colours that sit on either side of blue on the colour wheel (ie analogous colours). And in fact, one could argue that green dominates the scene more than blue. And if that’s the case, the warm colour added as a complement to green should be pink. But that’s not the colour I picked. Intuitively, I felt an orange-y colour would work better.



Colour schemes: Building layers and adding colour in the sky/light area
Building layers and adding colour in the sky/light area

I then continued to build up the layers. I decided to break up the expanse of light (now mostly an orange tinge) with a bluish area that can be read either as cloud or sky.

You can see in the black and white version how I retained the light value even though in the colour version, the blue area looks darker.


Colour schemes: Building layers and adding colour in the sky/light area - in bxw
Building layers and adding colour in the sky/light area – in bxw


You can see how after adding the orange colour to the sky, I felt I needed to add some warmth to the tree trunks. I stayed with the orange-y hue but kept it in the dark value range. This colour addition has more to do with unity and harmony than following colour schemes.


Colour schemes: The painting as finished en plein air. Now it's time to look at it in the studio
The painting as finished en plein air. Now it’s time to look at it in the studio

As I built up the layers, I was adding density, depth, and form to the trees. I began paying more attention to the shapes of branches within the shape of the trees. I also lightened the sea to create some aerial perspective.

I was getting tired and eventually found myself picking at the piece. So I decided to quit even though I knew there was still work to be done especially on the trees.

A few days later, I worked on the painting in the studio. It was good to get some time away from it and also be removed from the scene itself. I had the reference photo but I was mostly concerned with making the painting work, to have the viewer’s eye journey through the piece.

You can see the final version below. I worked on the shape and texture of the trees. I also added back in a small line of clouds above the hills. Can you see what else I worked on?


Colour Schemes: Gail Sibley, "Bowser View," Unison pastels on UART 400 grade paper, 12 x 9 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Bowser View,” Unison pastels on UART 400 grade paper, 12 x 9 in. Available.


And in black and white:

Colour Schemes: Gail Sibley, "Bowser View," Unison pastels on UART 400 grade paper, 12 x 9 in - b x w
Gail Sibley, “Bowser View,” Unison pastels on UART 400 grade paper, 12 x 9 in – b x w


And here are the pastels I used:

Colour Schemes: The Unison pastels I used. You can see the analogous lean towards blues and greens and then the interruption of oranges.
The Unison pastels I used. You can see the analogous lean towards blues and greens and then the interruption of oranges.
Colour Schemes: And the Unison pastels in black and white
And the Unison pastels in black and white


I hope this progression shows what I mean about not using colour schemes in my work.

Having said that, I do think that working with colour schemes is a great way to build up your colour knowledge and fluency. Doing exercises using some of the colour schemes – eg monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic – can also pull you colourwise into places where you may not have ventured voluntarily. It’s aaaallllll good!

What did you think of this progression? Was it helpful? Do you have questions? Please leave any thoughts as a comment. You know how much I LOVE hearing from you!


Until next time,

~ Gail


PS. A handy dandy tool when it comes to colour schemes is this colour wheel:


PPS. My Mum sketched me as I worked. Isn’t this cool?!

Colour Schemes: Joanne Sibley, 'Gail in the Middle of her Pastel,' pen and ink, approx 5 x 8 in
Joanne Sibley, ‘Gail in the middle of her pastel,’ pen and ink, approx 5 x 8 in



Related Posts

Subscribe to the HowtoPastel Blog today!

Take a course

Like my Blogs?

Do you like the blog?

Support HowToPastel and help me to keep creating content to instruct, inspire, and motivate you with your pastel painting. Although I’ve been asked, “How much does it cost to subscribe?” HowToPastel will always be free. Your financial support is completely optional but does go a long way in helping with the cost of running this blog. Thank you!


58 thoughts on “Colour Schemes And How I Don’t Use Them”

  1. Hi Gail,
    This is a really great topic and I’m glad you treated it. I often get asked that as well and I also don’t use color schemes (which make me think of formulas, which intrinsically make me shudder as I don’t like following strict structures) but I recognize that my intuitive color use does draw on complements, analogous colors, and warm and cool contrasts. I think as with language, with color it helps to have a sense of the ‘grammar’ of how colors behave, but then to also just get a feel for speaking it with your own accent. Structure is good as a learning tool but can be prescriptive so needs to be combined with practice, play and intuition which your blog clearly demonstrates. It’s a wonderful painting!

    1. Thanks so much Jeanne for your own experience and input on this topic. Love how you relate the use of colour to language. And that makes me think of dancing, where you need to learn the steps but when you’ve done so, you can add your own flavour and flair to the dance.
      And thank you too for the compliment 🙂

  2. Wonderfully done progression photos. I thought the addition of sunlight on the tree trunks really nailed it. Your limited palette made me think I have to be more aware of not getting carried away with lots of hues. Love your mom’s sketch. I can see where you got your talent. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    1. Thanks Dana. I really feel that limiting the number of colours you use can help with keeping a piece together and unified. It also allows you to play those colours within the values, for instance, using a mid value against a light colour will make it look way darker then if you used the same colour against a dark colour (where it will look lighter).
      Yes, I get what art leanings I have from my Mum AND also my Dad (who is also an amazing pen and ink sketcher!!).

  3. Looking at your mum’s drawing shows artistic skill is in the family. I love the way you teach. Your 3 values of the colors is very helpful, I’m having trouble seeing the values of some colors. Photographing them in black and white is a wonderful idea. I will try it !

    1. Yup, artistic skill is in our family. My Dad is a wonderful sketcher too. AND my brother’s skill shows up in photography and my sister’s in sculpture.
      What I suggest with values is try to make those choices about your pastel on your own with serious squinting. Mark them on paper!! (Have you seen my videos on sorting pastels into values? https://youtu.be/v8lL8OE8qZI and https://youtu.be/a8jxqv5ocz8) Then photograph and see where things are at. Best is to photograph in colour and then use Preview (on a Mac) to remove all the colour saturation.

  4. This was very interesting watching how you added color layer by layer. I found it really helpful. Thank you so much! I like the b/w photos too. That’s a really nice way to check the way the image reads without the color – a value reading I guess, but it feels as though it’s more than that…
    Your mom’s sketch is wonderful – I think you likely had a lot of inspiration growing up. 🙂
    What an amazing view!

    1. So glad you found this useful Debbie. Yes, using black and white photos makes sure you keep on value-track – it’s very easy to wander off, distracted as we can be by the call of colour! And you are right, there is more and I think much of that ‘other’ is to do with overall design.

      Love the response to my Mum’s sketch. And yes, LOTS of inspiration. My Mum was ALWAYS sketching us as kids. They are pretty fun to look back at now 😀

      I also love the view from Brett and Janine’s house – fantastic to see the sea and sky and watch the changes through the days and seasons.

  5. Thanks Gail – this was most helpful. And the addition of warmth on the tree trunks certainly helped tie in the pink in the sky. What is particularly beneficial to me are the black’n’white photos showing the values. I also like the way you laid out the pastels you used- in rows showing the sky, scape and tree colours – sooo valuable!
    I forgot to mention – Joanne’s sketch is great!

    1. Great to hear Christine!! Yes, that warmth in the tree trunks was just what was needed. And that was a response to the painting and its needs more than just accuracy to the scene.
      The pastels are laid out in values which then yes, corresponds mostly to the subjects of sea, sky, and trees. I like seeing, at the end of the painting session, the colours (and values) that I used.
      So happy Mum sketched me and that I included it!

  6. I learn so much by seeing your step-by-step approach, especially your discussion of values which I often struggle with.
    Carole Villeneuve

    1. I love hearing this Carole as it’s certainly my intention to help 🙂 Figuring out values as a concept is tricky to get, to really get. It’s easy to say yes to the theory but the practice is oh sooooo much more!

  7. Thanks again for all that you share! The development process you use is very interesting; I like seeing the values in black and white, which is so helpful in developing a pattern/plan/composition.

    1. Thanks Wendy! I think learning to think in values is paramount to a successful painting. And checking your work in black and white confirms you’re still on track with the original value plan. And as you say, it’s so helpful as a compositional tool.

  8. Gail,
    Nice job! Thanks for the clear, concise lesson and the charming story with your mum, too. I’m thinking of adding to my orange selection. It’s skimpy and they are obviously so useful. I’m not sure which Unison oranges I want. One question: did you include the dark orange you used on the trunks in the pastel sticks photo? I couldn’t pick it out.

    1. Thanks Steve! I LOVE oranges so encourage you to get some. The Unison selection of oranges used to be greater (18) than it is now (6) but they still have some luscious ones! Go here to check the Unison Colour chart.
      Goooood question about the dark orange. The dark brownish pastel is the one I used. It shows more colour when applied to paper than it does just looking at the stick itself. Also, where the orange shows lighter in the painting, I actually used the very light orange first then applied the dark one over top thus getting a slightly brighter and lighter version of the dark orange/brown. Make sense?

  9. Dear Gail,
    Jeanne put me onto you. She has brought us (Pippa and myself) up to a standard that one can at least understand the words and language of pastel painters. We have had three years of 3-4 hours for 3-4 days of instruction in her studio in Sudbury and 4 painting workshops in Europe.
    I find that the progression you take us through in the development of your painting is a great learning. The painting is indeed wonderful and reminds me a bit of my visit to Banff a hundred years ago.
    I’ve forwarded the mail to Pippa so that she may also subscribe and thereby benefit.
    With kind regards,

    1. Thanks very much for your comment Siddharth. It sounds like you and Pippa have a good amount of Jeanne’s instruction and learning behind you!

      Thank you for your appreciation of the process and progression and the actual piece itself. It’s very Canadian I think if it brings back memories of Banff for you 🙂

  10. Really appreciated your explanation and showing how the more intuitive choice of orange colors worked to bring this to life visually. Always inspired by your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  11. I also had the question about your color scheme a while back, and I relate to Philip who asked you the same question. I’m always intrigued by your colors. They are always vibrant and beautiful. I’ve taken your suggestion to really look and squint to find the many colors & values that make up a scene. I find, too, that following a rigid color scheme can often be restrictive. Thanks for posting your progression. Always appreciate your generosity of knowledge. Oh, and your mom’s sketch was great…. I was thinking “that is soooo Gail!”

    1. Thanks Ruth and happy this was helpful.

      I think taking time to really look then see deeply can help with art creation. It’s good to have colour schemes and colour knowledge in your toolbox, and the more you’re familiar with your tools, the more you can use them in an intuitive way without being restricted by the schemes themselves.

      On the other hand, the restrictions of a limited colour palette can be freeing, certainly more freeing than sticking with a colour scheme in a rigid way. Colour schemes are there to help – they are like the building blocks. Know what you have then start playing with those blocks!

      And lol about your thoughts on my Mum’s sketch!!

  12. So very helpful. I love the quote “value does the work and color gets the credit.” You painting expresses that perfectly. And those black and white photos really show how the value is doing the work. That tip alone in so helpful in learning color and value. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    1. Delighted to hear this was helpful Christine! And yes, I too love and agree with the quote you mentioned. I really believe it’s the underlying structure created by the value pattern that will lead to a successful painting.

  13. Great work as always Gail. And also thank you for taking the time to share with us to help advance our skills with your great teaching. I also reviewed the Jason Arguiar painting sunsets using the link that you had attached and they are just amazing. Both of you are inspiring. So I am going to paint now!!

    1. Thanks so much Nancy and happy to know the blog post inspired you to go and paint!!
      I did laugh though when you said that I’d shared the link to Jacob Aguiar’s guest post! I had to recheck the link as it was supposed to go to an earlier one of mine (which it does thankfully). So I was confused until I realized that at the bottom of each blog, there appear random links to past posts and I think you may have clicked on one of these. For those reading this who are curious, click here to read Jacob’s post.

  14. Gail, thanks so much for describing the place of color theory in your work! Exactly what I wanted to know but didn’t think to ask. You made a wonderful painting, and I enjoyed seeing your mum’s sketch, too!

    1. Good to hear Ruth! Thanks!! Sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know but then it’s nice to know what we didn’t know, and now know 😀

  15. Sticking closely to colour theory I find, can be somewhat limiting. One should follow the muse and let it flow. For example, the touch of orange that you added to the sky. Cool. where did that come from? Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hey thanks Cliff! I agree that sticking to colour schemes and rules can be limiting. Some of those constrictions can, however, bring creativity. And learning about colour and colour relationships is essential to get to the point where you can work intuitively in a hopefully successful way!

  16. Wonderful blog as always Gail! Seeing the progression is wonderful! Loved the addition of the oranges! My favourite colour always seems to help lift paintings to a new level! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and I loved your Mums sketch- I see where you get your talents from!

  17. Wonderful blog. I’m somewhat amazed at the b/w ‘value’ shot. I REALLY wouldn’t have predicted those values from those colors. I need to do some work! I also love the hints of colors (oranges, etc.) that one barely notices but would be SO missing if they weren’t there. Thanks!T

  18. I read Christine Swann’s blog entries on color before I read yours. She is very technical and precise talking about different color chords artists can use, giving examples of some of Sorolla’s paintings. I can see how harmonious use of color can create vibrancy and avoid mud. I am not at all anywhere near her nor your level of understanding and using color, yet I realize that my more successful paintings follow a type of color chord as well. Subconsciously, my mind chooses colors harmoniously at times.

    Where I do find myself consciously thinking is about value. There I try to understand where the lights are and the darks, and make sure I paint them as such. I don’t think I will ever reach the understanding of color to consciously choose different chords, but I hope enough information enters my brain so that it decides things correctly on its own more often than it does now.

    Great that you included that neat sketch of your mother’s! Love it!

    1. Thanks so much Maria for adding to this conversation. And for sharing Christine’s angle on colour. I agree that knowing how colours work (or don’t work!) together is invaluable. I think even more important is the understanding of values. If one paints as you say, keeping the lights together, the darks together and the middle values together you are more likely to end up with a clear and luminous painting rather than one that feels ‘muddy’. Also, once you understand values, you can play with colour combinations and see what happens!

  19. Gail this was really helpful because I have often thought maybe I wouldn’t be so conflicted if I had a color scheme to follow. Color harmonizing is sometimes really difficult for me. I tend to love new colors (and buy them) as they come out and pretty soon they overpower my paintings. Watching you develop a painting helps me a lot!

    1. Thanks Janet. And I hear you about new colours – who can resist?! When you buy new sticks, try using only those with whatever you need from your own collection to fill in the values areas. For example, if all your new colours are middle value, you’ll need to add some lights and darks. In fact, when you buy new colours, a good plan is to make sure you purchase colours in light, middle, and dark values. Then create a painting with that limited palette. Try it and see what happens!

    1. So good to hear it was helpful Carole! It’s amazing what the addition of a colour can do for a painting. And yes, it’s lovely to have that sketch. And it was so pleasant quietly working together 🙂

  20. Gail,
    I have just discovered you! What a treat to read your blog post on color choices. I’ve painted off and on for a few years. I’m trying to learn and get better and spend more time at the easel. I’m great at making mud, so I think this was exactly what I needed right now. I have also just discovered pastels and love them and their vibrancy.
    Your post was so informative and helpful for me: now I have to read the others. I agree with all the comments from your other followers. I loved it all. Especially because you shared the WHY you chose the hues and values you did. The progression and black and white pictures were also very, very helpful. I am so grateful you share your knowledge. Thank You.

    1. Pat, so happy you’ve found me and my blog!! And so glad to hear this post was useful. I look forward to hearing your response to future posts 🙂
      And DELIGHTED you’ve discovered the joys of pastels.

  21. Hi Gail, I just finished watching one of your YouTube’s and now I followed you to your website blog and I’m already learning so much from you.

    Not meaning to divert from the topic you discussed about the importance of values in pastel but I’m just learning how to use them skillfully rather than just doing a colouring book with Crayons. My biggest struggle as an artist was to stick with one medium and trying to perfect just one. Starting with oil paint then to acrylic then watercolour, to coloured pencils and now to pastels. So I’m glad I found you! It’s better to learn and listen rather than fly blindly and create mud, which is dum spelled backwards!

    Speaking of flying I’m going to be flying to Greece in two weeks bringing a little cheap set of pastels to do as many drawings that I can fit in on my three weeks being there. I haven’t been there in 10 years and when I did come back at that time I was a “painting fiend” of all the pictures my wife and I took while there. Actually now that I think about it I did a pastel picture of part of the Acropolis mixed with charcoal I’ll have to go and look for it!!!!!! lol!!

    Thank you for sharing and helping us all improve as artists with the knowledge that you have acquired. And I thought what a cool Mom to honour you by sketching you. Your Dad should have painted her and your sister should have sculpted him etc!! Thank you. Have a blessed day.

    1. Hi John,
      Thank you for your lovely long comment and enthusiasm! Glad you’ve found pastels and also me and my blog!!
      Have a lovely time sketching in Greece. Sounds awesome!
      And I agree about my Mum (and my Dad and sister!). And my brother did take photos which also added into the creative mix 😀

  22. Hi Gail , thank you for this post on color relationships. Now we are in a year of the limited social palette. But that gets to my question on the choices from the unison bag. Are you picking out colors from a big assortment to begin with or do you say well I’ll see what I can do from a 16 piece set.? That’s my question . Wishing you and everyone most excellent health and positive energy.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for the question! (And hah hah eek…yes..the limited social palette!)

      In this case, since I was away from home ie travelling, I was probably using colours from Unison’s starter set of 36.

      And yes, I LOVE taking a small set and seeing what I can do with it as I like to prove the idea that if you know your values, you can pull most things off regarding colour! I often do this even in the studio. You may interested in reading a blog I wrote about using Unison’s 36-piece set for the entirety of the 2018 31-pastels-in-31-days Challenge (click HERE to read it).

      Thanks for your good wishes – the same to you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Other Related Posts

Headshot of Gail Sibley

Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

Join the mailing list today to receive exclusive tips, resources and inspiration directly from Gail:

Scroll to Top

Welcome Artists!

Online Courses

Pastels 101

Use this link if you bought the course AFTER Sept 2022

Use this link if you bought the course BEFORE Sept 2022

Pastel Painting En Plein Air

Art Membership

IGNITE! Art Making Members

Love soft pastels?? Then join 7000+ other subscribers and get my tips, reviews, and resources all about pastels... it's FREE! Just enter your name and email address below.

Your information will never be shared or sold to a 3rd party. Privacy Policy