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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
And in black and white:
And here are the pastels I used:
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,
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?!