Recently in my IGNITE! art-making membership, a member asked about how to make an interesting painting from a boring photo. This isn’t an uncommon question. I’ve also been asked: “How do I the greyness that I see in my photo more colourful in my painting?” Or how about this: “I was so taken with the colourful scene but when I got home and looked at the photos, I wondered where all the colour had gone.” In all these cases, pushing colour in our paintings is the answer.
By pushing colour, we can take a rather bland photo and jazz up the colour. Pushing colour is about exaggerating any small hints of colour you glimpse in your photo. It’s about pushing those tiny colour suggestions into a full-blown saturated colour arena!
Recently I did just this. I was in Ontario a couple of years ago and had taken a few photos from the car of some beautiful trees. I admit I was disappointed when I saw the pictures later but I knew there was still something there to work with. And I knew I could push the colour!
I’m going to take you through my process. This was a piece I did for last year’s 31-pastels-in-31-days Annual Challenge that we hold every October in the HowToPastel Facebook group. (You can see some of my other pieces in this blog post.)
First the photo reference.
As you can see, it’s not that interesting at first glance.
So why did I take the photo? I loved the shape of the trees…and the colour. Looking at the photo though, there doesn’t seem to be much colour does there? That’s where the “pushing colour” idea comes in.
First, my thumbnail.
The trees are the stars of the show. I also liked the natural interruption that the gap between the stands of trees makes and so included it by creating two uneven shapes on either side of a space. (I also tried a thumbnail in portrait format but that put all the emphasis on the gap rather than on the all-important trees.)
I wanted this painting to be a full-on autumn picture full of warm colours. So I started with a cool colour under the trees. I used purples under what will be orange foliage colours. The sky seems to have a greenish feel to it, typical of some winter skies, and so I pushed the idea of greens by using a light green in my first layer.
Then I began to build the painting, loosely and lightly at the start. As I progressed, I added more colours to my palette only after I’d used (and pushed!) what I already had in hand. Even when I feel the desperate need to add another colour, I try to hold back this inclination as long as possible….or completely!
As I moved forward on the piece, I felt I needed to lighten the sky in the lower part to create the feeling of distance.
I also finally added the visible parts of the tree trunks. I used the reference photo for inspiration but basically added them in groupings that felt balanced yet interesting.
I’m nearing the end now. I opened up areas in the lower parts of the trees to allow more of the sky to come through. I added a bit of detail in the darker grasses in the front but was careful to retain a feeling of looseness. I also wanted to make it easy for the viewer to enter the painting i.e. not create a visible barrier. And, as you can see, I pumped up the warm saturated colours of the foliage!
A few more tweaks (can you pick out the changes?) and it’s done!
Here’s the black-and-white version alongside my thumbnail:
And another comparison:
And finally, here are the Unison Colour pastels that I used.
Let’s have a quick look at a couple of ways to push colour:
- Take any hints of colour you see in your photo and apply them in saturated colour – you can always tone them down
- Do a black-and-white version before you start – a tonal sketch. Then choose a monochromatic selection of pastels in three values e.g. blues – light blues, middle value blues, dark blues – and create a monochromatic painting with them. Choose the colour that best suits the mood you want to evoke. A red painting will feel very different from a blue one!
- Working again from your black and white sketch, create a colour study that has nothing to do with the reality you see in the photo, that doesn’t look naturalistic. Just see what happens!
The trick to pushing colour and playing with colour is to use hues of a similar value when you layer – dark over dark, light over light, and middle over middle.
I hope this helps you to see how you too can push colour in your work. You are the artist – YOU have the power!! So take that bland photo that still has something in it that calls you to paint and pump up the colour!
I’d LOVE to know what you thought of this post – if it was helpful, if you have questions, if you have any opinions about what I’ve said or the piece itself.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Until next time,
PS. To be inspired by BOLD expansive don’t-hold-back colour, pick up Mark Leach‘s book (if you purchase using this link, I get a tiny commission):