Color Harmony, Theory, and Composition in Painting- Part 4 “Common Color Recipes”

Common Color Recipes

After studying painting for a while you start to realize that despite the endless possible color combinations and compositions, there are certain color/lighting  schemes that are used often, and there are certain underlying ingredients and techniques, some of them subtle, that are inherent in certain attractive common color “looks.”

This is more complex than simply the listing the classic complimentary, analogous, monotone, and gamut, because we are generating these classic looks in context of plausible, helpful source lighting and local color composition, as well as discerning what are the specific aspects of beauty of each look so we can maximize every color, variation, accent, exaggeration, and lighting choice to further the effect- the difference between clumsy amateur interpretation, and successful replication of these looks.

After defining and deconstructing some of these looks I have come up with a few easy recipes for dynamic color/lighting scenarios. This is an easy way to create a nicely colored picture, just pick a recipe and replicate your own version. Look through some art collections and see if you can identify some of these popular color strategies.

Recipe 1: Two opposing strong warm and cool light sources (with rich color variation)

This might be the easiest way to create dynamic, unified, plausible, complimentary color. If you can come up with a excuse to get an actual warm  light source in your overall cool picture, or nearby, plus a nice helping of rich color variation in the warm and cool passages, than you are on the way to an easy win. Of course cool light source in a warm environment works just as well.

Will Terry is a masterchef at this recipe. (for even more deliciousness add some strong rim lighting on your subject and your good to go) According to Richard Schmidt, N.C. Wyeth also used loved putting a hot yellow candle in a cool blue painting.

Keep in mind natural plausibility so that local colors near the light sources show its effects by leaning towards the hue and temperature/saturation or dulling if opposing. Also be aware that you can put the opposing color light source off-stage out of the composition and leave it up to the viewer to imagine what it might be. See this sample by Will Terry.

The beauty of this “look” is that both complimentary colors can be shown in juxtaposition with full saturation and intensity while the  diverse local colors of the subject are also unified into two color temperature areas. This is especially helpful in children’s illustration where pure highly saturated colors are encouraged.

If you are struggling with color I would advice you to start by creating a picture with this look and I believe you will be happily surprised at the result. Don’t forget to add subtle color variation with plausible technique intensifying and shifting hues as objects turn toward the color sources. Don’t forget that you have the right to exaggerate color variation.

The challenge of this “recipe” is reasonably justifying why there are opposing light sources in the subject/composition. Here are several ideas:

• cool night/moonlight- warm torch/lantern/bonfire/lit window/fireworks/flashlight/headlights/
• Cool midday blue sky- warm sunshine  (the cool light would be apparent in the shadows- exaggerate) fire from jet engine.
• Warm sunlight/sunset- artificial cool blue lights around a pool or patio, cool water, cool blue shadows from sky on opposite side of horizon.

• warm room light – cool blue sky light through window, cool moonlight through window, computer, fish-tank, artificial blue light lamp.
• cool fish-tank/computer room- warm light through door from hallway. lighter, lava lamp.

Recipe 2: Main light source, subtle secondary complimentary light source, and rich color variation.

This configuration might be the most common color composition interpretation of reality. The beauty of this look lies in the interplay of the subtle complimentary light and color that weaves through and enlivens the main opposing light, while the main light still unifies the composition. Usually this means a main warm light (sun) with a secondary cool light ( blue sky) that shows up in the sky and shadows but the opposite can be true as well.

Don’t forget that greyed passages cool or warm can still be varied and exaggerated for color richness. Look for opportunities to echo the theme of subtle complimentary contrast on a macro and micro level with local color choice juxtaposition. Remember that the unifying harmony is the dominant temperature so there will be limitations in the intensity of the complimentary color for natural plausibility reasons but that will also depend on the intensity of the main light.

Because the secondary light is subtle and is usually the blue sky light, either directly outdoors, or indoors through a window facing the cool blue part of the sky away from the direct sun, you don’t have to go out of your way to justify its source like the last case and you can leave it as something implied off-stage.

In this very common recipe, you end up with:

• A prevailing unifying light source that unifies the picture generally (composed of course with rich exaggerated variation)
• A secondary subtle contrasting light source that livens up shadows and adds color contrast (ditto the variation/exaggeration)
• You can also add an accent passage of extreme intensity and saturation from the general family. (see next)

Recipe 3: Single strong light source, or limited gamut stylistic overlay, with rich color variation and a strong saturated accent.

This color style is about exploring a single temperature to the fullest.

This is challenging because there is little room for striking contrast but it is more like Bach playing subtle variations on a theme. The key is rich and subtle color variation and temperature contrast within the family. Keep in mind that you can do this in limited gamut of pastels or low saturation greyed colors it doesn’t have to be in context of an overwhelming high saturation overlay.

One way to liven up the similarity in a painting with an overall tonality while keeping natural light plausibility is to add a passage or accent with extra strong intensity and saturation from the same color family in contrast to the overall intensity level. This can be the light source, the area near the light source, or an object with intense local color. In this way you have the benefit of a unified family plus a nice saturation (not hue)  contrast.

Examples are this or this.

Recipe 4: Neutral/balanced ambient light source with rich varied local color.

There is significant  room for relatively strong diverse local colors in this lighting scenario creating a unique plausible color opportunity. I would guess that is from the most difficult scenarios to paint because it depends on the purposeful compositional organization and selection  of local colored subjects. It is easy to add too many colors of high saturation because there is little unifying light or tint. Shadows are unusually color rich because light suffuses all sides except for on bottom. There is little or very soft cast shadow resulting in flattened form as well.

On the other hand this offers the unique opportunity of plausibly showing true local colors of diverse temperature families without multiple light sources. Like painting flowers in a garden on an overcast day.  You could create a sober rich unusually diverse color composition this way especially by contrasting the color to the white sky and neutral ambient light which softens the harshness of direct light and allows color to be distributed in the shadows as well . Richard Schmidt does this often.

Ironically all hues at full saturation is the scenario that many beginners naturally start with except that they do it even when there is a clear colored light cast which is wrong and they do it with a strong direct neutral light resulting in a clutter of full saturation local temperatures in harsh light rather than soft unifying  ambient light which is more usual in nature.


“Alla Prima II” by  Richard Schmid.
“Creative Illustration” by Andrew Loomis.
“Light for Visual Artists” by Richard Yot.
“Color and Light” by James Gurney, as well as Gurney Journey- the blog.
Stapletonkearns”  Blog by Stapleton Kearns.
“How to use color” Online course by Will Terry at Folio online Academy.
“Becoming a Better Artist” Online course by Robert Chang. (Excellent online fundamentals course.)
” Illustrate Color & Light” Online SkillShare course by Denis Zilber
“Illustration Fixation” Blog by  Chris Beatrice

 Please feel free to comment if you have any related insight into this topic.

Continue to part 5: Color Picking Strategy

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