"What if I don't have that color?" If there's one question I'm asked the most, it's this. There's rarely ever a time where you absolutely have to have the same color I'm using, but I also feel like my standard answer of "use whatever you have and whatever you like" is a disappointing one to most. So, today, I'm going to show you exactly how I go about choosing colors for a painting! When you don't have a color I'm using, try this, trust your instincts, and be open to something different! After all, there are no right or wrong colors; there's just what you like and what I like.
I'm going to use my little intuitive painting, Valley Storm in today's example. In that painting, I use:
Cadmium Yellow Medium
And for the purpose of this blog, let's pretend you don't have a single one of those colors! What to do! Well, do like me and grab three blues, three browns, and three yellows that you do have! I'm going to use a regular sheet of printer paper, and at the top I painted a square of each blue I selected (Azurite, Phthalo, and Ultramarine). Beneath that, I added white. Mostly because blues can be hard to differentiate from each other without it, but also because I knew I'd be using pale blues in my painting. At this point, don't think about which color you like best. Wait until all of your colors are tested because your initial choice may change.
Since a large part of this painting is about mixing brown with blue, I'm going to start testing my brown paints (Burnt Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, and Burnt Umber). I put these vertically down the side of the paper like this:
Now, beneath each blue, I'm going to make a mixture with the brown. I did add a little white because blue and brown almost always makes a chromatic black, and the white helped me see the nuance of color in each mixture. I'm looking for a mixture that's pretty neutral. Here's what it looked like after I mixed each blue with Burnt Sienna and a little white. Love those stormy greys already!!
And here's what it looks like after I've mixed each blue with the other two browns and white. I know it's hard to tell in the photo, but each grey is quite unique (I could probably spend way too much time nerding out over how beautiful I find different colors of grey to be, so I'll cut that part short; let's move on).
Resist the desire to decide which colors you want to use! One of the fun things about testing colors this way is that it helps you bring harmony to your painting by creating a limited palette. By using the same blue in the sky as in the grass/trees, you ensure your colors will work beautifully together no matter what colors you use! This is why I always tell you it's ok to use whatever color you have!
Ok, time to test my yellows (Yellow Ochre, Yellow Orange Azo, and Yellow Light Hansa). I'm going to lay them out just like the browns and mix each yellow with each blue. There's not really a place in the painting where I mix yellow with brown, so I'm not going to test them together, though you certainly can! I'm also going to mix a little white with the green so I can see all of the nuances of the color like this:
Phew! Ok, now that that's all done, I can choose which colors I like the best! Don't overthink this part! There is honestly no right or wrong! As long as you use the same blue(s) for the sky and the grass/trees, your painting will have harmony. You could even just pick two blues, one brown, and one yellow at random and it would work out! Just pick the mixtures that call to you. The ones you like the very best. Like this:
Simply picking the mixes I liked the best told me exactly which colors I wanted to use, and I ended up with Azurite, Ultramarine, Van Dyke Brown, and Yellow Light Hansa.
And, for my final trick, I'm going to pull a rabbit out of my hat. Ok, not a rabbit, but how about a different version of my Valley Storm painting done with the color palette I chose through my color test? I've also made a couple of compositional adjustments based on my own critique :) Oh, if you can't tell, I didn't use the same color (Alizarin Crimson) for the underpainting. Instead, I grabbed a red at random and mixed it with some white. No, I won't tell you what red. Why? Because it doesn't matter! If you want to test out underpainting colors as part of your color test, just drybrush the mixtures you selected from the above test over a few colors and pick the one you like best. Or, like me, just grab a color at random based on absolutely nothing but your intuition!