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How To Use Colour To Level Up Your Art Like A Pro

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Do you want to take your illustrations, designs or artworks to the next level?

Can’t get your head around what makes up good colour?

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there!

Especially for those of you who are new to the art world, getting colour right can make or break any image (it’s that important in my eyes!).

I love using colour within my illustrations, design and canvas paintings. Colour is a key element of my work, which I’m still endlessly refining. I have worked hard on developing my colour theory so it gives my illustrations composition an added appeal.

Within this blog post you will discover my top tips on how to use colour, that I personally use myself within my illustration and design work. You will learn techniques to discover why colour is so important, how you can use colour to your advantage, and advice to get your head around it.

Why is colour important?

First of all, colour is the first thing you are approached with when you look at any artwork.

Whilst drawing is focused on form, painting and digital art is what the viewer is offered first. If you have an artwork which uses an extemporaneous colour palette, then you’re already one step ahead.

If you go to any art gallery, you would probably be drawn to the paintings which you like the colour of. David Hockney is one of my favourite painters of all time for his use of colour.

Colour communicates a theme, occasion or atmosphere. It makes an big impression about an artwork, for example, you could use warm colours to represent something completely different to an image using cold colours.

One image communicates a warm and vibrant setting, whilst the other communicates a cold, brisk and different connotation.

James Gurney, author of ‘Colour and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter’, a book that I love, says “Professor of chemistry Michel-Eugène Chevreul studied the perception of colours and demonstrated that colours can be understood only in relation to each other and that no colour exists in isolation.

There’s so much more to colour than at first thought!

Colours all communicate a different message, and helps lead the eye around an image.

If you’re smart and use certain colours around an artwork, the eye can naturally work across an entire piece of art – without you even noticing. It’s a powerful tool, which is why so many artists make full use of it.

For example, if you were to place sky blue colours on an background of warm colours, and arrange it on the left, right and centre, it will help the eye fall on these places – looking at all parts of the image (like the image below).

Cold And Warm Colours


Hopefully you can see how using colour can help your work!

Look at artists who are colour experts like David Hockney, Henri Matisse to Van Gogh for example and you see how much colour impacts their works. Be inspired and transform your own image creation with effective colour.

So how can you use colour to help your work?

Use a limited colour palette

My first tip is limit the amount of colours that you use. Colour beginners use every colour under the sun to create a piece of art – which is where it goes wrong.

This loses an image’s appeal, confuses the viewer with clashing colours and doesn’t look nice. What I tend to do, and what seems to work for me, is to limit the amount of colours that I use.

It’s this strict palette that I set myself that can help your colour theory. I would only use three or four colours in an image, like light blue, dark blue, green and maybe an adjacent colour of red. Or another example of using orange, red, yellow and an adjacent colour of green. Can you see what I’m doing here?

Limited Colour Palettes


I’m only using three or four colours within any painting or illustration. It’s this restriction of that helps my colour. In turn, this leads the viewers eye around my work, as colours are being used throughout an image. If you’re getting stuck with colour, limit the amount you use.

Study the colour wheel

My next tip is studying the colour wheel.

The colour wheel is your best friend, and you should nurture and learn it like it is your best friend.

Created and developed by Isaac Newton (which has developed by others from Newton to the colour wheels you see today), the colour wheel is a great tool for any artist, designer or illustrator, and the more you know and understand it, the better!

Colour Wheel


If you completely understand the colour wheel, it can dramatically help your colour choices. You will know what colours work together, what colours clash and make smart choices.

By studying the colour wheel you can begin to choose colours of your choice and select garments which you can use within your work.

I encourage you to learn about hues, to learn about saturation, and learn about ultimately what colours work together.

Mix between saturated and desaturates colours

For your colours to work it’s important that you mix between saturated and desaturated colours.

Have you ever looked at a painting which is full of saturated colours, or have you ever used colours within an artwork which is very saturated?

What is your first reaction to a very saturated artwork (like the below image)?

Colour Theory Example - Saturated


The image is bright, garish, and actually hurts my eyes! I don’t think think the above image looks very nice, unless that’s what you want to communicate to your viewer.

What you need to be aware within your colour creation is mixing between saturated and desaturated colours. Getting the right balance will make your images come to life. For example your artwork could include half saturated colours, which are bright and colourful and the other half desaturated colours. This isn’t the general rule, and should be thought about carefully.

Colour Theory Example - De-saturated


I’ve now changed the image above and used desaturated colours – looks and feels much better!

Moving towards the more grey colours which are easier on the eye helps balance the image. If you get stuck with colour, I recommend to play it safe by using colours which are desaturated, as an image which is desaturated is going to be more pleasing on the eye.

Thinking of colours as tones

Much like black and white or graphite pencil drawings, colours also have tonal values.

Start thinking about colours as tones rather than colours, and it will help your artworks immensely. Your images will be more atmospheric, have more depth and suggest a 3D-like image.

For example a dark blue is darker than a light yellow. This might sound obvious but this is sometimes overlooked when we work with colour.

I recommend inverting a coloured image to black-and-white to see how it sits up tonally. This is only effective for those of you working within Adobe Photoshop (or similar), as I word turn a coloured image to black-and-white several times in my editing process to see the colours as tones. I can then see which colours I need to darken, and which colours I need to lighten.

This isn’t a permanent change, as I’ll either create a new document and copy the black and white layer into it, or just undo my edit.

If you’re not working digitally and working traditionally, squint your eyes whilst looking at an image.

How does this help?

It allows you to see your colours as tones, as your eyes desaturate what’s in front of you.

Have a go now by squinting your eyes and see how you can make out tones within a multi-coloured environment. Can you notice the light and dark colours?

Bonus tip – clean your palette

One last bonus tip I want to share which is relevant to those of you who work traditionally using paints and a pallet, is that you should clean your pallet regularly.

Not cleaning your painting pallet results in muddy colours, and you’ll start mixing different colours into your painting.

It’s also imperative that you clean and empty your water regularly, as your water can become muddy when using several different colours.

I recommend a painting pallet which is ceramic and not made out of plastic, as plastic is hard to clean and mix with.

How do you improve your colour?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post to help you improve your use of colour.

It’s always a working in progress for me as I feel that colour theory and learning about it never stops.

I would love to know what you think about this blog post, so please comment below and share your colour advice or how you manage colour.

Say hello or give me a follow on social media on the links below, I would love to hear what you think about your own colour theory, how colour has improved your work and a place to add further discussion.

Discover my illustration portfolio for more about my work or check out more of my previous blog posts to help you, from freelancing, creativity, to illustration tips and tricks.

Cheers guys, and see you on the next blog post!

Many thanks for listening and visiting my news page today. You can follow what I’m up to on my Twitter, Facebook or Google + pages, I’ll really appreciate it if you do, and don’t be afraid to say hi to me! Many thanks again, and have a great day!

Have an illustration, design or creative project you want help with? Contact Haydn today!