Colour can make or break any painting.
Colour is the first impression someone gets when they first look at your art.
Regardless of whether you’re a designer, fine artist to illustrator, colour plays a crucial role that we can all learn from.
The most famous past and present artists have used colour to create artistic masterpieces – (as they’re masterpieces for a reason!).
Following from my previous article on how to use colour, and my other guide helping your skill of understanding the colour wheel, in this post, I’m going to be looking at 10 painting masterpieces and the colour these artists use.
I’ll be looking at different colour schemes of these paintings, understanding the colour palettes and gamuts they have chosen, and where it sits in the colour wheel. You can take this into your own colour theory, and use this within your illustrations, design work, and your own colour choices.
Within this blog post you will discover how the experts used colour, so you can level up this vital skill within your art. You will learn the colour they use, a colour analysis of each painting, to how colour has formed their compositions.
These 10 famous artists and paintings include my favourite artist of all time of David Hockney, a classic Rembrandt artwork, to Claude Monet’s wheatshack oil painting.
The Colour Wheel
Before talking about the colour used within each masterpiece, it’s important to talk about the basics of colour: the colour wheel.
The colour wheel is built up of primary colours: red, yellow and blue (or RGB or digital colours). Print colours include cyan, magenta and black. This spectrum of colour is what every artist can choose from – but as you will find out, it’s the colours that you don’t select that are the most important.
All of these paintings arrived from the use of the colour wheel, selecting different gamuts to paint with. A gamut is a selected area from the colour wheel that an artist paints with (similar to a limited colour palette).
With all of these examples I’ll be showing gamuts on an YRMBCG colour wheel (or yellow, red, magenta, blue, cyan and green colour wheel – which you can learn about here.) Created by Albert Munsell, and further developed by James Gurney’s in his book, ‘Light and Colour‘, this colour wheel uses RGB and CMY together, which is a far better colour wheel to work from as it balances each colour equally. The Yurmby wheel created by James can be remembered with this catchy saying ‘You Ride My Bus, Cousin Guss’.
If you don’t know much about the colour wheel, click here.
So now you understand what makes up colour, let’s get started with a classic Vermeer piece.
Girl With A Pearl Earring – Johannes Vermeer (1665), Oil
Earthly colours are used within this classic Vermeer piece, with a blue adjacent to act as a complement to the warm colours.
The figure is placed on a dark blue-gray background, with a warm colour palette for the figure, using red for the lips. This is an excellent composition, as your eye is drawn to this section of the painting. You may notice that red is only used for this part, which Vermeer has used to his advantage.
A mixture of light and dark blues are used for the head scarf, which draws the eye into the center – for us to look at her face, her lips and of course her pearl earring.
The colour gamut for this painting is situated at the top of the colour wheel. Vermeer used a colour gamut of blue, yellow, red and orange.
Key takeaways: Use colour within your art to help your composition. Paint selective colours in certain areas to lead the eye to your focal point.
David Hockney – A Bigger Splash (1967), Acrylic
In this painting, Hockney uses blue as the dominant colour. With the addition of brown-red and green-yellow, these colours are neutral, with the most saturated part of the image coming from blue.
The blue used for the water is almost a green-blue.
This colour gamut focuses largely on the blue hue, with tints of yellow, red and green playing a part too (with tones in-between). You can also see that Hockney has used gray for the windows – to make sure the building’s colour doesn’t dominant the painting.
The composition is balanced within the piece. Blue is used for the sky and pool (avoiding a top or bottom heavy image), with earthly tones in the center. Similar to Vermeer’s painting, yellow is used only for the diving board, attracting our eye, therefore leading the eye off the board to the splash – the core part of the painting.
Key takeaways: Earthly, dirty and gray colours are your friend! Use a mixture of these colours with a bit of saturated colour to create the perfect combination.
Vincent Van Gogh – Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Oil
Van Gogh uses complementary colours of yellow and blue, with hints of both green and red-brown. This colour palette has already been used by 3 artists, which shows you how popular it is (as it works every time)!
This painting by Van Gogh is quite saturated, with the assistance of gray-blue to counteract this.
The YRMBCG colour wheel looks like a diamond shape, with the focus on blue and yellow.
You can see that Vincent has used a dominant block of green for the tree on the right hand side. Not only does the shape lead the eye to the center of the composition, it breaks up the yellow-blue colours throughout the piece.
Key takeaways: Create a sense of warmth in a painting by using these two complimentary colours of yellow and blue. They are pleasing on the eye and look great together.
Rembrandt – The Night Watch (1642), Oil
In this remarkable painting by Rembrandt, it’s almost difficult to see the colour that he uses, which are very earthy tones of brown, with the adjacent of yellow and red.
This painting is extremely clever and shows you how a painting’s colour can impact it’s composition. Do you notice when you look at the piece, you are first drawn to the yellow male figure within the center, and then the yellow girl in the background?
Rembrandt didn’t do this by accident and used a saturated colour here to draw your eye. The girl is placed against dark colours, bringing her colour out even more. The central figure wears an orange-red piece of clothing, leading the eye to the girl character and the red man who’s cleaning his gun to the left of the girl.
You may notice that red is only used within this part of the painting, further illustrating Rembrant’s deliberate attempt to draw the eye.
The colour wheel is situated in the top right-hand corner of the wheel, using mostly earthly tones with reds.
Key takeaways: It’s simply a brilliant masterpiece. The more you look at it, the better it gets. Colour transforms paintings, and shows you how important colour is!
Pablo Picasso – A Girl Before A Mirror (1903), Oil
Orange-red, green, purple, lime green, yellow and orange are all used within this piece.
In contrast to the examples above, this artwork doesn’t have a gamut as such, and is quite large within the colour wheel. Even though this is the case, it still seems to work well.
But why is this?
Picasso uses subtle and gray colours with bright colours like orange used as an adjacent. Generally it’s quite a dirty painting (and when I say dirty – this is not a negative!).
It’s far from garish, which makes it work. Colours are placed throughout the painting to lead the eye, and keep the viewer interested in the artwork. For example, the light purple is used for the face, the arms, parts of the mirror and also the body.
Key takeaways: If you’re interested in using a broad colour palette, gray, subtle and dirty colours are your friend. Use bright colours sparingly.
Edward Hopper – New York Movie (1939), Oil
This is an amazing piece of art for it’s use of composition and colour. A lot of gray is used, with four main colours of blue, red, yellow (a gray-yellow), and orange (a gray-orange).
Selective colour of blue is used to help the composition of the piece, as your eye is drawn to the movie screen and the woman’s clothing.
The colour gamut is further down the wheel, with more emphasis on blue, red, a little bit of cyan and yellow.
You may notice that the most saturated part of the image comes from the right; the woman’s clothing, but also the bright yellow projecting from the wall lamps. This further draws your eye to the concerned woman.
Key takeaways: If your painting concentrates on natural and gray colours, use saturated colour to lead the eye to your focal point.
Claude Monet – Wheatstacks (End of Summer), 1890 – 1891, Oil
Superb use of colour makes up this classic Monet painting. Monet uses earthly tones of red-brown, yellow-green, green, light blue and yellow.
When you think of light and dark, you may think of black and white in basic terms. However this painting contradicts this entirely. Dark tones are described as green colours, the haystack’s shadows are formed using a light blue-green, with the light being formed with the use of yellow-pink.
You get a sense of warmth after a hot Summer’s day, which these colours communicate magically.
Similar to Vincent Van Gogh’s colour palette, a diamond shape is formed on the colour wheel, with emphasis towards blue, yellow, green and a bit of red too.
Key takeaways: Think outside the box. Instead of using black for shadows and white for light, what other colours can you use to convey the same meaning?
Caravaggio – Supper At Emmaus (1601), Oil
Earthly colours are used within this painting, with particular focus on complementary colours of green, red, orange, red-brown, and a little hint of red-green too.
The colour gamut used is quite different from the rest, that forms a diamond shape pointing horizontally, with a focus on green, red, some blue and yellow.
Complimentary colours of red and green work excellently, with dark earthly reds-browns used as the background.
Red is used for the central figure’s clothing, with warm earthly tones used as a compliment. Like most of the other paintings with this article, red is used to draw our eye to the center of the piece.
Key takeaways: Instead of using black pigment to form your shadows and dark areas, use a selection of colours like blue, red and brown.
Salvador Dali – Persistence Of Memory (1931), Oil
Blue and brown feature heavily in this painting, with an adjacent of orange-red, yellow and subtle yellow-green.
A similar colour gamut of diamond is used, with one stand-alone orange protruding from the left hand side.
This piece goes to show you how crucial earthly tones are and it’s positive impact it has on paintings.
But what is Dali trying to convey with the use of colour? Blue is used for the clock faces, and in psychology blue refers to trust, wisdom, depth and heaven. It’s been said that the iconography used may refer to a dream that Dali had, or the time passed during a dream – do you think the colours represent this?
Key takeaways: From red for passion to green for envy, use colour within your art to communicate a message.
Jack Vettriano – Game On (2006)- Oil
I’m not sure why critics seem to hate and detest Vettriano, but I love him – so I had to include him in this blog post. Warm, passionate and lust filled colours are used to communicate the painting’s subject effortlessly.
The piece mainly uses red and warm colours of brown, light brown-red, yellow-brown, red-black, with an adjacent of purple-red for the man’s shirt.
The colour gamut on the colour wheel concentrates on the warm spectrum, with little hints of yellow and magenta to act as a counter-balance.
Notice that if you squint your eyes (used to help artists see tones), the female’s clothing, hair and the man’s trousers pop out from the light background. This almost black colour is an interesting contrast to the warm colours used throughout.
Key takeaways: When arranging colour for your painting, always think of this phrase: ‘no colour sits alone’. Every colour interacts with another. For example, a light yellow looks completely different when used on top of a dark red background to that of a light orange background.
So What Have We Learnt About Colour From These Paintings?
1. Limited colours and a thoughtful colour gamut is crucial within any painting.
2. Gray is your best friend: these artists have used earthy colours and neutral colours to create these masterpieces.
3. A diamond colour gamut is popular within these paintings, commonly using blue, yellow, with a hint of green and red.
4. Complementary colours are an important colour scheme to remember – they are easy on the eye and also eye-catching too!
5. Understanding the colour wheel, colour gamuts and what colours work well with each other is crucial to an artist and painting success.
6. These artists have used colour within their paintings to lead the eye and create stunning compositions. Not only are compositions used with shapes, lines and tones, colour also plays a crucial role.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post guys! It was really fun to learn about these painters and the colour that they use within their work.
I’ll love to hear from you, so do comment below with your thoughts on these colour gamuts, the colour that you use within your art, or any classic paintings that I may have missed!
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