Color Schemes

Do you have a color scheme in mind before you paint?

Do you have a color scheme in mind before you paint?   Or do you wing it?   Or do you copy colors from someone else?

Let’s see if we can learn to do the first 0ption.

Learn to select color schemes that are harmonious and portray the underlying spirit of your subject matter.

In this the World Wide Web, you must be aware that culture customs and traditions generally determine your response to a color.

Example:  The color black in parts of the world that I am familiar with, signifies dark, night, mourning, death etc.; however, in Japan one wears a white kimono to a traditional funeral.  These are some of my personal thoughts about various colors; they may not be yours.

Red Danger, Romantic, Delicate, Courage, Passion, Feminine, etc.
Blue Heavenly, Water, Cold, Melancholy
Yellow Sunny, Radiant, Cowardly
Purple Religion, Royal
Green Nature, Fresh, Envious
Orange Autumn, Cheerful, Lively
Brown Earthy, Reliable, Conservative
Black Mourning, Evil, Dramatic
White Peaceful, Innocent

NOTICE:     Red for example was listed as romantic, feminine, etc.   Not what you expected?    Don’t Agree?

Changing the value, temperature or intensity of a color will change your reaction.

How can Red be feminine?  Easy. Change the value to a very light Red, close to Pink.  GOT IT.

Well, how about romantic?  (I don’t mean he/she).  Easy . Use or make the Red cooler, bunch of Red (cool) roses might do the trick.

More ideas:

  • Passion:  orange/red like a fire.
  • Danger:  you know that;  it would be bright red.
  • Courage: dark red cross carried into battle, etc.


Imagine what you can “say” with many different colors.

A “blue” collar-worker with a “green” thumb made his neighbors see “red,” but they were caught “red” handed and were “black” listed and could not attend the “blue” plate special event and finished up “green” with envy.

Whenever possible, utilize symbolic colors and intelligent manipulation of colors in your paintings to dramatize the mood you want to convey to the viewer.

Written text describes your neighbor with that green lawn and friends attending that blue-plate lunch.

Choose unique colors that breathe new life into your subject.



Bounce color off the building into the surrounding trees.

Apply the complement of the building into the trees into bushes and foreground.

See the shadow along the bottom of the roof; modify the building color rather than just apply a dark shadow (as in the unrelated color picture.)

Picture of unrelated watercolors
Picture of Harmonious Watercolors

Maintain the dominate analogous color scheme of Yellow-Red-Orange, with complements painted in. Let’s look at some popular color schemes.

First, we have Primary Color
Next, we have Secondary Color
Next, we have Tertiary Color
Along with Analogous Color
Then Complementary Color
Very popular Monochromatic Color

There are a few others, but for now, we will leave those alone.
Re-Cap: Secondary colors are colors produced by mixing two of the three primaries together.

Blue/Yellow Green
Red/Yellow Orange
Blue/Red Violet

Tertiary Colors are produced by mixing a secondary color with a prime color.

Orange/Red Orange Red  (1)
Violet/Blue Violet Blue  (2)
Green/Yellow Green Yellow (3)
Violet Red Violet Red (4)
Green/Blue Green Blue (5)
Orange/Yellow Orange Yellow (6)

So here is the basic color wheel:

3 Primary Colors
3 Secondary Colors
6 Tertiary Colors

I could quite easily paint a color wheel for you.  CAN YOU?   WILL YOU?  It might not be a bad idea.

CLUE:—Start in a clockwise direction,  red,  red  violet,  violet, blue violet, blue, blue-green, green (that’s half way around the wheel).
Notice the pattern,  prime Color,   tertiary color, secondary color,   tertiary color, prime color, and starts all over again.


These colors are energetic, direct, and bold statements can be made. Look at Grandma Moses prints. She loved to use this scheme.

You can mix all three to neutralized (makes gray) or placed side by side to make a bold dramatic statement.
Always let one of the prime colors be dominate.  The other two will be happy to act as supporting colors.
To make the painting bright and exciting, place the three colors next to each other as often as possible without mixing them together.

It is possible to add a few secondary colors that do not overwhelm the color scheme.


This is great for nature scenes.  Be careful you don’t fall into a boring trap of all green grass and foliage, orange Autumn trees and violet mountains.
Stray a little; reflect orange violet into the grass, trees; try shadows of trees with a violet cast shadow, on the orange/green grass.

Again, only one “color star” to be dominate in the painting. Try this:

  • A potted plant sitting on a table in bright sunlight,
  • 50 percent of leaves white to very pale green in the sun;
  • Darken green leaves in shadow (violet mixture)
  • Pot and table orange/yellow.
  • Background and flowers violet.
Picture of a violet pot plant in watercolor

This pot plant was painted by Betty Dawes – a student who did a great job!


We now have Tertiary Color Schemes, which can be composed of two sets.  One set yellow/green, red/orange and blue/violet.

The other set will be composed of yellow/orange, red/violet and blue/green.

Just as you would with any of the other schemes, one color must be dominate.  Use the other two for contrast or mix them to mute.

Lets take the last set, rellow/orange  –  red/violet and blue/green.  Choose blue/green to dominate, with yellow/orange, red/Vviolet, bit players (taking on secondary roles).

So with blue/green, we know it will be predominately a cool painting.  Red/riolet would work in relief from the green, and possibly, some good contrast.

Picture closed bridge

Yellow/orange will add warm accents and maybe some interesting excitement.

Picture of boat in the water


Now we come to analogous color schemes.

This is a no-brainer; it will always be harmonious.

WHY? Because they are neighbors, adjacent to each other on the color wheel.

They are beautiful through subtle gradation from one color to the next.

Image them as a family, so start with the “head of the family,” one colour to dominate. Now choose one or even two colors on either side of the “head.”

EXAMPLE:  Yellow (head), yellow/green, green, blue/green.

Image-example of yellow, green and blue colors together

TEST: Violet is now “Head” of our four-color family.  Name the other three colors.

Here is an exercise to try.  It will not help a whole lot if you just read this stuff, without digging in and trying once in a while.

Remember you can read book after book on how to ride a bicycle, but you will never ride until you get on one.

Example of colors orange, red-orange, red, and red-violet

Select four colors (all in same family) from the warm side of the color circle. Mingle the colors into a square, suggesting a bright mood.

Now try the cool side of the color circle.  This will project a cool serene feeling.

As you will see, analogous colors work beautifully together.  Make a note of colors used in your color journal.

As a close relative, analogous colors automatically create a united front and color harmony is made easy.

Sorry about the colours, as the type is not showing up. But you should get the idea.

Image of color examples

So far we have talked about :

  • Primary color
  • Secondary color
  • Tertiary
  • Analogous
  • Color schemes

There is at least another you might want to try.


red  +  green
blue  +  orange
yellow  +  violet

And all the other compliments you can come up with.
Remember how to identify compliments with ease. (In other words, you don’t have to think too much.)

TIP:    Three primaries are red, blue and yellow. Mix together any two colors.

The one remaining color is the complement of the result of the color you just made by mixing.

EXAMPLES:  Mix blue and yellow  =  green.  The remaining color is red, so green is a complement to red.

Mix red and blue  =  violet.  The remaining primary color is yellow, so violet is complementary to yellow.

So the compliments are on the opposite side to each other on the color wheel.  They make great tools for creating harmony providing you don’t mix them together. If you do, it results in gray to black.

A color comes to life when you place it next to its complement.

Got a dull looking green area, try placing “on” red in the dull area or placing red next to the area.

Notice I said “on.”  That does not mean you mix red with green (result could be a dull area).

Try this to keep the brush away from mixing. Tap the brush containing red against another brush. Some Artist’s use the index finger; not me, another brush handle works fine.

Tap the brush holding red over the damp green.  The result could be a big mess or be great.

Again a color that appears to be mud or a dull gray will spring to life when surrounded by orange, as red + yellow = Orange. The remaining color is blue, so what happens is orange awakens the complement blue in that dull gray.

For a strong focal point in your picture, contrasting opposites will automatically stimulate the eye and draw the viewers attention to that area of your painting.

TIP:  When you select a complementary color scheme, be sure you emphasise one of the colors and de-emphasise the other.

An important point to think about is you can have complementary schemes with not only the primary colors but secondary and tertiary colors too.


Black is rarely used by todays Watercolorists (I for one).

It was an essential component of every artist’s palette from the Renaissance to mid-19th century.

It was the Impressionists who discarded black as well as earth tones.

They began working only with pure spectral colors.

Their more traditional contemporaries Monet, Whistler, and Sargent retained black on their palettes.

It is said that Sargent was amazed that Monet could paint without it.

Most Watercolorists today employ some variation of the Impressionists palette and rarely include black as a pigment or as a component in their color schemes.

Let it be said that I always told students that if they had black on their palette, they would be led off in handcuffs.

Black never quite seemed to go very well with those bright clean looking colors.  It looks like a bull in a china shop.

Times have changed around my thinking.  I still don’t use a tube named black, but  I mix a very dark black from Permanent Alizarin Crimson with Pthalo green. You could  also try other reds, namely Permanent Rose – Rose Lake, etc.

This combination can be very black looking or a very light gray, depending on the strength of colors and amount of water.

I love to put the light grays in the cloud formations. Try it.

A touch of a mixed black will produce when added to pure colors – deep shades.

Picasso is reputed to have said, “When I don’t know what color to use, I use black. It always works.

Most of us Watercolorists will have trouble when we try to introduce black into 0ur color schemes.

It just doesn’t seem to fit with the light airy tints so common in watercolor.

So let’s be sneaky with our darks.

Gosh you might even decide to add black to your palette

So let’s sneak in your darks.

Don Andrews made this statement to a group of us Watercolorists: “Most Watercolorists seem wonderfully color oriented when painting the lights in their landscapes; they fill these areas with vibrant and lively color.      When they address the shadow areas, they seem to lose their concern for color and resort to cold, inky darks. In truth, the shadow pattern in the painting is where the richest, most exciting color possibilities can be found.”


A common problem I continually see in the classroom is a lack of color excitement in the shadow patterns of my students’ paintings.  Their shadow areas appears murky or unnecessarily dark.  It seems that artists automatically reach for dark blue pigment whenever they describe a shadow.

In truth the shadow pattern in a painting is where the richest, most exciting color possibilities can be found.  When observing the passages of light and shadow on a model or in the landscape, notice that a strong light source can make the subject’s color seem diffuse or washed out.

The shadow areas will report a deeper, richer value of the local color.  While the lights in your subject are usually quite limited in value range, the shadow patterns offer a wider range of values from light-middle,  middle-dark,  to dark.  This fact goes to the heart of this color concept.

I believe the most vivid color range on our palette revolves around middle-values and that’s exactly where most shadows exist.

We’re limited when we paint light values:  we either leave white paper or dilute our colors to indicate illuminated areas.  However, then we paint the shadows, we’re able to use pigment much stronger and, if we’re willing, just as creatively.


There are a couple of factors that contribute to the problem of murky or overly dark shadows.

Many shadow problems develop from a poor color/value selection.  For instance, if you first paint in the lights with warm, dominant washes and then overlay the shadow pattern with cooler washes in a similar value and intensity, these opposing color temperatures can create a murky, neutral shadow.

To overcome this problem, try to mostly stay in the same color temperature for shadow patterns as in the lights.  Richer mixtures of similar colors or color temperature will keep the shadows clean and vivid.

Not all shadows have to be painted in analogous colors.  It’s alright to have color temperature changes in the shadow pattern, if these colors temperature changes are strong enough to overpower the underlying wash.

Put simply, if you’re going to switch from warm to cool, or vice versa, put the pigment down powerfully.


Shadows aren’t necessarily cool or dark, though there’s nothing wrong with occasionally describing them that way.  Shadows can be as color-varied and experimental as the lights.

Try painting the shadows with rich middle-value reds, greens and violets.  The trick is to use richer, undiluted mixtures of local color rather than automatically reaching for the blues or dark neutrals – or both.

Remember to paint through the value scale with your subject.  Don’t skip the middle-value range – live there!  Build as many steps around middle-value as possible.  Middle-value is where your best color opportunities lie, and that’s where the majority of the shadows are found.


Darks are necessary for emphasis, but don’t rush into them.  And remember,  less is more.

Save the darks in your shadows for special accents placed after you have developed the majority of shadow shapes in the middle-value range.


One or the best ways to create clean, powerful shadows it to paint them first.  Leave the light on the figure or landscape and begin the painting by addressing the shadow pattern.  This is especially effective when the majority of your subject is found in shadows.

It is important to begin with a little stronger value statement when painting the shadows first.  I’m often fooled into thinking I am being bolder in values than I am actually,  because I’m visually comparing this first wash to the white of the paper. So, start with a rich, light-middle value and work through the value scale from there.


Clean, vibrant shadow patterns and shapes will enhance any subject you paint.  And middle-value is the key to a successful shadow pattern statement.

When you study your subject, you’ll realize that middle-value is where most shadows exist.