7 Keys To Using Color

By Mary Gilkerson
Have you gotten frustrated by Color Theory?
The easiest way to discover color is through painting.
"Fields, Last Glow", oil, 5 x 7", © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Fields, Last Glow”, oil, 5 x 7″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

And learning that way has the added benefit of being easier to remember since most of us in the arts are kinesthetic and visual learners.

I’ve made a list below of 7 key points for learning to use color effectively in your paintings. Be sure to try them out and they’ll make even more sense.

#1 Start with great paint. Buy the best you can afford. You’ll get better results quicker and more easily. Once you get used to a color that’s made by a certain brand, keep buying it in that brand. There’s a big difference from brand to brand.

Williamsburg paints in box. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Williamsburg paints in box. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

#2 Use a limited palette with a warm and a cool version of each primary. Fewer tubes of paint are easier to control when you’re starting out. It’ll also be easier to keep your color schemes harmonious when you’re mixing your colors from these primaries.

Ultramarine Blue
Phthalo Blue
Napthol Red (Cad. Red)
Napthol Crimson (Al. Cr.)
Yellow Ochre
Indian Yellow
Titanium White

#3 Understand the Four Aspects of Color: hue, value, intensity and temperature.
Hue – the color’s position on the spectrum, the wavelength of the light, (the color name)
Value – the lightness or darkness of a color
Intensity – the brightness or dullness of a color
Temperature – the apparent warmth or coolness of a color

#4 Create color harmony (the pleasing relationship of hues) by picking a definite color scheme and mixing your colors before beginning to paint. By using a color scheme, you’re selecting hue intentionally and being sensitive to how they interact with each other. And if you mix ahead, you’ll know how the colors are going to interact with each other. Once you’re very confident with color you can try mixing as you go, but even then, you should have a plan, aka your color scheme.

Here are a few types of color schemes:


At it’s simplest, a color scheme could be picking one key, dominant color, and choosing the others in relationship to it.

My palette. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

My palette. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

#5 Use strong contrast in value to define form and depth. Mix three variations in value of each color. Make sure that there is a significant difference between them so that the illusion of depth will be created. If you’re having trouble seeing the true value of the color you’re observing, try snapping a quick photo and converting it to greyscale.

 Three different values. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

#6 If you want a strong sense of light use optical, not local color. Optical color is closer to the way our eyes work and is based on how the color of light interacts with the physical color of the object.

In general, use warm color for where light is striking and cool colors for the shadows.
Don’t lighten colors with white or darken them with black! Lighten your colors with an equally intense lighter hue. Darken your colors with an equally intense darker hue. Doing this will keep your colors from becoming muddy.

Lighten with an equally intense color. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Lighten with an equally intense color. © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Note that like all rules there are exceptions to this. Adding a small amount of white to dye colors like pthalo blue will make them more intense.

#7 The Secret Sauce: Don’t forget the neutral colors. They make the intense colors sing. In other words, don’t forget to use contrast in intensity as well as the others.

“Clear Winter Evening”, oil, 4 x 6″ © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Clear Winter Evening”, oil, 4 x 6″ © Mary Bentz Gilkerson


How To See & Catch The Light: 7 Steps To Confidently Paint Light and Shadows With Color

You’re invited to an special free workshop I’m hosting where I’ll share the 7 step process I use to see and paint light and shadows - without chasing the light, stressing over the composition, or making a dull muddy mess with color.. If you missed this earlier now’s the time to save your seat. You can learn more here and find a time that fits your schedule.