The 7 Keys to Mastering Color

by Jan 3, 201618 comments

Teaching Color Theory used to frustrate me.

Until I realized there was a better way.

“Fields in Fall Light”, oil, 5 x 7”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Fields in Fall Light”, oil, 5 x 7”, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

The easiest way to discover color is through painting.

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.

So here they are: The 7 Keys to Color



#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.

I give more supply recommendations in my blog – Selecting Basic Painting Colors and Materials.



#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

Want to know more about the advantages of using a Double Primary Palette to gain more control over color?
Click here to read more.


#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 (this is a biggie! More on that in my blog – 5 Tips to Put Value to Work For You)
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.



#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.



#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.


#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.

More on that in Lori McNee’s blog – The Importance Of Using Neutrals In Art.

Putting these keys to work for you will be a game-changer for the color in your painting.

I’d love to have you join my Painter’s Practice Art Tips email list where I share more tips just like this, and give you first dibs on any new offers that come out of the studio. And I’ve got a special bonus for you for joining the list to help you keep these keys handy in your studio, the 7 Keys to Color PDF. 


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Download the 7 Keys to Color PDF


Remember that if working with color was easy, everybody would be great at it already. You are with me right now because you want something more for your paintings. And using color effectively will captivate your viewer on a deep level.

Learning to control color is a process, but if you start to taking steps TODAY, I promise you that you WILL see a difference.

2021 webinar invitation

How to Use Value, Color, and Composition to Make Compelling Paintings

You're invited to a special free workshop I’m hosting where I'll share how you can leverage composition, value, and color to make compelling paintings. 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.

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