Learn Color Theory Through Playful Painting

As a watercolor instructor, I’m often asked questions about color. What colors to choose for a limited palette, whether to use single pigment, transparent colors, what brand of paint is best. I have great respect for the artists who spend time getting to know pigment numbers and research the vast volume of information that is out there on watercolor paint, but that’s not me. I quickly get overwhelmed and discouraged by the science of color, when all I want to do is paint.

Learn Color Theory With Angela Fehr

I was drawn to watercolor by the beauty of flowing color, of splashes of turquoise dancing in a sea of violet, of shimmers of golden light glowing through a dark, jungle green wash. I couldn’t feel free to play with watercolor if my time was taken up by research and my color choices were informed by technical documents.

Once upon a time, I would have felt like I was failing at watercolor because I didn’t want to learn in a more technical way, but over the years I’ve realized that just by using color, I’ve learned exactly what I needed to know. It’s okay to reject practices that stifle creativity and learn in ways that feel fun. It’s not always efficient or linear, but it’s very heart-guided, and that’s what works for me.

Large Watercolor Palette for Mixing Colors
My giant palette isn’t large enough to hold all my colors!

Learning Color Through Play

In today’s video lesson, I’m learning about color through play. I follow a few simple rules when working with and choosing color:

  1. I focus on a basic understanding of complementary colors and how they interact (side by side, they pop; mixed, they create a neutral).
  2. I remember that certain colors are dark value colors (red) and others are light value (yellow) and their tendency toward a range of values influences how much impact they have in the painting.
  3. I paint with a light touch so that colors can mix and flow organically and stay luminous.

I choose colors for a painting based on my observation – what the reference photo suggests – and my gut – what feels right based on what’s already happening on the paper.

Color Theory Example by Angela Fehr
This mountain scene demanded pink…even though it wasn’t in the reference photo!

I use color obsessively; when I add a new color to my palette, I try to add only one color at a time. This gives me the chance to get to know it; to use it in company with the colors I already use and know well, so I can better understand how it fits with my palette. And I use that new color for all of my paintings for a few weeks, and sometimes months. I use color best when I really know that color and can anticipate what it will do:

  • In a wet wash with a lot of fluidity – is it flowing, or sitting still? Does it granulate as it dries or create a smooth wash? I find answers to these questions when I paint skies and clouds.
  • Mixed with its complement – first I need to find the best complement for that color. If it’s a blue, does it mix best with a red-orange or a yellow-orange? Does it separate from its complement as it dries for an amazing textural neutral? Neutrals make great backgrounds, so I play with first layer washes in complementary colors as a studio warm up.
  • Does it create strong watermarks if I drip water onto a damp wash? Does it lift easily if I try to layer overtop of it? Usually this knowledge comes when I am making (and fixing) mistakes!

I use color irrationally. My most exciting breakthroughs have come despite my planning. Recently I had been working on a large painting that was guided by my original color study. I had a specific color palette in mind, but as I was painting, something inside me asked, “What if I added a more brilliant blue to that neutral area?” It wasn’t in the plan, or the reference photo, but when I took the risk and tried it, my entire painting came alive in a new way that was so exciting!

Color Mixing with bright blues in watercolor painting
Turquoise and Green Gold find their way into almost every painting!

Yes, I could learn a lot about color with swatches and test strips, but personally, I’d rather learn by doing; painting and seeing the results. There are amazing unexpected discoveries that happen when you add a new color to your palette and it’s so much fun to encourage those happy accidents.

In this week’s lesson video, I pair one favorite color with a variety of secondary colors and make four mini paintings inspired by color. Join me for this video on “Splashes of Color!”:

Recommended6 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials, World Watercolor Month

10 thoughts on “Learn Color Theory Through Playful Painting

  1. Yes it’s how I love working with color too. I have studied and taken notes on arious sources regarding color but the best is painting and mixing. I did that last night and it was amazing.

    1. It really turns “head knowledge” into heart knowledge when you get out and play with it, and see the unexpected results. I find I use a lighter touch when mixing than I might if I were making swatches of color.

  2. Angela, I learn so much from your tutorials. I’m fairly new to watercolor and very stiff in my approach so this lesson on how to let yourself be guided intuitively is extremely helpful. I’m going to set up a similar paper sheet with four small areas and see where it takes me. And now I know what to do with that dagger, still in its plastic sheathe. Thanks for showing how to loosen up in order to create lively art.

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