Colouring help

kevindeekevindee Registered User regular
edited July 2010 in Artist's Corner
Hi, AC.

Long-time lurker, first time poster here. I've been reading these forums for a couple of years now, just looking at and enjoying people's work without drawing anything myself. Considering the work of people like DMAC, angel_of_bacon and many others sort of inspired me to try getting into art myself, I figured it would be apt to come here for advice.

Here's the problem. I...I can't colour things properly. My linework is sort of okay, not stellar in the slightest, but I have an assloads of studies ahead of me and I enjoy doing them because I can see myself improving constantly. When I try to put colour down however, the same thing always happens, and my brain just doesn't seem to know how to do it. Perhaps it's best to show an example.


This was done without a single brush stroke, if I recall correctly. I just made selections and used gradients to lay down the highlights and shadows, because I'd given up on using my shitty hands to shade properly. This was made last christmas, and it took forever for me to get done.

Yesterday I was just doodling around a bit, and i quickly thickened out some shitty lines on a sketch to have a go at colouring again.


That's what it looks like without any colours. I spent a couple of hours trying to colour it, and ended up giving up around 4.30 in the morning because I just wasn't getting anywhere.


The main problems I have seem to be: 1) I can't select colours properly, and 2) I can't blend them adequately. I've looked at dozens of colouring tutorials, and I usually lose it around step two, just because whenever I select a colour for the highlights or shadows, it looks off me to me - and I end up raging. If I do push on, the colours never blend properly and it comes out looking terrible either way.

Unfortunately I don't have any formal training in art to help me out on this, and just looking at tutorials really doesn't seem to help me. I understand how they do it, but usually things turn into "we apply some highlights, and just give the work some volume. keep rendering like this until you are satisfied". I checked out colour theory videos and I understand how it all works, but when it comes to applying stuff like that I just fall apart. How do other people select colours for their flats and highlights? are there any brush settings I'm forgetting, or is this simply a case of me not understanding what I'm supposed to do?

Any help would be immensely appreciated.

kevindee on


  • WassermeloneWassermelone Registered User regular
    edited July 2010
    Coloring is really just painting. And painting is the study of light - IE the more you know about how light interacts with objects/surfaces, the more you can do with light in your paintings.

    This is a fantastic primer on this idea:

    As for 'blending adequately', not everything needs to be super smooth. It can be if you want, but I personally love the more sculptural 'less is more' approach. Look at this Anders Zorn painting:

    Theres not a whole lot there as far as amount of strokes. But what he has, describes what you need to know.

    Wassermelone on
  • Angel_of_BaconAngel_of_Bacon Moderator mod
    edited July 2010
    Well, since I've been called out by name here...:P

    To be honest, color, in terms of technique or "how do I choose colors" isn't what I'd be most concerned with at this point. Rather, I'd be concerned with your understanding of light and form, which is more a drawing problem. For example, on the first pic, treating each strand of hair as a separate kind of entity, rather than engaging the form of the hair as a whole, or putting very bright values underneath the bottom eyelids, making a jagged, conspicuous form, or making the distinction between a cast shadow and form shading ambiguous. Before you get to color, it's important to know how to handle these issues in value, because adding color will just make things even more confusing, complex, and frustrating.

    I'm going to do a quick little demo here, but my point I'm trying to make is not so much about technique- I'm doing this in photoshop with standard circle brushes with a tablet, but it'd be just as applicable were it to be done in pencil, or charcoal, or paint, or using selections and gradients. It's got nothing to do with a specific tool or look, it's got nothing to do with "blending".

    Here I'm starting with a pretty rough sketch of a planed-out head. I've left the construction in, rather than starting with pretty, finished lineart, to show how form relates to light. What's important here is that my constructing out the head as planes leaves no ambiguity as to what the form is- every line shows a change in the direction of the form.

    With that as a basis, I've chosen a direction for the light to come from- up and to the left. Using a single tone, I've just filled in the planes which would the light would not hit in any way, and left the ones that would be lit as they are. After that, I've put in the cast shadows in the same tone- if you have a hard time figuring out how a cast shadow would be drawn, try to imagine looking at your object as if you were the light- everything you'd see would be lit, but everything you couldn't see, that was hidden from view, would be in shadow.

    Next, I've done some work on the edges of the shading- in places where the form is gently turning, such as the forehead moving towards the side plane of the head, it's a very soft edge, but on a sharp turn of form, such as the meeting of the nose's front and side planes, the edge will remain fairly hard. Also, generally cast shadows will appear fairly hard as well, though they will soften the further away they get from the object casting the shadow.

    Lastly, and I know this looks like a huge jump, I've introduced half-tones and darker shading. It looks like a lot of rendering and work has happened, but 90% of my work was done by the previous step- it's basically a darker and more refined version of the same thing. The only real change is pushing the egg shape of the head a bit more, resulting in more halftone at the top back of the head and down near the chin.

    With this all done, adding color becomes a hell of a lot easier- to the point where if you want, you can pretty much be entirely arbitrary with it. Just using photoshop's curves and a little basic knowledge about analogous and complimentary colors, you can hash in a solid, if basic, color scheme in about a minute.


    But that's just about niceties artwise, and not so much about nuts and bolts reality about light and color. Brief rundown of that:

    When you think about color, you need to think about both the local color, which is what the color of an object is in the sense of roses are red, violets are blue, etc., and the light color, which is the color determined by the lighting situation. The interaction between these colors results in the color your eye sees when observing an object, and the color you need to put down on the canvas when you paint. So when you paint that red rose under a yellowish sun, the colors you'll wind up with painting that rose will be closer to orange than a pure red.

    To this end, knowing how light works, and how it's working in your scene, is crucial to believable coloring.

    For example, if you take a drawing of a head, and want it to look like it's outside on a bright sunny day at noon, you need to consider that not only will the light will be hued yellow, but the light bouncing around the blue of the sky and the atmosphere will bounce blue light into the shadows, and if the person is standing on a grassy field there might be light bouncing off of that, throwing green back onto the head.

    Take that same head, same light angle, and set it in a gloomy basement, and the drawing might be the same, but the coloring will be totally different. The yellow of the light will be more yellow, more artificial, and there won't be a lot of bounce off the concrete, so you'll get much deeper, darker, less colorful shadows.

    Designing your light and color choices means picking up a lot of this kind of knowledge from observation, reference, and painting from life, so you know what's believable; having the color theory knowledge, so you know what's appealing; and determining the desired mood of your piece, so you know what bits of all that accumulated knowledge is going to serve you best in this particular circumstance.

    It's a lot of shit you've gotta bring together, and I could go on all day about all this junk, but the only real way to get all that experience you need to do it well is just to draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint, and keep at it.

    If you get frustrated at not being able to pick the "right color", guess what. Pick another one. Put it down. That doesn't work? Do it again.

    Everyone you admire and respect as an artist has fucked up just as bad if not worse, and the only reason that they're the artist you respect and admire today is that despite them having fucked up a million times in the past, and knowing they'll still fuck up a million times in the future, they continue regardless. The emotion of frustration is just your brain trying to prevent you from learning anything. Don't let it.

    Angel_of_Bacon on
  • SabSab Registered User
    edited July 2010
    As Bacon said, doing color studies is very important. Even if you have to color-pick from photos at least you're learning how and maybe even why those colors are what they are. Try color-picking sometime and you'll see what I mean, that color you thought was yellow in the photo could very well be more of a green but because of its relation to the other colors it appears differently.

    An exercise one of my instructors showed me was to create a new, somewhat small, file. Pick a color and fill the background then pick other colors and just go crazy with small strokes all over the image. Keep doing that with a wide variety of colors and you'll start to see how each color relates to another in different contexts. Save it and you'll have something of a swatch library. Do many and you'll have color schemes you can start from when you paint something.

    Sab on
  • kevindeekevindee Registered User regular
    edited July 2010
    Thanks everyone, I appreciate the helpful comments. Wasser, your link's been bookmarked and I'm going to read the fuck out of that thing for a long time.

    I'm thinking the best way to move forward is to further practice my anatomy studies, and get a good, solid grasp of volume as a whole. I'll also keep looking for good colour theory stuff, and just practise the hell out of that until things start to click for me. I always figured I was missing out on some key thing, but I guess all it comes down to is more knowledge, and practice, practice, practice. I guess it just doesn't come that natural to me. When i look at lines, I can at least see where things are horribly wrong, and just try to correct. When I paint, I'm in the dark.

    Thanks for the sketch by the way, bacon. Very kind. That baby is saved and will be used for future reference.

    kevindee on
  • SabSab Registered User
    edited July 2010
    It doesn't come THAT naturally to anyone. The best artists are the ones who observe everything they see and practice putting what they've observed on paper constantly.

    One of the best things I've ever been told is this;

    If someone says they're "not using reference" they're lying. The only reason they're not directly referring to reference at that moment is because they've used reference so many times they've internalized it.

    You've got the right idea though, something I know I never did enough of when I first started art school was practice, practice, practice!

    Sab on
  • kevindeekevindee Registered User regular
    edited July 2010
    Yeah, I'm starting to understand the importance of doing proper studies and internalising anatomy now. I never had any art classes in secondary, or books or friends who could actually draw. So I just started out doodling and trying to figure out what was right and wrong without ever looking at anything to actually learn. I guess that's an approach I've taken to colouring as well, just trying to get something out that looks similar to other things people do, without understanding fully what I'm doing. Ooh lord, lots of work ahead.

    kevindee on
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