Learning to paint and draw: colour, colour, colour!

Anyone who has been into an art shop will be well aware of the vast array of colours that are available these days – six or seven different shades of red, just as many blues and even white and black, the simplest colour choices of all, you’d have thought, fill about five different tubes each! There is zinc white, titanium white, chalk white, pearl white and iridescent white, just for starters – all with different properties, at different prices and, believe it or not, in different colours! Yes, white is not just white, you can get bluish whites, pinkish whites, opaque whites, (especially gesso) and warm whites – all very confusing!

And the same applies to just about every other colour in the palette, and they all act in different ways. I’m sure, when you were at school (many years ago?), you were told that red and yellow make orange and, to a certain extent, that’s true but, depending on which red you mix with which yellow, you can get a brownish orange, or a yellowish orange – as well as the lovely, natural orange of the fruit with the same name. Add degrees of white or black to the mix and you can arrive at any one of perhaps a hundred distinct shades of what we call orange.

So what do we do now, having completely confused ourselves? Well, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds because a simple colour palette can work just as well as a complicated one, in most cases. Remember that a lot of the colours you can buy in tubes or jars, are actually intermediate colours that have already been mixed for you by the manufacturers. For most basic works of art you really need very few colours apart from black and white. My colour selection usually revolves around, in the reds: vermillion and scarlet, in the blues: ultramarine and pthalo, (this second one is very powerful and needs to be used with care, but it’s great for making turquoise colours for sea, etc.), and in the yellows: cadmium and yellow ochre. These basic colours will mix together to give you most of the colours and shades you need to paint a landscape or a still life of flowers.

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Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to tell you how much of which colour will give you a certain shade of whatever colour it is you are aiming for. I suggest that, especially in the early stages of your painting experience, you purchase a small notebook of cartridge paper, (obtainable in most art shops), and as you try mixing colours, you make a note of what you are using and also paint a small swash of the colour alongside the ‘recipe’. Then if you ever want to mix a colour similar in the future, you will at least have a guide as to where you should start. This little colour diary could with time develop into quite a useful reference for you, because you will find you very quickly mix and use a considerable number of colours for your work!

As time goes by, you will also want to buy more colours from the range available in art shops, and that is just as it should be. You will gain knowledge and confidence with every piece of work you produce and you’ll find you want to experiment more as well, not only with the colours, but with the various additives you can include in acrylics, such as thickeners, drying inhibitors, texturisers and glossers – all of which add new dimensions to the finished result.

So, as I’ve said before, it’s now up to you to get stuck into that canvas – and enjoy yourself!


Do you paint? Or do you merely like to observe art in a gallery? What do you paint or what art do you like best? Tell us below.