Colour (with apologies to US readers who spell colour sans the ‘u’) is something that, as painters we all love and, for many of us, it’s the driving force behind what we do. But, as glorious as colour is, it can also provide the most challenge, particularly for those just starting out.

The problem is, and it’s one most particularly experienced by abstract painters, is that there’s so much colour choice it can be hard to know where to start. Being so drawn to colour we’re tempted to whip out every tube of colour we own and slather it on the canvas. That’s the playful child in us. But, as we evolve as painters we generally (though not always) want to refine our colour choices – to choose colours purposefully and to let those colours have their voice.

The question is, how do we do that? Thankfully, there’s a colour secret that works a treat.

Restricting your colour palette

Before you baulk at the word ‘restrict’ as if you’ll never be able to enjoy colour again, please be assured. Restricting your colour palette simply means choosing a few colours to dominate your painting, rather than having five or ten. Of course you’ll always choose your favourite colours whenever you start a new painting, but by restricting your colour palette, it means that those colours will be showcased rather than overwhelmed by a host of others.

Initially, you’ll choose a ‘hero’ colour – the one that will set the mood of the painting. Then choose one or two other colours – they will be the supporting cast. Recently, I came across the phrase, ‘Mostly, some and a bit’. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it’s a particularly helpful one. It means, use mostly one colour within your painting, some of another colour, and just a bit of a third.

If you have a look at my newly completed painting above (acrylics, 36 x 36 inches) you’ll see that I’ve used mostly yellows, some greys and a bit of pink.

Mixing your own colours

Now, let me very quickly add that restricting your colour palette does not mean you’ll be draining the life out of your painting. Au contraire!

Every colour has a multitude of potential shade and tone variations, all waiting to be used. And, this is where colour mixing comes in. Using just a basic set of colours plus black and white, you can create an almost unlimited variety of colours. Not one of of those yellows in the painting above came straight out of a tube; they were all mixed.

And while we’re on the topic of mixing colours, you’ll want to make sure that you create a variety of both cool and warm shades, as well as different tonal values. Combining warm and cool, as well as light and dark shades in this way will automatically inject your painting with visual interest and vitality.

Not sure how to go about mixing your own colours? There’s a plethora of excellent tutorials online you can take your pick from. Or, if you’d rather mix your colours intuitively, grab a visual diary and start experimenting. And, don’t forget to note down the colours in your mixture so that you can make it again in the future. Here’s how I do it…

So, to end… if you’re baffled as to how to use colour in your paintings, or if you simply feel that there’s a lack of cohesion in the colours you are using, you might like to give ‘Mostly, some and a bit’ a go and see if it works for you.

“Allow one color, or just a couple of analogous colors, to dominate the mood of the painting; and let the others fulfil a supporting role.”
Zoltan Szabo