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Practical Color Theory

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By ajamoore   |   
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This tutorial was actually started because I was trying to explain to :iconwonders-girl: how she could take her awesome color pencil technique even further. Since it was hard for me to explain in just a few sentences without pictures, I made this. HOORAH.

Here's some resources to guide you on your color journey!

Color matters - More theories than just complementary colors. Learn all of them. Just because you don't use them, doesn't mean you shouldn't know them :D

Colourlovers - One of my favorite sites EVER.

Copic Tutorial by :iconengelszorn: - Self explanatory.

TUTORIAL :: COPIC by :iconecthelian: - Goes into more depth about finishing the COPIC piece using multiple colors.

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Sereida-Arts's avatar
Sereida-ArtsStudent General Artist
I didn't know about the CMYK, thanks for the info!
SilvariaKiralv's avatar
SilvariaKiralvHobbyist General Artist
This is a fantastic tutorial!! I enjoyed reading it! I have one quick comment, and that is about your suggestion to work in CMYK.
I'm in the commercial printing industry, and we do a lot of art prints, as our community is rich in the arts. I'd like to put it out there that if you take your work to be printed on a high-output laser printer, say, for prints or greeting cards or what have you... Make sure that you coordinate the file type (RGB vs. CMYK) with your printer!! They will know if RGB or CMYK is more accurate with the machine they are using.
This goes for smaller printers, too. The kind of file that prints best will always have to do with the printer itself, so you may need to play with the settings to get the colors to show up accurately on paper.

Just a thought!! Again, thank you for sharing!!
BunbunDango's avatar
BunbunDangoProfessional Digital Artist
Ooh, it's really interesting to know that bit about RGB and CMYK. I'll be sure to color in CMYK from now on!
Cagliostro929's avatar
Really useful tutorial! I'm gonna try to make my shadows in a different way...so no more darker colors or gray! XD

I was wandering...to make the highlights, I should just add white?
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
It depends on what media/program you are using. If you are using paints, just keep in mind that white makes things cooler as you add it to the color. As for highlights, the same principle can be used there if you want to have a neutral highlight.
Cagliostro929's avatar
:) I use watercolors and markers, sometimes colored pencils! Usually I just leave white spaces where I want the highlights, and I shade the base color all around. But how can I do a neutral highlight?
Sorry :lonely:...I'm new to all this stuff! :confused:
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
If you are using watercolors, NO do NOT use white. Never mix white into anything. You would do yourself a favor if you just locked that white away forever. And the black. You don't need them. Saturate the paint with more water to make it lighter.

Doing a neutral highlight would be using a lighter version of the complementary color. For instance, if you were highlighting something blue, you could, in theory, try using a light yellow.
Cagliostro929's avatar
But then I'll get a green?! *mind blows*

I try not to use black and white...I know I shouldn't! XD But sometimes it's easier to just squeeze my white tube to have lighter colors!
Well, now I don't need black anymore, because with your tutorial I really understood how to make shadows :dance:
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
Oh sorry, I meant to type orange. Blue and ORANGE. Whoops. This is what happens when you try to multitask color questions o_O
Cagliostro929's avatar
Ahahah! Thank you! I try to do it next time! ^^
JadineR's avatar
*mind is blown*
Kikubi's avatar
KikubiProfessional General Artist
Woah! This is the first time I've seen someone else use contrast colors in copic shading!
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
RipperBlackstaff's avatar
RipperBlackstaffHobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for this great tut !
Lulie's avatar
LulieHobbyist General Artist
Ahaa, I'm slowly starting to get this colour thing. It was helpful to see you show some of the practical implications of 'mix two complementaries and you get grey'! (Plus I never knew about the 'Fade' tool -- useful.)

I've heard several conflicting things about what colour the shadow should be. Any idea which is the 'true' one?:

1) The complementary colour of the thing in shadow.
2) The opposite of the lightsource. (So if the lightsource is warm, make the shadows cool, but if it's cool, make the shadows warm; and you can be more specific about it like using purple for yellow light or blue for orange light or whatever.)
3) Blue.

(Of course all of these could look good and may be used stylistically, but I mean what looks the most realistic.)

PS: This is a nice quick reference guide I found: [link]
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
Hmm I guess it would really all depend on what object you were coloring. Human skin, for instance, is purple and blue in shadows because of the veins that are pumping blood through us. A plastic object would incorporate any colors that it is surrounded by both in the light and the shadow because of it's shiny surface. As a rule of thumb, I use complimentary colors, but that's because I mostly paint (I consider using markers painting as well, since I use them like paints) and it's normally the best way to create shadow.

The only issue I would think may arise of using process #2 is that when you use too much of a warm color, no matter what you do (if it is a true pigment, mind you and not a grey) it will come forward, and that is not the effect you want when using shadow, but I've never tried that technique so it may work just fine. You also have to consider how the surrounding colors will effect the color you are applying. After searching online, I found a blog that has a digital version of one of my favorite projects in color theory, which were studies based on Joseph Albers work with the interaction of color. If you have never played with it before, try some of these exercises. Just after a few, you'll quickly see how surrounding color effects colors as well.

#3 is more of a stylistic approach, but it's much better than using black. NEVER USE BLACK. It washes everything out and dulls the color (and if you try to print it, it will be a nightmare). Occasionally I will use blue only for shadows, and when I do it's either a very light blue (with markers) or Prussian Blue for paint.

The best thing I can say is experiment! Colors can be fun!
Lulie's avatar
LulieHobbyist General Artist
Oh, interesting idea about it depending on the material of the object. Why would human skin change from an apparent pink (orange hue) to blue/purple, though?

I see how objects, especially reflective ones, would take on the colour of their surroundings. I can also see how there would be more of the ambient light shining on the shadows, so it might take on the colour of the ambient light (e.g. the blue sky if it's outside). But what's the explanation for why particular materials would change hue in their shadows?

Good point about using warm would make the shadows come forward. To test the #2 theory, I just tried shining different colour lights on a white thing: [link] Subjectively, the shadows of the green look a bit red (to me at least), and the shadows of the red look a bit cold. (Though if you use the eyedropper tool you'll see they're pretty much the same -- in fact the shadows slightly take on the colour of the light because I didn't isolate it perfectly and it's leaking to the ambient.)
As painters I guess we're supposed to paint the objective light, because our brain will still try to interpret it, but maybe we can exaggerate the subjective thing?

Totally agree with black. Black can also make it look dirty
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
Human skin changes to bluish-violet tones because of the veins in our skin. While they can be seen in light, they become more predominant in the shadows. Just look at your hand in shadow, it looks like a deep blue-violet. Materials, depending on what they are, are made up of several colors. Cloth, for example, wouldn't reflect the colors surrounding it in the same way a glass would, which would in turn effect the way you would approach the shadowing in each object if they were in an illustration together. If you have to study evil still lives like I did in school [link] filled with different objects of different opaqueness, you start to see how light and shadow effect each object differently. Of course, this would be if you were making an approach at hyper realism.

As for your study, that's what the what the link I included in the last reply discusses and shows show how colors look different when surrounded by different colors. If you haven't taken a look, it's very interesting to go through the different examples and test how well your eyes can identify if colors are the same or not.

In the end, really, it's up to you-- even if you are going for hyper-realism. It must be your call for what works for you best and nothing other.
Lulie's avatar
LulieHobbyist General Artist
Okay after reading James Gurney's Color and Light, and going through the whole of this a couple times, my best guess is that when skin looks purple in shadows, that's something to do with the fact it's partially translucent (which you hinted at with the veins). Otherwise I'd expect the principle of uniform saturation to mostly hold.

It's less that I'm going for hyper-realism (which I don't particularly like -- might as well take photos), but more that I want to understand the underlying rules behind everything, so I can give the precise effect I want.
yeahgirl11's avatar
yeahgirl11Student Traditional Artist
Love it! Thanks for including those useful links as well. :nod:
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
No problem :heart:
VivanSolem's avatar
VivanSolem General Artist
:wow: Thank you so much!
ajamoore's avatar
ajamooreProfessional General Artist
Welcome! Hope it helps!
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