How to choose colours like an artist.

The Brook Gallery –  threw down the gauntlet with their tweet “for all our artists out there, how about coming up with the equivalent ‘How to choose colours like an artist’!” making reference to so I thought I’d have a go…..

First of all, there are no rules – and that’s the point. The colours an artist chooses may well identify that artist and become part of their signature palette but sometimes “bad” aesthetic “taste” may be a positive choice, it may be the artistic decision – colours used to develop an emotion the artist is trying to evoke or to enhance a meaning in the image for example. I suppose the “rules” suggested in the interior design article still apply in an art context but for me colour mixing and printmaking is about developing an intuitive nature and I’m often mixing not knowing quite which colour will come out. It is rare that I mix a colour and discard the result – just keep going and it should come good is my motto.

Of course we have the likes of Josef Albers, Hans Hoffman or Bridget Riley to name but a few, who can act as our mentors but every artist working figuratively or in abstraction makes their own specific colour choices. For many artists it is all about the colours.

Albers demonstrated to great effect that the proximity of one colour to the next is highly significant. For me one starting point is the temperature of the colour – warm or cold and colours of any hue can be warm or cold – a warm blue or a cold one. Sited beside each other or overlaid they can make the overall design very dynamic and I’ll often choose alternately warm then cold. Of course as a printmaker I generally lay down one colour at a time, I see how it changes what came before and then I think about the next one.
It’s great too how once one colour is mixed and laid down, if you use that colour as a base for a new second colour, the two will have a sympathy for each other maybe like sisters… but get it wrong and it just looks like laziness in the colour mixing and the second colour kills the first.

Commonly, I’ll print black first to create the ‘drawing’ or underlying design upon which the subsequent colours are laid down. Picasso was an advocate of printing black first in his linocuts – an intuition counter to the received wisdom or working light to dark. Black makes later colour work harder and often gives them a graphic edge – enhancing the nature of the image as print.

Think of a box of chocolates – your favourite brand. You are familiar with your favourites – for me a thalo blue or crimson. These are often used first and lead the decision making in how other colours are mixed and used.
The rarest, perhaps most expensive chocolates you save until last and eat them sparingly. Maybe sometimes though, you gorge on them.  Royal Blue is one such – a pigment so strong it stains everything.
The familiar characters in the chocolate selection – might be white or golden yellow – often used in conjunction with others. But each has it’s own character and mixed judiciously can become the star performer in a composition.
Then there are the choices you turn to least – the ones still left in the box after Christmas, usually with the soft fruit centres and for me these are greens and browns, earth colours. Maybe for me these are the most challenging and the ones I have to think hardest about. For another artist, these may be their favourites. Some people love Strawberry Parfait…!!

Take another brand of chocs and all bets are off. Within a certain range, the artist become confident and learns to know intuitively what and how new colours can be made from the core colours. I love the way thalo blue, orange and crimson in certain proportions can make a beautiful sienna or nut brown and always with infinite variations.


(Respect to Hans Hoffman for the featured image. A great inspiration.)