Learning to see color

Feb 08, 2022

In order to choose the right colors for your drawing you need to learn to ‘see’ color. Understanding value, using a color wheel and mixing your own colors will help you find the right colors for your drawing.


Before you can learn to see color you need to take a look at ‘value’ first. Value is how light or dark a shade is. It’s how we understand how something looks around us. The shade helps portray if something is flat or round. 

Understanding how to see value is the key to creating realistic color in your work. When you use the correct colors but not the right values the picture won’t look quite right. In other words: if you don’t make the darks dark enough and the lights light enough your artwork will not look 3d and won't look realistic.


Seeing colors in a reference photo

Take a look at this reference photo and try to see where the mid tones, shadows and highlights are. 

Next, take a look at where the light is coming from. 

If we draw contour lines on the pear it will help us understand the values. How will you know where to draw the lines?... Every time the light changes, that’s where you see the line curves.

A great way to check the values in your colored artwork is by taking a picture of it and decreasing the saturation until it’s black and white. 

When you remove all color, the color won’t distract you. You can now see the highlights, mid tones and shadows more easily. 

What also helps is to look at the different values and squint your eyes so the picture looks a bit blurry, now you don’t see the details but only the values. You can then compare it to your reference photo and see if the lights and darks are correct. If not, you can go back and add more layers.

Hue, saturation and temperature are also important factors when trying to ‘see’ color. Look at the reference photo again and remember not to look at the details but focus on the overall color you see. 

Look at the hue, what color is it? Look at the large areas first. I see the colors yellow, green and brown.

Look at the saturation. How saturated and vibrant is the color? Is it a pure yellow, green or brown? No, it looks a bit duller and less saturated. 

You can compare the different areas. In the highlighted areas the yellow is a bit more saturated than where the mid tones are. 

Also, take a look at the temperature of the colors, how warm or cool is the area? 

When comparing the colors, it’s best to compare the colors from the same hue. Is it a warm or cool yellow, a warm or cool green? 

The Color Wheel

A great tool to use is the color wheel. The colors that are warm lean more towards red and cooler colors lean more towards blue.

Use the color wheel to look up your colors and swatch them so you can compare them to the reference photo. If you swatch the colors next to the reference photo you can see if the color should be lighter or darker, or maybe more saturated. 

What I did is pick out all of my yellows to see which is the closest to the reference photo. I also picked out some reds, browns and blues. 

For the green color on the pear you can try to choose a green that comes closest to that color but you can also mix blue and yellow to create your own green. When mixing the colors yourself you have more control over the outcome because you can use either more blue or more yellow if you need to. 

The same goes for the orange color. Instead of looking for the exact same orange colored pencil, you can also mix yellow with red. If the orange turns out too saturated you can mix it with brown.

Don’t worry if your colors are not exactly the same. What will make your artwork realistic are the values and not the exact colors. It’s best to work in layers. Start with light layers, that way you can adjust the colors as you go and as you build up the layers.

When creating realistic artwork it’s all about looking back at your reference photo to compare and adjust whenever you need to. Don’t be too hard on yourself in the beginning, because you need a lot of practice before you’ll be able to get it right straight away. You‘ll get better and learn something new with every drawing you create.

To practice, you can keep on mixing and matching colors and see what kind of colors you can create with the colored pencils you have. Try adding a bit more brown or maybe a bit more red to the yellow and see how that changes the color. Remember to use light pressure when mixing and layering.


If you want to learn more about value and color have a look at the step by step video lessons in the membership covering everything from basics to portraits…

Read more details about the Artistic Journey membership here and join us today so you can start practicing.

Hope to see you there!


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