Colour: Famous artists’ best kept secret

Selecting Colour Combinations:

Want to know the best and easy way to select colours for your paintings?

We have often heard it been said:

“Artists tend to use colours according to their mood they are in. And it also shows the personality of the artist!”

Small A5 watercolour: An abstract scene, using bright bold colours.

So what colour combinations do you paint with?

Cheerful colours or gloomy colours? Dull colours or gradated colours?

This blog is all about colour schemes and how to select the best colour combinations for your paintings. How to make them ‘zing’ and come alive.

First gather your paints together:

  1. Then sort and divide the colours into three basic formats: Light, bright, and muted colours
  2. And make a colour chart with three columns. See illustration example below:

First column:

Light fresh colours: Pure white, light yellows, lime green

Second column:

Bright intensity: Clean medium yellows, fresh oranges, reds, blues, purples, magenta.

Third column:

Muted and dusty colours: yellow ocher, raw umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber, Terra Vert green, chrome oxide green, indigo, Neutral Tint, black. This also includes olive, russet and teal (mixtures of the secondary colours*). And natural grays.

  • Orange and violet makes russet.
  • Orange and green makes olive.
  • Green and violet makes teal.
  • Natural grays are a mixture of opposing warm and cool colours.
Best to grade your colours

Colour chart: Colours are divided into three columns, according intensity and quality. This list is only a suggestion, it all depends on what paints you have in stock personally.

Then consider how to use colour combinations:

  1. If you paint all bright fresh clean colours in your painting’s composition, they all `shout’ at once! The brassy effect is very confusing and disconcerting!
  2. But if they are surrounded or accompanied with muted and natural grey colours, they `sing’ beautifully together.
  3. The light fresh colours are for highlights. And highlights glitter with natural grays surrounding them. Contrast of tones makes them sparkle too.

Placing colours to their best advantage:

Arrangement of the elements in your composition is very important too.

Basic shapes and the simplicity of the composition: Each shape or area has a basic underlying colour and tone. And each of these area-shapes sits side by side. Their relationships are either bold or intermingle with the neighbours. The overall combination is important. It should make a dramatic emotional impact on the soul of the prospective buyer.

Best use of colour:

Is, knowing the emotional and dramatic impact and effect of colours on people!

  • A contrast of warm and cool colours.
  • A dynamic contrast of tone at the main point of interest.
  • Reducing fickle unnecessary details and including atmospheric blurred areas to amplify the major shapes and points of interest.
  • Gradating colours in atmospheric areas and in fresh clean seawater.

Try doing this,

And let me know if it helped you simplify the way you choose your colours and put them together. I would like to know.

Have fun. I like messing around with colours, it’s so exciting.


So you want to know THE BIG SECRET that sells your art!?

I’m going to tell you the BIG huge secret. I’ve hinted at it and I don’t think anyone has really been listening or catching on as yet!

Your paintings must be  SENSATIONAL, if you want them to be admired and sold!

Why must they be sensational? Because, people buy paintings according to their senses, feelings, emotions and the mood they are in at the time at looking at your painting.

But what makes paintings  sensational?

Paintings are sensational when there is a vibrant bold CONTRAST of warm and cool colours.

Big and bold

A5 watercolour: Lovely sunny day.

Stirring the inner spirit:

To create that type of sensational impact, artists need to draw upon their emotions to see and feel the vibe of the different colours of the thing they are going to paint, and then if their inner spirit is truly excited about it, they’ll translate and transform it into something so exotic and dramatic that it will blow the minds of all those who see it, into buying it.

Therefore we could say art is a spiritual experience. Not just a skillful application.

  • How is your inner spirit? How do you feel about what you are going to paint?
  • Do you see beauty in everything around you? How do you look at the world?
  • How deep do you dig into your emotions to see things on a more spiritual level?
  • What colours or combination of colours do you see, that the `normal’ person overlook and don’t see?
  • How big or bold can you make the shapes of things or areas? What colours can you emphasis or change in those areas.

Have you ever thought as an artist, YOU are touching lives… spirit to spirit! Your job is to stir emotion in people. If people feel the sensation of the interaction of the colours and shapes, their spirit responds to what you are suggesting.

Let me go back to the impact of CONTRAST:

As I’ve already said, the bold interchange of warm and cool colours attracts attention in the first place.

The difference between the BIG bold shapes at your main point of interest and the less cluttered surrounding area, is the fact that the bold contrast draws people’s attention to the main point of interest.

And now let me go back to the word I used earlier as well… SUGGESTING

What is suggestion? To insinuate or put forward ideas to stimulate people’s minds into believing what you are proposing.

In art terms, suggestion is a vague rendition of subordinate subject matter to stirs people’s imagination. Necessary to enhance and accentuates your main topic or point or interest!

Bold things stand out more dramatically when they are surrounded by blurred indistinct things!

Here is a slide show example of watercolour paintings with warm and cool colours:

How do we make un-important things look vague?

  • Reducing fine detail and be selective where you put your highlights.
  • Use analogous colours and/or similar tone levels in unimportant surrounding areas.
  • The interaction and merging of the different colours when they are dropped-in unimportant areas adds mood and emotion.
  • Blurred contour edges create easy smooth visual transitions over things or planes.
  • Your indistinct area can still have stuff in it, but just a suggestion of the things. Such as the use of free loose irregular brushstrokes.

So you see, surrounding your dramatic point of interest with a blurred or understated environment, means you don’t need a lot of detail! Simplicity draws more attention, than complex authentic detailed compositions.

Whether your painting is big or small: simplicity creates the biggest impact.

Detail is the opposite, to the word suggest.

If too much detail is used in a painting, there is nothing left for people to use their imagination on. If you reflect on how people love to use their imagination…. And gossip… that’s using their imagination!

No seriously, jokes aside, people love to look at a painting they have bought and still be able to continue seeing something more in their esteemed purchase, for many years to come.

What I suggest is, consider looking into the matter.

  • What is so grand about the subject matter you want to paint?
  • Which things or areas can you make big and bold in your picture?
  • What colours do you intend to use?
  • How do they relate to one another?
  • Can you use the impact of complementary colours in your painting that are contrasting warm and cool colours?
  • If not, can you change the colours somewhat, to create lovely warm and cool contrasts? Even if the contrast is subtle.
  • And where will your colours have the most impact?

If you want to learn painting secrets click on the following links:

If you’re an established artist:

What do you feel about what has been said? Feel free to add your comment below.

Watercolours to Suit Your Mood

Quality of your watercolours:

How your seascapes look also depends on the quality of the pigments used and how translucent the colours are.

Why, because people expect seawater to look wet, clear and translucently deep. Give them the feeling that they want to jump in and do some swimming or go sailing.

I’m quite sure no one wants their seascape paintings to look dense, heavy and lifeless. Anyway, opaque pigments don’t flow easily.

You want your paints to `flow easily with the tide’. The sea is moody and full of action. So you must feel the mood of the sea, the pull, flow and ebb of the tide, the pounding of the waves, etc as you paint, if you want your painting to look authentic.

What's your impression?

A5 watercolour: Sunrise on a beautiful morning.

First we’ll look at what other traditional artists used:

(And lastly you can see what I use)

E John Robinson’s palette:

Your palette

E John Robinson’s palette

* This is his basic palette.

Opera is somewhat like Rembrandt’s Quinacridone Rose (shocking pink hue).

Mauve is a warm violet.

  • His dominant colour in his compositions is blue.
  • His sub-dominant colour is green.
  • His complementary or accent (minor) colour is orange (burnt sienna for rocks and sand).

  • ·         Thalo and phthalo words are derived from the word: phthalocynaine.
  • ·         Winsor Newton makes thalo pigments, eg: Winsor blue & Winsor green.
  • ·         Cotman’s call it intense `Phthalo’ blue or green.
  • ·         Thalo pigments are intense strong stainers and should be used with care.
  • ·         Because thalo green is such a strong intense colour: mix raw sienna, burnt sienna, Burnt umber or violet with it, to give it a more natural appearance.

Leslie Worth’s palette:

Your palette

Leslie Worth’s palette

  • The paper Leslie uses: Arches NOT 180gsm/90 LB
  • He wets the paper before applying washes
  • Lays in a soft blurred sky, ocean and beach as one stage (first wash) to mirror colours.
  • He strengthened the values of land (cliffs), horizon and waves. He never over did it or over fussed, his washes were simple.
  • His compositions were generally uncluttered horizontal planes, without huge pounding dramatic waves
  • He made sparkle effects by carefully scraping the paper when the painting was complete and very dry.

 Leslie Worth’s seascape skies:

Yellow pigments were generally included with the first wash, to create a sunny radiance:

  • Raw sienna, indigo, Prussian blue and sepia
  • Replaced raw sienna with orange for warmer beach scenes
  • Raw sienna, Light red, brown madder, sepia, Prussian blue, indigo and violet
  • Yellow ochre, sepia, Monestial blue.

General palette traditional taught in art collages:

Your palette

General palette traditional taught in art collages


  • Rocks: Indian red, cerulean blue, yellow ochre, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, French ultramarine.
  • Rock crevices: Thalo blue, red, green and yellow, Alizarin Crimson.
  • Water: Rose madder, Aureolin yellow, cobalt blue, viridian, and burnt sienna.
  • Reflections: Thalo blue and green, alizarin crimson.

Note: All three of these traditional palettes contained opaque cadmium pigments! Very interesting.

But it’s up to you to experimenting for yourself:

After painting a few seascapes, you’ll soon begin to know which pigments you can handle easily and which you prefer. When working on location doing fieldwork, don’t use a big clumsy paint box. Reduce the amount of pigments and put them in a small tin with a lid.

Now let’s see what my own palette consists of:

Your choiise of pigmets

My basic watercolour palette for seascapes.

® Means manufactured by Rembrandt.

  • I use Rembrandt gamboge yellow and Perm madder lake to make a fresh clean orange. But where the yellow of the sunset meets the blue of the sky, I use raw sienna, to prevent unwanted green tinges.
  • The hue of Gamboge yellows differs with each manufacturer. Rembrandt gamboge is more translucent than the other manufacturers’ gamboge yellows.
  • Raw sienna is great for sky undercoats, sunlight on rocks, and sea sand.
  • I use Indigo as a blue-grey. I mix sap green with a little indigo and Payne’s grey. It makes a lovely translucent green in thin waves and shallow water.
  • I sometimes dropped-in Light Red or Indian Red into French ultramarine, to make beautiful atmospheric sky effects.


  • Personally I don’t use cadmium pigments (eg: red, yellow or orange) because they create `dusty’ opaque washes of colour. Why, because I want to give the impression seawater translucent. So I use more transparent pigments.
  • Also gouache and cheap kiddies paint are too opaque. They give your seascapes a dense chalky appearance.
  • The type of watercolour paper you buy is also important. It makes all the difference in the texture of your washes and the general appearance of your seascapes. If you are not happy with the results you are getting, experiment with different types of paper until you get what you want. Sometimes it takes time to get used to a type of paper and how to handle its quirks.

Your preference:

  • Would like to know what pigment colours you use in your watercolour seascapes?
  • If your don’t paint yourself,which colours do you think made the best seascapes?

How to mix colours

How colourful.

A5 watercolour: Contrast of colour and tones. Notice how colourful the dark tones are.

Why discuss how to mix colours?

It is very important. The quality of your watercolour paintings depends on how you mix your colours.

 And it may surprise you,

but most people don’t know how to mix their colours!

I can hear you say to yourself, “Surely they learnt the basics while at school. That:

  • Yellow and blue makes green,
  • Yellow and red makes orange,
  • Red and blue makes violet!”

No, they don’t even know that when then come to art classes and have to make a colour wheel!   Besides that they often ask “How do you make brown and black?

  • Brown mixture: An equal mixture of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) make brown.
  • Black mixture: Theoretically an equal mixture of the secondary colours (orange, green and violet) make black. Note there is less yellow in this mixture. Strong intense pigments make the darkest freshest blacks, eg: translucent reds and Winsor thalo blue and green. 
Note: how colourful blacks are. More beautiful than pure black out of a tube (see illustrated watercolour painting above)

 Neither have they ever noticed the difference between cool colours and warm colours.

  • That blues and greens are cooler than reds and yellows.
  • That one red is cooler than another red, eg: alizarin red is cooler (slightly bluer) in hue than Cadmium red.
  • That there is a difference in blues too, eg: Winsor (thalo) blue is cooler than French ultramarine blue.
How to see the difference.

The difference between cool and warm pigments of the same primary or secondary colour.

First secret:  Making beautiful natural greens

Often you see people using their watercolours like they were colouring in with crayons. That is: using their colours straight from their paint box pans.

For example Winsor thalo intense green:

It looks very garish mixed only with water, especially over large areas. Greens look better when mixed with more neutral colours, for example:

  • Violet and green (makes teal green)
  • Orange and green (makes olive green)
  • Burnt sienna and sap green.
  • Raw sienna and Hooker’s green.
  • Burnt umber and thalo green or viridian green.

Note: And some artists don’t believe in mixing browns with green. But I do whatever it takes to get the effect I require as long as the quality of the painting isn’t compromised.

How to make green.

Example of green mixtures.

For more interesting greens:

  • A yellow with cerulean blue or indigo blue.
  • Indigo blue with viridian or sap green.
  • Blue-violet and chrome oxide green.
  • Sap green and French ultramarine.

Note: These last colour combinations, have the best results when the additional colours are lightly brushed in. That is: not pre-mixed in your palette plate.

 Second secret:  Keeping your colours clean and fresh.

On the other hand you get people trying mixing their colours on their painting, because they were not happy with the colour they have already there. Once started, they keep adding more colours, in the hope they can fix the problem. This is a recipe for disaster. The more colours added, turns your painting into murky `mud’. Why, because now all three primaries are involved in some form or other.

How do you prevent this?

  • First: Don’t mix your colours in the paint box pans. It’s wiser to pre-mix your colours in your palette plate reservoir wells, where you can judge intensity strength and hue against the whiteness of the palette.
  • It is wise to reduce the amount of pigments involved in your mixtures. Where possible keep it to two pigments only. Or involve only analogous colours (those sitting on one side of your colour wheel)
  • If you want to add another colour to a former wet wash, don’t fuss and stir in other colours. Rather drop-in (tip-in) another colour and watch while it spreads naturally.
  • To prevent soiling of colours, keep light colours away from dark colours in your paint box.
  • And to keep washes fresh, rinse you brush well before choosing another colour in your paint box.
  • It is easier to get your paint out of the pans quickly and cleanly, if you finely spray your paint box pans with water before you start to paint.

Third secret:  Colours affect people emotionally:

  • Paintings that consist mostly of cool colours (like blue & green) makes people feel cold. Cool coloured paintings have no impact emotionally.
  • To make your watercolour paintings exciting and more sell-able, play warm colours against cool colours. The pest results are when there are more warm colours than cool colours.
  • If all your colours are bright in your painting, they compete with one another, like they are all shouting at once. Tip: the contrast of neutrals to natural grays enhances your bright colours.

Fourth secret:  Natural greys:

Natural greys made of complementary coloured mixtures (colours opposite on the colour wheel). Natural greys are far more beautiful than pure blacks and grey pigments straight from the paint box or tubes. Black added to your mixtures will make your watercolours look dull and dead because black is non-reflective colour.

Typical natural grey mixtures:

  • Mixtures of green and red or magenta.
  • Mixtures of blue and burnt umber.

 Note: Watercolour mixtures differ from oil paints. You won’t get the same mixture blending results as you get in oil paints. Watercolour washes are more mottled and interesting.

It’s over to you what you make of this information:

Have fun experimenting with these colour combinations. You don’t know what effects they can really make until you mix your own stock of pigments.

  • For example, make swatches like my ‘green mixture’ illustration and label them to remember what pigments you used, for future use.
  • Your results will depend on how much water was involved in tinting the intensity of the colours.
  • Also you won’t get such beautiful washes of colour and special effects, if you aren’t using Artist’s Quality watercolour pigments. Cheap watercolour pigments haven’t the same constitution eminence.
  • The tine of colour and shade of black or grey depends on which primary pigment is more dominant.