Category Archives: Colour Research

The Colours in the Face.

Ah yes, colour. Or as I call it, Hell.

I’ve always had a difficulty with getting colours right in my paintings, of really making them pop and flow together. Often there is not enough diversity and the painting looks garish and/or off.

I think the problem lies in my understanding of colours, of how they interact with each other and alter how we perceive them. I have often found myself staring at the colour palette blankly, trying to figure out how to get the colour I see on the subject (and often going too strong into that colour). I know that certain areas of the face regularly tend towards certain shades (the mouth warmer, the eyes cooler), but its not the simple case of adding red or blue, and this is where I stumble.

To this end, I have decided to go back to the start. Looking at photographs and pulling the colours out of them to stand alone, looking at their placement on the palette, understanding how they interact. From here, I think I can then begin to experiment with wilder and bolder combinations of colours, but I need to understand the basics first.

I took several stock images, and some of my own, and began pulling out colours using the picker. I focused on 3 areas: the overall skin tone, the tone around the eyes, and the tone around the lips/mouth. I did this because these are the 3 main areas that naturally vary in tone regardless of lighting or any external effects.  (I know the shadows of they eyes apply elsewhere but they are strongest and most permanent around the eyes, making it easier to pick).



Just this simple exercise shows a lot about the colours and how they really work. The tones around the eyes are cooler not because they are blue, but because they are less saturated. The lips however are pulled away from the yellow/orange and into the red, becoming full of warmth. They are not, however, red.

I have always had a very mathematical mind, I look for lines and connections between all things in life, and it is these lines I build my understandings on. This can be seen throughout my work as I build up shape and form with structured symbols, and then try and wrap shade and tone around it. But with colour there are so many lines, so much interaction, that it becomes too much of a mess. Connections overlap and intertwine, becoming impossible to discern.

In the same way I switched from drawing with symbols to drawing with tone, I need to change my perception of colour. I think the way I do this is redefine warm and cool. Warm is not just red and orange, cool is not just blue. Red can be cooled down by desaturating it, blue can be warmed by adding more saturation and brightness.

So rather than just stop at the above photo, saying that desaturated red is cooled down. I looked at the palette and broke down the positioning to understand it all better.


I made this diagram with the intent of studying where skin tones are located within the palette, but it also serves to show how narrowing this field alters the colour. Narrowing to the red and arching over the black and grey area gives the strong colours within the lips, and keeping low and left on the palette gives the cool shadows found around the eyes.

I now have to forms of research to conduct. The first is continuing my portrait work, but now using colour instead of grey scale (I might start out by pulling colours out of the photos but then move away from it). The second is to mess around, throwing colours down with no form and studying how they interact with each other. This second form of research should compliment the first and allow me to step away from the crutch of the colour picker. it will also help in my exploration of expressionism.