Ask the Art Professor: How do You Compose a Striking Painting with Color?


Pastel drawing by Edgar Degas


“How do you compose a striking painting with color? How do you create harmony with colors, contrast, etc., while at the same time creating interest?”

Color is such a monumental subject, so I’m going to boil it all down to this: Painting with color is about achieving balance.  That balance is defined by establishing relationships among colors.  I think about colors as people: when you have one person in a room, there is no one else to have a relationship with.  Once another person enters the room, you have the dynamic that occurs between the two people.  If a third person enters the room, the dynamics change, and so forth. Every time a new color is added to a painting, the dynamics shift.

I used to think when I was a student that if only I could mix the “right” blue, or the “right” pink that my paintings would be better.  It took me years of painting with color to realize that there was no “right” blue.  Instead what one should look for is a grouping of colors in which the colors play off of each other in a harmonious manner. The exact same color can appear to take on different characteristics depending on the color that is next to it.  If you take a red and place it next to a grey, the red appears to be very intense and brilliant.  Take that same red and place it next to a yellow, and the red will appear to be dark in contrast to the brightness of the yellow.

2 degas dancers

Pastel drawing byEdgar Degas

The two classic problems I see when people handle color in a painting is either painting with too many muted colors, or painting with too many intense colors.  Too many intense colors is overwhelming to the viewer, and too many muted colors makes for a muddy composition.  Degas’ pastel drawings are an excellent example of beautifully balanced, harmonious colors.  Actually, if you really analyze his pastel drawings, the majority of his images are dominated by muted colors.  His strategy in some of his pieces was to use his intense colors in moderation, so that when they made their appearance, their intensity burst outwards from the image. In the case of this pastel drawing above, the intense red flowers on the dancer’s dress seem to dramatically pop from the page because they are surrounded by soft, muted greys and pinks in the dancer’s dress. 

Another common problem is people overusing black to darken their colors, especially in shadow areas.  This approach generally produces colors that are flat and muddy.  I am extremely conservative when I use black because it’s like a nuclear bomb when it encounters other colors; black simply wipes everything else out.  When I paint with black, I don’t even use black straight from the tube, rather my favorite mixture to create black is to mix alizarin crimson with viridian green.  This combination creates a luscious, deep, dark purple that has the appearance of being black, without all of the drawbacks.


Oil painting by Edgar Degas

Light and dark contrast is another key to creating a balanced painting.  Many artists come to rely on color contrast to carry their pieces, so much so that they forget about light and dark contrast. One “test” that I always give myself when I’m working on a painting is to shoot a digital image of the painting and then to desaturate (make it black and white) in Photoshop.  If I look at the black and white image and it lacks a wide range of whites, greys, and blacks, it means that the composition needs to be improved in terms of light and dark contrast.

This Degas painting of an opera singer (see above) does an excellent job of establishing light and dark contrast, creating a dramatic, theatrical feeling to the painting.The sharp silhouette of the glove against the stripe of light, bright yellow in the background makes for excellent light and dark contrast.

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9 thoughts on “Ask the Art Professor: How do You Compose a Striking Painting with Color?

  1. Thanks for this. I love the way you explain colors as people; it helps me understand harmonizing colors better. I just hope I can translate that understanding onto my medium. And the intense vs. muted colors bit was also insightful. I’ve read similar explanations, but I don’t think I really “got it.” Thanks again. 😀

  2. hello ma’am ive got a entirely different question from this topic. Do you think Britain art world and their system is better than US? cuz my dad told his paintings sold more in UK and than US and he felt britons collected more art than americans. and he told
    in britain art students were better draftsmen..he didnt visit good art schools in US though .maybe because of that he’s saying..i guess.

  3. I’ve been painting for many years and I’ve finally come to see that all I’ve learned about color theory can’t compare to trusting my color instincts. My paintings are never as good from my thinking as those colorations and juxtapositions that come from my heart rather than my brain.

  4. hallo Prof. Lieu. I’ve read with interest your articles. could you suggest me any good essay about advanced color theory and practice?I recently aquired J. Itten and M. Kemp essays but i could’nte fint what i’m looking for…I’d like to find a systematc approach to the subject (eventually with phisycs and visual percection phenomena correlations). my aim is to measure with problems like rendering the chiaro -scuro with coloured (or multiple) light source ,coloured shadows ecc in a less intuitive and more conceptual and confident way. so I would like to make my mind clear about the theory behind tehhse phenomena or effects (instead of using “tricks”)
    thank you

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