Working in Color: The Basics

Color is one of the most powerful aspects of making art. Almost everyone who loves to create can remember the childhood excitement generated by a brand new box of crayons!


Everyone聽has a favorite color, artists and non-artists alike. 聽Our relationship to color is one of the most powerful relationships we have as a species. It is intrinsically connected to how we relate to our world. And so of course it is one of the most powerful aspects to consider when making art.



Color Temperature

Much of our relationship to color is based on instinct. For example, we see colors as warm or cool based on our physical response to them.


Warm things are warm colors (such as fire, the sun, hot coals, and in this case hot food.)




and cool things are cool colors (such as water and ice, which as blue or bluish).





Interestingly warm and cool colors also create a sense of perspective and depth when we look at an image. Warm colors tend to advance towards us, whereas cool colors tend to recede away from us.


In these two images note how early 20th-century illustrator Edmund DuLac uses this trick. In the first image of聽The Princess and the Pea聽he creates a sense of incredible height, as the cold blue-purple recedes from the viewer, effectively raising the height of the bed canopy. And in the second one,聽A Palace of Wonder, a sense of depth is created between the warmth of the interior space and the cold dark outside.

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However, a great deal of our reactions to color are not innate, they are in fact cultural. For example Black and Death are associated in many Western cultures, in many Eastern cultures it is associated with white鈥攊ts direct opposite.

Take a look at this info-graphic. Note how many color associations change, depending on where you are in the world. However also note how HOT and COLD or Color鈥檚 Relationship to Temperature do not.

It is however important to understand your target market and the culture that they come from, because culture has a strong influence on the development of cultural-color associations in childhood building the adults eventual perceptions of color.

It is however important to understand your target market and the culture that they come from, because culture has a strong influence on the development of cultural-color associations in childhood building the adults eventual perceptions of color.



Throughout this module and the next we will look at these basic reactions we all have to color and learn to compose in color effectively. We will build on what we have learned regarding composition, concept, point of view, and value and we will see how we can use these reactions to color to aid us in our ultimate goal, telling a great story through narrative illustration.


However, before we can do that lets be sure we have down the basics.


Faculty Commons at City Tech is looking for design interns!

Faculty Commons at City Tech is looking for design interns for the Spring 2017 semester. This is a paid opportunity! If you are interested, please apply by using the provided link below:
If you have any additional questions, please see the FB post and comment below.

Really GREAT聽Opportunity! Make it happen!



Watercolor Techniques, Part 2: Glazing, Layering, and Media Mixing


Watercolor is a flexible medium. 聽It can also be applied directly over a pencil drawing, and can be used thinly as a glaze or opaquely like a traditional gouache. It can accept a variety of media layered on top of it too, such as colored pencil or ink. When dry and treated with a fixative it even聽allows the artist using it the flexibility of painting or聽glazing聽over previously painted areas without fear of disturbing those earlier layers.


When using Watercolor聽as a glaze, dissolve a small amount of pigment in water until you achieve the transparency level you are looking for, just as you would when working in watercolor. You can use this technique as your first layer of color, directly over your pencils as shown here in this step-by-step creation of the Incredible Wonder Woman portrait by Alex Ross.

Alex Ross Step by Step


As you can see, when in the right hands glazing is a very effective technique!

When glazing, remember:

  • Each layer affects previous layers.
  • Transparent layers of color add luminescence and depth.
  • Glazing gently transitions areas from light to dark.
  • Glazing will either dull or brighten previous layers.
  • Analogous colors brighten.
  • Complementary colors dull.

Helpful Tip

Try this: Make yourself a聽glazing guide聽by brushing a stripe of each of your colors as a glaze. Wait for it to dry (or use a hair dryer!). Then brush a second stripe of each color to form a grid. Don’t forget to label your colors for easy reference.


Once dry, the paint has a matte finish. This allows for additional techniques to be layered right on top. For example, an artist may choose to draw over the top with colored pencils. This technique is easy to see in this illustration of root vegetables by Lizzy Rockwell.

ill_232_v9_m09_p14_rockwell_1Lizzy Rockwell, illustration of root vegetables

After Rockwell traces her drawing onto the watercolor paper,聽she fills in, using the gouache as a flat, opaque medium. Afterward, shading and details are added with Berol Prismacolor colored pencil over the painted areas. It is particularly noticeable on the carrot, the radish, the tips of the asparagus and on the lines on the onion.

Here comic book legend Alex Ross, whose process we just looked at, combines Watercolor and Gouache (opaque watercolor) with pencil聽and聽India ink. His painterly style is unique in the realm of comics. Ross uses glazes of color over a pencil drawing, which in many places remains visible. Once dry, the blacks and the line work are finished off with a brush and ink.


Alex Ross, illustration of Superman and Lois Lane

Helpful Tip

For the sake of permanency, a quick spray of fixative is recommended if you choose to use any of these layered techniques.


As you can see, you are about to begin working in a聽very聽flexible medium! These are by no means the only techniques to try, so feel free to experiment!

Watercolor Techniques, Part 1: Ready, Set, Paint!


Successfully working with Watercolor聽depends on applying the same principles you used when working with any wet medium. There are habits you can develop and things to set up ahead of time that will make all the difference.

Painting in any water-based medium depends on the interaction among four key factors:

  • the absorbency of the paper
  • how wet or dry the paper is
  • how much pigment you are using
  • gravity

Begin by setting up your work area properly before you start.


To account for聽gravity, set your art board at an angle.聽The steeper the angle, the stronger the force of gravity will be.

This angle is subject to personal preference. Some people like just 20 degrees (equivalent to a couple of textbooks propping up one end of your work surface) while others have a much steeper angle like this:


  • Have everything you need on-hand. Lots of clean water and paper towels are a must.
  • Try out your colors first. Don’t just blindly jump in.
  • Try your colors at different opacities. See what they look like with different proportions of water to pigment.
  • Try making a glazing chart to understand color interactions. (You’ll learn how to do this on the next page.)
  • Mix colors you know you want to use beforehand and test them on a test strip of paper.



To prevent your work from buckling and warping you should tape your paper or illustration board down with artist’s tape, or work on a watercolor block. This will let the paper block or work board help the paper maintain its shape through repeated applications of wet paint.


Finally, if you’re working on a watercolor block and want to remove your painting, or you need paper for tests and roughs, you should remove your work by inserting a dull knife blade or a credit card into the opening at the top of the block and running it around the perimeter to break the adhesive bond and remove the page.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

ill_232_v9_m06_p9_vanallsberg_1The Mysteries of Harris Burdick聽is a fascinating and unusual book. It opens with an introductory letter from Chris Van Allsburg himself, explaining the book’s origins. “I first saw the drawings in this book a year ago, in the home of a man named Peter Wenders,” Van Allsburg begins. He goes on to explain that many years earlier, a man called Harris Burdick stopped by the office of Peter Wenders, who then worked for a publisher of children’s books, choosing stories and pictures to be made into books. Burdick brought one drawing from each of fourteen stories he had written as a sample for Mr. Wenders. Fascinated by the drawings, Wenders told Burdick he wanted to see the rest of his work as soon as possible. Promising to bring the stories in the next day, Burdick left鈥攏ever to be seen again. The fourteen pictures he left behind鈥攁nd their accompanying captions鈥攔emained in Wenders’s possession until Van Allsburg himself saw them (and the stories that Wenders’s children and their friends had long ago been inspired to write by looking at them). The mysterious pictures, writes Van Allsburg, are reproduced for the first time in the hope that they will inspire many other children to write stories as well.

Synopsis from the聽Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Teacher’s Guide

Chris Van Allsburg’s celebrated and thought-provoking illustrations in聽The Mysteries of Harris Burdick聽have intrigued readers of all ages for the past 25 years. Each illustration highlights a critical moment of a story, accompanied only by a single line of text and a title, forcing the readers to create the rest of the tale for themselves. This book is a stunning case study in the power of using the technique of freezing a moment in time coupled with picking the right event, the right critical moment in the narrative, to drive forward the drama and storytelling of the image.

View the video and consider what techniques Van Allsburg uses in each of the illustrations to heighten the story. Why are the moments he chooses so effective?


Frank Stockton & Point of View

Shaping the Scene: Layout and Action

Action can often suggest the layout and framing of a shot. As always we go back to our story. Ask yourself: What is the character doing? How do they feel about it? How should the viewer feel looking at this scene? How can I make this action totally clear to the viewer? These questions will help to dictate your layout (another word for composition) as well as help you choose your POV.

In this illustration by Frank Stockton notice how the action and feeling have dictated many of these decisions.


The Moving Camera

The world you see in an illustration can be very compelling, inviting you in for deeper analysis. Or not. Much of this depends of the point of view you see it from. After all, seeing a concert or play or a game from the nosebleed seats is not the same experience at all as being up close and personal with the action. Since in illustration you can choose your viewer’s vantage point, take the time to really consider it.

Frank Stockton is a comic book artist and illustrator who is known for using point of view like a boss! We just examined one of his images in detail on the previous page for exactly that reason.

As you look at the next series of images ask yourself once again: the illustrator could choose any point of view from which to show this scene, so why did he choose this one?