How to paint in color

Move from monochrome to color with these five must-know steps.

How to paint in color

A limited colour palette can add life and vibrancy to your drawings

So you've learnt how to draw and paint in black and white and now you'd like to move into the world of color. Before you do, there are a few techniques to consider.

Color separates painting from drawing, bringing life and vibrancy to paintings and sketches. Yet because color is so complex, I prefer to simplify color and limit the colors I use as much as possible. To do this I must first properly shift a color's temperature using a few key painting techniques.

Temperature is a property of color that's often misunderstood. It refers to how warm or cool a color is. I define warm colors as red, yellow and orange. Cool colors are blue, green and violet.

Temperature is relative, so any color has a warm and cool version. One way to apply this to figure painting is by starting with only two colors, using burnt umber as my warm and ultramarine blue as the cool.

These two colors enable me to create a range of warm and cool greys of varying value and intensity. Once I've completed the first pass of color, I'll then add variations and temperature shifts.

Variation and temperature shifts are the secret to making color feel, quite simply, believable. For example, I'll add a wash of yellow to the light side of the skin to enhance the color.

Next, I'll begin to carefully add reds and pinks to the blood-rich and sun-tanned areas such as the hands, face, knees and feet. Finally, I'll add more subtle cool colors like blue and green to the half-tones: this helps to make the skin look that bit more alive and realistic-looking. Hopefully the following painting techniques will help you to achieve great results.

01. Understanding temperature

How to paint in color: Colour temperature

Any colour can look warm or cool, depending on its context

Temperature is relative, so any color can have a warm or cool version depending on the colors around it. Even warm colors such as red, yellow and orange can look cool, and likewise blue, green and violet can be made warm by using them in conjunction with other colors.

02. Block in shadow

How to paint in color: Block in shadow

Legaspi creates shadows out of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber

Once the drawing is established, the next painting technique is to block in the shadow. 
For the color of the shadow, I mix Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber to create a medium dark value, blue-grey. Because most art studio lights have a warm color, the cool shadow creates dynamic color contrast.

03. Transition tones

How to paint in color: Transition tones

Shadow boundaries are softened with transition tones

I put a wash of dark, blue-grey on the border of the shadow shape. This softens the edge and creates a transition of value from dark to light. To mix the darker tone, I use Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue again, but with more pigment and less water.

04. Half-tones and lights

How to paint in color: Half-tones and lights

Legaspi builds on a base flesh-tone with Yellow Ochre

To create a base flesh-tone, I use a mixture of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre and Ultramarine Blue. 
I add more yellow to the light-facing planes, which results in a more life-like colour. For the half-tones, I add more red and blue for greater colour saturation and a darker value.

05. Variations and accents

How to paint in color: Variations and accents

Saturated reds establish sun-tanned or blood-rich areas

More than any other painting technique, variation is the key to believable color. So to finish the sketch, I add a pink/orange mix to the face, hands and joints, then a more saturated warm-yellow mix to the light areas. Finally, I apply a cool-grey mix to the half-tones, which makes the skin more dynamic and life-like.

Words: Chris Legaspi

Chris Legaspi is keen to share his extensive knowledge of figure drawing and painting. See more of his work and drawing advice at This article originally appeared in ImagineFX bookazine How to Paint & Draw.

Liked this? Read these!