Colour surrounds us, inspires us, and influences us. You can read about colour science and colour theory all day long, but the best way to work better with colour is to play with it. The more you learn about colour through experiencing it, the more you’ll train your eyes and use it better in your work. With a better understanding of how colours interact with each other, you can effectively use colour to influence a mood or a setting. We love colour and have rounded up five of our favourite exercises for learning more about colour. Before you get started, I recommend you read these two interesting posts on how our eyes see colours and how we perceive colour if you haven’t already.
These exercises don’t require any art experience or special supplies. The only thing you need is curiosity and your eyeballs. If you have absolutely no experience with art supplies, I suggest starting with whatever tool you find the least intimidating, such as crayons or markers. Move up from there to basic watercolours or gouache when you feel comfortable.
This is a fun exercise and requires no tools at all. Pick a colour and gather as many examples of that colour as you can find. Flip through magazines, walk around your house or go for a walk in your neighbourhood with your eyes peeled for that particular colour. When you’re done, look at all the different examples of that colour you have. Think about how the colour you chose interacts with the colours that surround it. If it is used on a product, what kind? In an ad, what is it selling? In a room, how?
This is another fun and tool-free exercise. Choose something in your life that needs organizing and organize it by colour. If you’re a knitter or sewer, use your yarn stash or thread spools. Other fun stuff to organize is books on a shelf, spices in your kitchen, or ties in the closet. Start by putting the items in basic groups by colour. Then within each colour try to break them down even further. For example, within your greens, put all the lime greens together and forest greens together. Can you then arrange these items in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple? This will force you to look at the greens and wonder if they’re a little more yellow or a little more blue. Bonus: you just tricked yourself into organizing something!
OK, time to break out the tools. Using whatever medium you are comfortable with, make yourself a colour wheel. To make a colour wheel, draw a circle and divide that circle into 6 pieces, like a pie. Colour each piece one of the colours of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. Look at your colour wheel and label the primary colours: Red, Yellow, Blue. Next, label the secondary colours: Orange, Green, Purple. Each colour has its complementary colour opposite it on the colour wheel. Red and green are complements, orange and blue, and yellow and purple. Colours that are next to each other are known as analogous, such as yellow and green.
When you’re ready to play with mixing paints, make another colour wheel with an extra wedge between each of these colours. Mix your colours to add in red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-purple, and purple-red. Now you’re really getting going and already have paint mixed. After your colour wheel is made, spend time painting little swatches next to each other. See what the yellow looks like next to the purple, next to the orange. What does the red look like with the blue or with the purple?
There is a reason artists and designers are constantly drawn to nature. Nature truly is one of the best places to find gorgeous colour combinations. Head out on a walk and start looking for a colour combination that speaks to you. Start with something easy like a flower for the first time. If the weather cooperates, bring along your sketchbook and make notes or mix colours right there in nature. If not, take a photo of this piece of inspiration and bring it home with you. Next, try to match the colours in this item. Make a little swatch for the red of the petals, the green of the stem, the yellow of the stamen. Name these colours. These little palettes will yield beautiful little combinations and can be used later in other projects.
Fun fact: Exercises like this one were the inspiration behind the colour palettes we post on Pinterest and Instagram.
This may be the most challenging exercise, but if you’ve done the others, you’ll be ready for it. Get something for a reference that you like and see if you can match that colour by mixing your paints. Back in college, we had to do this with a swatch of printed fabric. I’ve heard of other teachers using Starburst candies. Whatever you use, choose something flat, with minimal texture. So, avoid something like a skein of yarn but instead choose a piece of vinyl. Look at that colour and think about what other colours went into it to make it. Look at your colour wheel and ask yourself: what would be a good starting point? You will learn a lot about colour, and your paints, doing this exercise.
When you take the time to learn about colour, you get more comfortable working with it. Like any skill set, the more you practice and train yourself, the more effectively you can use that knowledge in your work.