There’s more to better coloring than coloring better!
Technique can only take you so far.
You could be the best Copic Marker colorer on the face of the earth…
But if you lack presentation skills, no one will ever notice.
Smart use of color— not how you color but where you place color— is more important than your blending. It’s more important than shading for dimensionality or even your creative use of texture.
Intelligent color palettes and wise color placement can improve the quality of your next coloring project.
But before we continue, you may want to read the prequels to this article, all about smart color palettes.
The exercises below will make a lot more sense after reading the Color Palette series.
Part one is a Beginner’s Guide to Coloring with Sophistication which includes a FREE coloring image!
Part two shows how I use a color wheel to select ideal color palettes for any project… be sure to download your FREE color wheel while you’re there!
All caught up now?
Now let’s talk about how to improve your presentation skills!
But before you get the wrong idea, I’m absolutely not talking about adding better bling to your cards.
A lot of colorers get caught in that trap!
"My coloring is mediocre, so I’ll add some scrapbook paper behind it… plus a little glitter… and this chipboard sentiment… plus a few tasteful sequins floating in the background…”
Step away from the trinkets!
Let’s be honest, what message do some of those ten pound cards send?
“Look at my bling, not my coloring!”
You are not improving the presentation with sentiments, stickers, and ephemera, you’re hiding it.
I know it’s fun to glue pretty sparklies to your project but it’s the use (and overuse) of trinkets that drag you out of the artistic realm and back into the craft world.
You’re taking all these coloring classes to become a better artist, right?
Well, I don’t remember Picasso using sticky backed gemstones. So cool it with that stuff.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with collage UNTIL it becomes the focal point of your project.
If people see the collaged ephemera BEFORE they see your coloring, you’re doing it wrong.
Because all of the stickers and enamel dots? They were made by someone else. You just peeled off the adhesive backing. You’re not taking coloring classes to better highlight someone else’s latest ephemera collection, eh?
If you’re looking to make fine art, you can’t rely on collage to make it look spiffy.
Every day, there are painters, illustrators, and sketchers who somehow manage to present their artwork in a professional manner without the use of bling.
You can too.
Let’s look at how we can channel fine art professionalism into your next coloring project!
Break a bad habit: Stop grabbing markers on the fly!
One of the big mistakes I see colorers make is that they don’t plan the color palette before they start.
I know, planning sounds so boring.
You came to color, so let’s get to the coloring!
Coloring without a plan is a bad idea.
With a stamp image like “My Favorite Pair” from PowerPoppy, most colorers would grab a couple yellow markers for the pears and color them first.
Then you’d find some leaf colors for the leaves.
And pink is your favorite color, so you might color the ribbon pink.
But now we’re getting into dangerous territory because we still have more objects to color.
So you select purple for the flowers, because that makes sense.
Then you grab orange for the bowl, not because you love orange and not because you’ve seen an orange bowl before. Nope, you grab orange because you haven’t used orange on the project yet. That’s a terrible reason to use orange! But wait, it gets worse.
You talk yourself into tan for the card, because you’ve still got empty areas in the stamp and you’re running out of markers. Then you slap some blue in the background hoping desperately that a pretty blue might tie it all together.
And now your project looks like rainbow barf.
That’s the problem with not planning. The farther into the project you get, the more random and desperate your color selection becomes.
This is what I call a Color Circus. Lots of color with no rhyme or reason.
And don’t think you’re fooling anyone. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you color the bowl. Your viewers can tell that the orange was a total afterthought.
Lack of planning shows. The circus tells us you grabbed on the fly.
What you’re about to see in the rest of this article is what artists call color studies.
Color studies are pre-tests, little experiments where an artist investigates “what happens when I use this color instead of that color?”
Color studies are how an artist plans the project before they ever pick up a marker, pencil, or squeeze a tube of paint.
I make color studies for my projects and so do all the professional artists I know. For freelance art, it is standard practice to have the client approve the color study plus other details before we begin working on the actual artwork.
Color studies are not a modern art-school thing either. Vermeer and Rembrandt made color studies. Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish made color studies. Heck, Andy Warhol sold his color studies as actual art!
Let’s see what we can learn from applying color studies to “My Favorite Pair”
First- Determine your focal point
What is the most important object in your stamp image?
Knowing the most important object does two things— it serves as your starting point for building a color palette but it also tells you where to direct the viewer’s attention.
Yes, good art always tells the viewer where to look.
“Psssttt… hey buddy, look at my beautiful pears!”
But wait, what if you’re new to this art stuff? How do you decide what the focal point should be?
Simple. If you were to tell your spouse “Honey? Will you go get the ______ stamp off my desk?”, what would you call this stamp for someone who’s never seen it before?
You wouldn’t tell Honey to go get “the bowl” stamp would you?
You wouldn’t call this “the ribbon” stamp either, right?
It’s a pear stamp. “Go get the pear stamp.” Pears are the focal point. They’re the most important thing because it’s what you looked at when you first saw the stamp.
To create a professional presentation, you must color “My Favorite Pair” in a way that never distracts or detracts from the pears.
Got your focal point? Now decide what color it should be.
I’ve chosen yellow but you could do green, brown, pink… whatever variety of pear you like, it doesn’t matter.
Now let’s make a few color studies. Stamp several pear images on scrap paper. Then scribble some pear color onto your first color study.
Do not labor over your color studies, just fill in the space quickly. Your best coloring is a waste of time here! We’re looking at the color, not your coloring.
That’s why I often do my studies on my computer (as shown here) or on my iPad using Procreate. Scribbles on scrap paper are fine. As long as you can visualize the shapes and colors, you’re good.
Okay, got your focal points colored? Now ask yourself, “which objects absolutely must be a specific color?”
Oranges need to be orange and ghosts usually are white. A Golden Retriever must be golden.
In this case, we have leaves.
Leaves are green. Let’s not get crazy with fall leaves or dead leaves. Keep it simple and keep ‘em green. Scribble green onto your color study.
And for this image, the stamp description at PowerPoppy.com says the flowers are African Violets. I know that African Violets come in several different colors but in my opinion, violets will always look like violets if you color them violet. Color them pink and someone will assume they’re Primroses or Begonias or something I made up. So I’m sticking with violet violets today.
Yellow pears, green leaves, and violet violets. Those are my intractable colors. They’re going to stay the same through all of today’s color study experiments.
Experiment with other colors
Choose a few colors and see what they do to the image.
If you need help choosing extra colors, there’s no shame in that! In Color Palettes: Part One, I show you how to use color palette collections from several websites to gather suggestions. In Color Palettes: Part Two, I show you how to use a color wheel to find workable colors.
No matter where you get the ideas, always keep your yellow pears in mind!
As you try new colors, ask yourself “what does this new color do to the pears?”
My favorite color is red but look at what a red bowl does to the pears.
Be honest, your eye goes to the red bowl before the pears, doesn’t it?
So no red bowl!
The red bowl is a failed color experiment, learn from it. If the red bowl steals attention away from the pears, it’s safe to say an orange bowl and a magenta bowl might do the same thing.
I think we may need a neutral colored bowl to make this image work.
It’s not just the bowl that can rob our attention. Look at what a magenta card does. Zip, the eye suddenly goes right past the pears and straight to the card.
Now we know we probably need a neutral card too.
And look at what red does on the ribbon. This is interesting, we look at the pears first but then our eye starts following that red ribbon all around the image like a housefly with nowhere to land.
That’s not good. So no red ribbon either.
Failed experiments = lessons learned.
This is why precisely artists do color studies. We want to fail on scrap paper rather than on the expensive paper or canvas!
Strange new discoveries
The red bowl study hinted strongly that we need a neutral bowl. But I’m not a big fan of brown stuff, so what if we tried black or navy blue?
Let’s study it! We’ll never know if it works until we see dark colors in action.
I confess, I did not make a black bowl because I know from experience exactly what will happen. Been there, made that mistake before!
Large black objects create a visual vortex. They suck our attention. We assume black will recede but it actually jumps out and screams “Hey, world, look at me!”
The navy blue bowl here almost does the same thing. It’s not as bad as black but this dark blue still draws the eye more than I want.
What I didn’t expect was for navy blue to make the bowl feel like it weighs 300 pounds. Dang, navy makes the whole darned image feel somber and heavy.
Deep colors can weigh anything down. Ribbon is usually a light and delicate thing but look how heavy the black ribbon is.
More surprises too, look at how much heaviness and attention a medium blue background draws. No matter how I try to put my eyes on the pears, that bold blue keeps drawing them back to the background.
Aren’t you glad we discovered this BEFORE we wasted a ton of B26 ink coloring the background?
When you find a study that works, try some variations
Don’t just stop when you hit on something nice. Further color studies can help make a good color palette look great!
After a few studies, I found a very polished looking color palette using a white bowl, shaded with cool grays. Yellow plus gray can look very sophisticated.
I liked the grays so much that I stopped experimenting and used the far left study to color my final version.
But I could have kept going. I should have kept going!
Can we improve upon sophisticated yellow and gray?
I don’t know; let’s find out!
During the livestream demonstration class for “My Favorite Pair”, students asked if we could borrow purple from the violets and use that on the ribbon.
A quick color study shows me that yes, a light violet looks beautiful on the ribbon. It fits with the color palette yet doesn’t draw attention away from the pears or the flowers.
I really love the soft violet ribbon with the white/gray bowl.
That’s the study I should have colored!
Another student in the class asked about a pink ribbon.
The study on the right confirms my skepticism. Pink draws a lot of attention and runs our eye all around the page, the same way the red ribbon did. So no, pink doesn’t look as polished and cohesive as gray or soft violet.
Make it work!
I get stubborn sometimes.
I really, really, really wanted to know what would make that orange bowl work.
It took me a few tries but I found a solution.
The bowl is still very prominent here but this isn’t too bad! Adding orange to the card balances the visual draw of the bowl.
Balance is the cure for a lot of things. I’m not sure that balance alone could overcome a black vortex bowl but it’s worth a quick color study to find out.
I kind’a like this orange version now. I think the centers of the violets would look good in orange rather than yellow. I’d even add some orange pencils to the pears to further play up the balance of orange.
And what about pink?
Remember the pink ribbon that didn’t work?
What would keep a pink from dragging our eye all around the image?
I found that by using a softer pink on the ribbon and changing the violets to a cool magenta, our eyes still travel along the ribbon but now they stop to rest on the various flowers. It’s still a little busy for my taste but this works.
And psssttt… this study also confirms my suspicion about violety violets. I’ve seen African Violets in this wine color many times but here in the stamp, they no longer read as violets.
Plus the violet buds here read as strawberries. That’s totally unexpected and personally, I don’t like the way it looks. I would have been very disappointed to find accidental strawberries on my finished final project.
Figure this stuff out during the experimentation phase to save time and frustration.
So to recap, color studies allow you to find the best colors BEFORE you begin coloring.
1. Find the focal point and select an attractive color
Never detract or distract from the most important object.
2. Decide which colors are intractable
Don’t fight with your viewers. They expect bananas to be yellow, fire engines to be red, and leaves to be green(ish).
3. Now play with alternative colors for the non-essential items
Find coordinating colors from internet color palettes or a color wheel.
4. Learn from strange new discoveries
Some colors attract the eye, some repel the eye. Avoid any color that sends the eye buzzing around the image. Also pay attention to visual weight and balance.
5. When you find a color study that works, try to improve it
I regret stopping at all gray as shown here. While it looks calm and sophisticated, the light violet ribbon test tells me I could have done better!
6. See if you can make an odd choice work
I learned a lot from the orange bowl experiment. What would it take to make a green bowl work?
Color studies improve the visual quality of your projects by ensuring that every color is properly considered and professionally presented.
Tell us what you think!
Have you used color studies before? If so, how did they help? And if you didn’t see improvement, what do you think went wrong?
Share with us in the comments below to help others learn from your experience and opinions!
Color with me!
“My Favorite Pair” is now a Vanilla Livestream demonstration, available in the video library archives at Patreon.
Join Patreon for unlimited access to this and five additional livestreams through July 2019!
Livestream demonstrations are real-time coloring with highly informative time-outs, side demonstrations, and open Q&A.
It’s one thing to watch a highly edited, time constrained video designed to make a colorer look good.
It’s totally different to watch an artist in action, see them make mistakes in real time, and to hear their thought process as they color.
You’ll be amazed at the tips and details that you pick up from uncensored coloring. If you’ve ever wanted to watch over an artist’s shoulder or crawl into their brain, Vanilla Livestream is for you!
Class Printable Pack Includes:
Class syllabus with detailed recipe guide
Full color project sample, guide to shading
Guide to Copic base
Detailed color map
Project inspiration references
Supplies used in “Complementary Pears”
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