What Colors Should I Use?

Choosing the “right” colors comes down to a couple of things. One of the most important is to know what you are trying to convey with your landscape. Serene and calm? Bold and exciting?

Color plays a profound role in how we feel about – well, almost everything!

During my time as a designer while studying restaurant design, color theory suggested that using red and orange helps induce hunger. Think about some of the colors that the top fast food restaurants use in their logos and decor. McDonalds? Pizza Hut? Burger King? Red, red, and more red!

With landscape painting, the question “what colors should I use” might not be the only important question. Try asking yourself “what feeling do I want to convey with this scene?”

Reds, yellows, and oranges have a tendency to make us feel energised, happy, and passionate. Greens, blues, purples can help us feel calm and thoughtful.

In addition, it’s important to consider how complimentary colors, and contrast play a role. High contrast is more dynamic, exciting, especially with vivid colors. Low contrast can help us feel relaxed.

Gouache can be intensely vivid straight from the tube, so color mixing is necessary to subdue it for certain effects. I prefer to use a limited selection of colors so I’ll typically select 3-7 for a painting. While choosing the colors I first think about which emotions I want to invoke.

Let’s take a look at a variety of limited palettes and the resulting paintings to explore this further.

Bold sunset gouache painting
Colors used to mix: Cobalt blue, cobalt turquoise, dioxazine purple, cobalt violet, flesh tint (peach), cad free lemon yellow, rose, jaune brilliant dark, white.

Above: This is an example of a wider range of colors. Purple and yellow are compliments, as are orange and blue, which give this painting a more dynamic and exciting feel. Especially when combined with the bold brushstrokes.

Forest waterfall gouche painting
Colors used to mix: Prussian blue, cad free yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, white.

Above: Although Prussian blue and burnt sienna are rather intense colors on their own, they were used here in combination to create rich darks. Adding a bit of yellow to “warm up” the rocks and to create the foliage helped the painting stay harmonised, but also a bit earthy.

Gouache beach scenes
Colors used to mix: ultramarine blue, primary blue, cad free yellow, alizarin crimson, perylene black, zinc white.

Above: These beach paintings lean towards the cooler side of the color wheel, with just a hint of warmth here and there. By using lots of white and overall low contrast, the relaxed beach vibe is easily maintained.

Gouache sand dune painting
Colors used to mix: Ultramarine blue, primary blue, viridian , cad free yellow, burnt sienna, white.

Above: Another bright beach scene, only this time more warmth on the sand and a bit more contrast overall. More energy.

In conclusion, I think it’s important to start by asking yourself what you want the viewer to feel when they see your painting. After you know which emotion to work towards, you can narrow down your colors and think about the contrast (or play between compliments).

Do you have any unique color combinations that you LOVE? Let me know in the comments and I may do a study with them!

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

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