Color theory exercises, how to improve!

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There are many ways to improve your color perception. To some people color theory comes easy, but more often than not, these people are already fairly expressive in their art. They have a stylized or very artistic approach to art in which color is just a way to emphasize their goal. For artists that lean a bit more toward realistic art, color theory is a bit harder because color shifts in our world are way more subtle. but they are there!

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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Color theory exercises, how to improve!

As mentioned before, there are many ways to do so. If it comes easy to you, you still might want to enhance your skills with the following exercises, and when you are not, like me when I started out, these exercises are even more valuable. The beauty of art is that you can’t really go wrong. You can always overpaint, and if you are a digital artist, there is always that save button!

Be bold

This creature has very bold complementary colors based on the king fisher. Even mother nature like playing with colors.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Be bold! Colors are bold, just go crazy and have fun exploring colors. Pick random colors and focus on contrasts instead in an effort to create a comprehensive image, instead of focusing on how correct your color use is. Just play around and shift, use the hue panel, the color balance, maybe even put every group of colors on their own layer and shift them around to see what happens.

The problem with us people is that when we draw, we see every detail and flaw, and they scream at us. When you don’t understand a specific theory for example color theory, something may seem off, because you think it’s not logical, while in fact there is nothing wrong with what you just did. It’s even possible that whatever you did there will get an awesome response. So don’t be shy, be bold, put in the practice, and learn from it!

Use different color schemes on the same artwork

When you finished your artwork it can be interesting to use the hue or color balance tool to shift through different color combinations. You can do so with an image that’s on one layer. But it can also be beneficial to keep some layers apart and see what happens when you play with their respective colors. There are way more tools in various digital programs that can help you to mess around. Check out contrasts or saturation, and see what it does for your image.

It’s a good practice to save all these variations and put them next to each other in a file. That way you can compare and try to figure out what looks best. You can also try to figure out why it does look good or horrible. Take into account the different existing art terms and you’d be surprised what you can learn from an exercise like this!

Ask for feedback

Feedback is key in any situation. Whenever you’re learning you should always be asking for feedback. Especially when you are targeting something specific like color theory. Take for example your combined images of the past exercise. When you finished analyzing them and picked out the best or most interesting ones: Go ahead and ask for feedback. Do so with family and friends and see what people that are not artists think of it. But also check with artists and get some feedback from them.
Be specific when you ask questions, this helps you with getting the right answers, as well as new insights.
You can do so on our Facebook group or on our discord channel. We do our best to maintain a healthy community and a safe environment for you to learn!

Draw with colors in grayscale

This one was very intentionally done with specific colors, This could be a goal too, but I encourage that you use even more colors and don’t layer them as I did here if this is a thing you’re struggling with.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

This is an interesting one. What you do here is slap in some different colors you like without a specific goal. The only thing you will pay attention to is that you get a good contrast range with them (so, light colors, dark colors, etc) Then decide what you will draw. Turn your screen into greyscale (just the temporary solution, not the permanent one!) grab your reference, turn it to grayscale too, and start contrast picking from the colors you slapped on your canvas earlier.
You will not be able to see what colors you use, instead, you just grab the contrasts you need to use, and with broad bold strokes (this is important because blending too many colors will make your artwork look muddy) you keep drawing.
When you are done, turn your artwork back to color and look at that: The colors may be completely off, but your artwork will be very colorful and perfectly readable, and that without overthinking your color use!

Pro tip: Make sure you use similar levels of saturation for this exercise. Use only fully saturated colors, only pastels only greyed out colors, etc. Just make sure you end up with the full-color spectrum as well as a full contrast spectrum.

Use the color wheel

A color wheel helps you to pick the right colors.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Using the color wheel is a no-brainer. Understanding the color wheel is the first part of color theory you’d begin with. Pick your colors as you like, or apply the different standard color combinations and go from there. Even professionals use this tool. There are roughly 1 million colors we can see. Having a tool that helps us pick the right ones is greatly beneficial.

There are many online tools that will help you out. Some digital programs also have the color wheel available or they can be downloaded as an addon. I highly recommend using these tools because they will make your life a lot easier!

Challenge yourself with a random color generator

If you’re ready to take on a bigger challenge, use a random color generator. These generators don’t work through logic, so your color combinations will be really challenging most of the time. You are limited to using these colors and their respective contrasts (lighter and darker through adding white, gray, or black) and that’s it.

Most of the time this will just be an exercise, but sometimes you will end up with really interesting images that are absolutely worth sharing!

Study other artists

Studying artists is just like using the color wheel quite a no-brainer. Pick your favorite artist and analyze the way they use color and contrasts, and try to master it yourself. Do so time and again, or even pick an artist you don’t have an affinity with, but really masters color theory. Pick the features you like most of all these studies and create your own magical sauce!
It will take some time, but when you keep repeating this, color theory will start coming naturally to you. These artists will literally show you what is possible, and you will start realizing that specific combinations are really not as wrong as you thought they were before.

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