Art Tools - Color Matching From Life

Lately I’ve been inspired by the videos I see of artists perfectly color matching their paint to the environment. The ones where they go outside and hold up a tiny canvas that obscures the view, but then they realistically paint in the scene and create the illusion that the canvas isn’t even there.

I’ve been thinking about color matching lately and trying to figure out how to teach myself to pick colors more accurately the first time around.

I realized there are two parts to achieving that:

  • You have to be able to accurately identify what color you are seeing, and
  • You have to be really familiar with the colors that you own and what they truly look like.

I have three different blue hues in my paint kit right now, but if you ask me which of those is the closest color to the sky today, I wouldn't be able to tell you without consulting… my handy dandy chart. 

A 12 by 9 grid of color swatches in acrylic paint.A 12 by 9 grid of color swatches in acrylic paint with color name labels.

I just don't have the more memorized yet.

So let me quickly explain what I have here. This is a reference. I made of the main 12 colors that I have. These are acrylics, but you can do this with any medium.

Each color has its own 3x3 grid. The center square is the paint straight from the tube, these squares directly above and below are mixed with titanium white and Mars black respectively.

The left column is the same mixture of a light, hue above direct color, in the middle and dark, hue below with the addition of a cool gray mixed to all three to desaturate the color. 

The column on the right is the same but instead of a gray I mixed and burnt umber for a warmer desaturated color.

A 3 by 3 grid of green color mixes, ranging from light to dark and cool to warm variations.

The purpose of this is to take a lot of guesswork out of what I need to mix. I can hold my chart up to what I’m painting, and quickly be able to tell not only which color is the closest to start with, but also which warm or cool variation.

A 3 by 3 color grid next to a photo of a pink tin holding paint brushes. Labels over the tin demonstrate which paint swatches to use if one were to paint the pink tin.6 photos collaged showing the progression of a painting demo. The artist demonstrates gradual color matching of a pink tin, painted on a paper that overlaps the tin.

Cadmium red and permanent rose appear similar straight out of the tube, especially on camera. I use the cadmium red frequently, but I hardly ever use the permanent rose because I'm not familiar enough with it to know what it will look like when mixed with other hues. Personally, I need to be able to predict what a color will look like when I'm planning a painting, otherwise I won't use that color.

This of course isn't always necessary when creating more intuitive or exploratory work, but for the most part I have something specific in mind when I'm beginning, and I want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

So until I memorize how each color behaves when mixed, this chart has been really helpful for me. At a quick glance, I can see cadmium red and permanent rose look similar straight out of the tube, but they vary wildly on what they look like when mixed with neutral hues and even just white. You can tell from the top of the chart here that the light versions of cadmium red are much warmer than the light versions of permanent rose. 

Color swatches of two similar red paint colors, and 3 light versions of each to show the variations one is able to achieve with minimal mixing.

So if I ever tried to mix a pink hue from Cadmium red, it's never going to look like the pink hues that I can automatically get from this permanent rose color.

At this time my chart doesn’t include mixing two hues together, for example mixing any of my reds or blues together for different purples, and then creating the appropriate light, dark, warm, and cool variations. I wanted to keep it simple and get more familiar with what is easily accessible for now.

In the past I’ve only ever made color swatches that were the color straight out of the tube, and then a light and dark variant. Being able to see both warm and cool versions has helped immensely because those mixes don’t always look like how I imagine they will. No matter what style you’re painting in, its important to know what colors you can create. I never expected to be attracted to all the pastel versions of my colors, but seeing them laid out makes me excited to try a high key painting. If you’ve never done something like this, I encourage you to make your own chart and see how much it speeds up your painting process.

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