In this tutorial I’ll share my approach to colors: how I use them to set the atmosphere and the mood in a scene, and how I experiment with them. The following aren’t set rules, but guides to help you explore using color on your own.

This is an intermediate to beginner level tutorial. For the beginners, I recommend getting started by painting in monochrome with only a small splash of extra color. That extra color should preferably be an analogous or a complementary color to create a focal point.

Monochrome means using only one type of hue: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. Analogous here means “close to” on the color wheel, like green and yellow or red and purple. Complementary means opposites, like green and red. A focal point is the most important element in your scene, usually what you want the viewer to see first.

Art Style

The following are some of my artworks, and you may notice that they are very similar color-wise. That’s because I used my favorite “cold” colors: blue, green and purple.

These colors are my comfort zone. If I feel stuck, I can use them to make the art more appealing to me. I suggest using your favorite colors often since they will shape how others see your art style. At the same time, it’s important to experiment and explore, as that’s how you learn and improve.

Once I decide on a theme for the art, I consider what colors will work well: a blue desert might be fascinating, but it would be harder to pull off than a regular yellow one.

Analyze your favorite artworks or photographs by other artists. I love collecting a lot of images, but it’s much more useful to analyze a few and reflect on why they appeal to you. Mood boards are fun and helpful; I like using Pinterest for those.

You can check out my previous tutorial on how I drew the Dungeon Entrance Door, the first image above, here.

The Mood

Try letting the colors reflect your current mood. The final result will feel more authentic. Otherwise, you can try listening to music that corresponds to the mood of the scene you’re drawing.

Use color associations to your advantage. For example, a romantic scene will work great with reds and purples. You can maybe pull it off using only greens, but it will require a lot more effort.

I prefer to work with a pencil tool set to 100% opacity. This lets me easily select and substitute colors until I’m satisfied with the results. Another option is to colorize a greyscale image and then manually shift each hue for the finishing touches.

Tell a story

Ask yourself various questions about your art. For example:

  • Where is the focal point/ what is important?
  • What is the story?
  • Where and what is the light source?
  • How can I guide the viewer?
  • What makes this artwork unique?

Highly saturated colors can create a tense atmosphere, while a low saturated scene can give a sense of melancholy.

If you’re making a game with some kind of progression, you can dedicate a few colors per area or level difficulty. I prefer to limit each area to one predominant color and one secondary. The rest of the smaller details can be of any color.

In general, I avoid over-saturated colors unless I want to accentuate some tiny detail in a scene. Fortunately, in digital art, it’s easy to add and remove saturation. Having too many saturated elements in a scene is tiring for the eyes, even while painting.

Hue Shift

My favorite trick I learned recently is hue shifting when shading. This technique is really simple, but adds a lot of depth and makes the image look more vibrant. For highlights, I shift the hue to warmer colors like from red to orange; on the other hand, shadows are colder, so I shift them from red to purple. It’s really fun to play around with hue shifting!

There are several other variations you can try. If you have a cold light source (possibly a moon), then the reversed hue shift will work better.

Values

Greyscale values are an essential foundation for color since they affect the sense of space in a scene and the volume of the objects.

Keep in mind that different hues have different value ranges, so a saturated red and blue have darker value than a saturated yellow and cyan, as you can see in the example above.

Using limited color palettes is a different kind of challenge, but you can simplify each color in terms of values first. Next, I like to use warm/bright tones for highlights and cold/dark for shadows.

Summary

These color tips and principles can be applied to everything, including thumbnail sketches and characters. If you’re making a game, it’s critical to be consistent in how you treat your colors: their brightness, saturation, shading, etc. You set the rules, and must change them only for good reasons. Otherwise, it can become confusing.

For any important artwork, try testing several color palettes before sticking to one. I love playing with layer adjustments, and the results can be quite surprising.

Thank you for reading!

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