How to Create a Color Study Investigation

I learned about color investigation sketches while studying painting in art school. This technique allows for a closer look at colors from a painting, photo, or any picture that inspires you. I'm using a photo of Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles painting to walk you through the process.

You can do this kind of color investigation in any way you choose - with any tools and in any format that works best for you. For example, artist Emily Noyes Vanderpoel created quick watercolor studies she called "color notes" in her sketchbook. She used bold brush strokes of color to set down a quick sketch of colors that caught her eye.

Of course, if you're techno-savvy (you kids these days with your apps!), there are websites you can use to pull a color palette from an image. These apps will return just a handful of colors, usually 5, and display them along with HEX or RGB codes. If you're a whiz with the computer, I bet you could easily drop the codes in your own grid to create a digital version of this exercise.

Above is a palette from Adobe Color online. Pretty cool.

And here's one from icolorpalette online. Neat!

As for me, I'm old school, and we didn't learn a damned thing about computers through my entire university art school experience. I tend to stick with analog processes when it comes to art. Besides, I still love the process of handling the materials, cutting the paper, etc. So, I'll show you how I created my color sketch from this Van Gogh painting with colored paper.

Materials to Create Color Investigation Grids

  • Inspirational photo or picture of choice (try starting to snap pics of colorful things that catch your eye when you are out and about, start clipping photos from your favorite magazine, or start checking out books from your library)
  • Colored paper matching the major hues in the picture (if you're using paper like me, Color Aid papers offer the most variety of colors for this purpose, although they are pricey. Alternatively, you could take your photo/picture to your local arts or crafts store and pull matching colored paper from the solid scrapbook paper section.)
  • Base paper for creating grids (use a scrapbook, sketchbook, or single sheets of cardstock)
  • Tools to cut paper into squares (I mostly use a hobby knife with #11 blade + cutting mat + metal ruler. You could also use a rotary cutter + cutting mat + clear ruler, or ruler + pencil + scissors. Whatever works best for you.)
  • Adhesive of choice (glue stick works great for paper, glue squares work better for heavy cardstock or Color Aid paper)
  • Recycle bin
Gather together all of your materials. Based on the size of your scrapbook or sketchbook, decide what size grid you're using so you know how to cut your paper squares. I think if you stick to making color sketch grids in the same way, shape, and size, it makes for easier comparisons when looking back over previous sketches.

My grids include 12 squares about 2" x 2" and are formatted in my sketchbook in a 3:4 ratio.

The first step is to try and identify the major colors in the picture. I do this with Color Aid papers, pulling out closest matches to the major hues I see in the photo of the painting. This in itself is not a perfect process, and there is no right or wrong way to approach it. For instance, although I am trying to look at the painting objectively, I'm pretty sure my intrinsic color preferences are playing a part in the 12 colors I choose to pull from this painting for my sketch.

Once I've identified the major hues, I cut each of the 12 paper squares to size for my grid.

Then I play around with the composition of the squares on the grid. In this layout, I actually tried to place each color about the same location that I see it in the painting. You might be able to see this a bit when turning the page in the same orientation as the painting below.

And that's all there is to it! Again, you can really make this type of color sketch in any way that works for you. Here's a few more of my paper grid color investigations below.

This color sketch is from an Ed Emberley book where a limited number of colors where used for all the illustrations. I'm heavily  influenced by mid 20th Century graphic design, illustration & art, and Ed Emberley is one of my top all-time favorite artists/illustrators.

This color sketch is from a mid 20th Century map of Illinois where each county was colored differently. It seems that color was added to just about every aspect of life in this time period.

And this sketch is from another favorite mid 20th Century illustrators, Richard Scarry. I just can't get enough of these bright colors!

I hope you are inspired to try some color investigation in your own way, and maybe to incorporate what you learn about your own color preferences into your work.

This post is one in a series about making color sketches.

This is How to Create a Color Study Investigation.
Find How to Create a Color Study With Representational Colors here.


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