Today we are going to create a colour block-in. A colour block-in is also a type of underpainting, just like a value underpainting is. We are doing both types of underpaintings because our image has plenty of value variation as well as colour. Sometimes you might only need a colour block-in, OR a value block-in, and not both. But this only happens when you are working on a painting where one of the two is incredibly dominant. So in a monochrome painting you might skip the colour block-in, and in a very colourful image you might skip the value underpainting. But in most cases it is very useful to do both, and split up colour and value to make things easier for yourself.
Why Should I Create a Colour Block-in?
The point of a colour bock-in is to figure out and explore the colour combinations and harmony in your painting. Of course you might want a realistic-looking painting and so you will want to get as close as possible to the colours in your reference photo or real-life setup. But the viewer of your painting will never see the photo or setup and so the colours within the painting need to work well together: creating a pleasing harmony of colours that guide the viewer’s eye to where you want them to look.
So if we create a simplified, almost schematic, colour block-in (a ‘colour map’), we can check our colour harmonies before we dive into detail. It will help you see whether a slight change of colour might improve things, or whether a dab of colour here or there might increase balance, whether skipping something might help, etc. We can still stay very true to our subject AND make tiny changes to colour if necessary.
This is also a good stage to practice mixing the right colours, so you don’t have to fight colour mixing AND creating form or detail at a later stage.
Find the Average Colour
So, working over a dry value underpainting, we are going to look for AVERAGE colour. This is basically a simplified version of colour. So look for areas/shapes in your image and just name the colours. For me, the pebbles are dark grey and light grey. The grass is green, the woods in the background are dark and light green. The water is blue and green. The girl has a skin colour and the dress is grey. And I am going to paint these simple colours, keeping things as simple as I possibly can. Try to get as close as possible to the colours you see, but stay away from transitions and variations. Think like a cartoonist or a child: simple shapes and simple, even colours. It might not feel very creative to do this, but believe me, it will makes things so much easier when you do get creative tomorrow, because you will know what colours to use.
So create a very, very simple colour map of your image.
Step Back and Check
Step back and check whether this reads ok. Imagine you squinting at your finished painting on Friday; you will see a simplified blurry image of your final painting. All colours will be simplified. You will see the colour block-in you are creating today.
Change colours where needed: perhaps those light pebbles are too grey: give them some colour. Perhaps the water is too blue: tone the blue down. Perhaps the green is too cold: warm it up with some yellow. Perhaps the colours are too separated over the whole composition: make sure colours come back here and there to create an overall harmony. The green from the water pops back in the stones and in the woods. The blue from the water comes back in the stones, the dress and the book. The skin colour makes a nice complementary ‘pop’ against all these cool blues and greens. Adjust colours where needed but stop yourself from painting any detail.
Go over your whole painting, do not focus on one area.
Step back all the time to check how the painting ‘reads’ as a whole. Remember the painting needs to be able to stand on its own: the viewer will never see your reference material.
When happy with the colour layout, step back and let it dry.
Building up the paint layers
Try to work with light and dry paint so that it will dry quickly. We are overpainting all of this so there is no need for nice brush marks or beautiful transitions. Keep things thin but make sure there is enough paint to be able to see your colour planning. Over the course of the days we add layers of paint and all together there will be enough paint for it to look good on Friday. On day one, the paint was thin and the canvas shone through. By now, on day 3, my canvas has disappeared and there is a good amount of paint on it. Make sure your paint layers are thin enough to dry quickly, but thick enough to build up enough paint to call it a painting! A slow and even build-up is the best approach. Make sure you don’t ‘start painting’ on Friday!