As one color approaches another there’s always a blended transition. Even if your subject is painted a single color it will have lighter and darker areas. Because color is affected by light and form, it has a huge amount of variation. Even a sheet of white paper seen on a cloudy day contains a gradation subtle colors.
So what does this mean for you?
It means that you’re going to be doing a lot of blending. As a general rule, photoshop does not do a great job of imitating the way real paint blends. If you have traditional painting experience, be prepared to learn some techniques that will seem quite foreign. Don’t worry – Photoshop will do a great job blending colors, but the method is uniquely digital.
One color into another
In this simple example you can see two primary colors: highlight and shadow. Where the form turns away from the light there’s a color transition.
On-Screen Mixing with the brush tool
The secret to painting a color transition lies in the brush tool + eyedropper. As you learned in lesson #2 the alt key will temporarily call up the eyedropper while the brush tool is active. ‘Sampling’ in this way gives you an incredible power that traditional painters would kill for. To create a middle mixture between two colors use the following steps:
Sample color A and paint a swatch of it in the middle. Sample color B and paint it lightly over top of the middle swatch. To paint with this middle mixture, sample it with the alt button! This process is known as ‘on-screen mixing’ and is quintessential for digital painting. It’s not similar to painting with oils, but will quickly feel intuitive. When using this on-screen mixing technique, you’ll experience two major bonuses to your workflow:
Save tons of time. Every time you avoid opening the color picker window time is saved. To maximize this effect, use the eyedropper (alt) tool as much as you can.
Create a unified color scheme. If you are primarily mixing on the canvas, your colors will naturally harmonize with one another through blending.
Using a ‘Mini-palette’
Traditional painters are required to pre-mix paints on their palettes before starting to work. In this way they are able to plan out a pleasing color scheme ahead of time. Digital artists aren’t forced to do this step because there’s no physical paint involved. Even though not strictly necessary, I would ague that pre-mixing digital colors is a worthwhile endeavor.
When starting a color painting, my first step is to create these pre-mixed colors on what I refer to as a ‘mini-palette’. It’s simply a blank layer that I title “palette” and paint small swatches on. Because it’s on a separate layer I’m able to move it around my canvas when it gets in the way, or to hide it completely with the visibility button.
The specifics of the mini-palette format are up to you. I like to keep mine small and unobtrusive. Some artists like to paint swatches of their main colors – but I like to include mixed gradations as well. Doing so gives me a pleasing color palette because middle mixtures have a nice neutralizing quality.
One of my main goals when approaching photoshop for concept art is efficiency. I’ve found the most success through a combination of on-screen mixing and sampling from a mini-palette. When both of these techniques are used, one can almost completely avoid the color picker window – and save a ton of time.
If you only take one thing away from this lesson it should be the power of the Alt key. What takes a traditional painter time and effort to mix is only a click away for photoshop users, so take full advantage.
The following worksheet might be a familiar sight to art school students. It’s not glamorous, but it’ll get you mixing accurately in no time. The goal is to use the principles of on-screen mixing to mimic the examples provided.
- 1) Sample from squares A and B to create middle mixture C
- 2) Find the middle mixture between A and C
- 3) Use the same technique to mix B and C
- 4) optional bonus: use the soft round brush to create smooth transitions between each color swatch
So save a copy of this sheet, and start mixing!