Questions: Approaching Color

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Iliad #5 Cover (process photo)
acrylic and gouache on bristol board
11 x 17"
original art

Here's another round of student questions, this time from Narciso Espiritu Jr. on the subject of color. I'm heading home for Florida next week, so I'll still be posting, but the blog will be on auto-pilot. I hope everybody has a great weekend and some happy holidays!

Narciso: What's your color palette like? What colors are ones you turn to most often? (That's a silly one).

Paolo: I tend to use the full spectrum of colors... pretty much anything that works for me, so the combinations are always changing. Very broadly speaking, however, I can do just about any color scheme with white, black, warm and cool red, reddish and greenish blue, yellow ochre, sepia and burnt sienna. I keep them arranged in a rainbow with white and black at opposing corners. Of course, this is always changing, depending on the task at hand.

Narciso: Um, I specifically have a problem knowing when a color is just right if I'm studying something or creating something new. How would you respond to this kind of situation? I understand you use a lot of reference, (there's evidence of that every Wednesday, thankfully), do you think its possible to paint something without reference?

Paolo: It's all about trial and error. Most of the great artists in history did many preparatory studies, so any painting you see was probably painted somewhere else first, then transferred. This is especially true for subjects that can't be painted directly from life (or at least all at once — multi-figure tableaus, for instance). Almost every painting I do starts with a color study. I can paint without reference at this point, but that's only because I have painted so much from reference already. Also, most of the reference that I post on the blog is mainly for anatomy and value; color, on the other hand, is tackled primarily in Photoshop with a digital color study.

Narciso: I read through your blog on Color Theory (I wish I attended your lecture at the BPL). I'm assuming you took a Color Theory class at RISD. Were there any profound things learned about color that have stuck to your mind and how you create art?

Paolo: I never took a Color Theory class, per se, but I tended to pick up bits of information here and there. I'd say my two painting classes were pretty helpful, but spending a year in Rome and looking at great paintings close up did just as much good for me. The main thing is practice.

Narciso: (Running out of ideas to stretch the question) This may be arbitrary to the class, but how do you paint? How do you approach a painting (charging with a battlecry, maybe)?

Paolo: Since I am always on a deadline, I have a fairly measured method for beginning a painting. Basically, I don't have time to mess up, so each stage refines the one before it. I begin with a color study, render a detailed pencil drawing, paint over that monochromatically (usually with sepia), then paint according to the dictates of the particular painting.

Narciso: Since you work in comics, there a lot of made-up elements, at least in painting covers or interiors. How do you figure out color when you have no direct reference? Is it easier making up the color or copying the color? (I think it's harder copying).

Paolo: I find it easier to copy color (in other words, paint from life) because most of the work is already done for me. Once you've practiced this enough times, however, you get a better sense of how light works and can start to predict how it will behave in similar situations. The real secret for painting imaginary elements is to find reference of analogous subjects, i.e. swan or heron wings for angel wings.


  1. Brian Stelfreeze is also discussing color over on his blog. You may want to check that out as well.

  2. Yo I like what u workin on in the pic. Comin out tight!

  3. Neil, thanks for the link. I've always admired his work and would love to meet him at some point. His interview on is one of my favorites.

    Alejandro, glad you like the cover — it's the fifth one from the Iliad series.

  4. Hey Paolo, come back to Heroes Con next year and I'll introduce you to him.


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