Color Secrets

“In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.” – Josef Albers

Your color choices will greatly influence the viewer’s emotional reaction to your paintings. Remembering some general rules can help you express your ideas. 


“Audubon” from the Kleo Kats series, by Marjorie Sarnat

Know Your Relatives

Color is always relative. If a color is not working in your painting, adjusting the colors near it often solves the problem. For example, make a color appear brighter by surrounding it with duller colors. Surrounding areas have a profound effect upon the appearance of any color.

Keep It in the Family

A painting should have a dominant hue, with approximately ¾ in one color family. The remaining areas work well with complementary hues or another color temperature.

Brightening Up

Metallic acrylics mixed into acrylic white create gorgeous pastels that look non-metallic, but have a vibrant, less chalky hue than achieved by mixing flat colors into white. A bit of metallic color mixed into any flat color will intensify its hue, too.

Colors Have Character

When a painting has wonderful color harmony the palette usually has a common denominator, such as rich jewel tones, dusty pastels, or earth-tones. I call it the “character” of the colors.

Determine which colors express your visual statement. Gather or make color swatches, including discords and neutrals for accents. Name the group descriptively, such as “Sun-bleached” or “Etruscan.” A name helps you keep your colors’ character in mind as you paint. 

Pre-Mixed White Neutrals

Premix some warm and cool neutral whites so you have them ready for lightening a color. These whites will help keep your mixed colors rich. 

I keep gouache mixes in a small dish. When it dries out I add a bit of water, let it soak a few minutes, stir and use. You can keep acrylic mixes in airtight food storage containers. Add a drop of water now and then to keep the paint from drying out.

This is a great way to save white paint that is left on your palette, even if it has a bit of other color on it. Add it to your warm or cool premixes for future use.

(From “151 Uncommon and Amazing Art Studio Secrets,” Tip No. 93)

Black is Not the Absence of Color

Make rich, never-dull blacks by mixing burnt umber and ultramarine blue. This works for any kind of paint. Adjust the proportions to create warmer blacks (more umber) or cooler blacks (more blue).

The custom mixture makes gorgeous grays with white added. Adjust the warmth or coolness of the gray, as well. 

Replacing ready-made black paint with a custom mix will enliven your painting in subtle but important ways.

(From “151 Uncommon and Amazing Art Studio Secrets,” Tip No. 94)

Mixing Tip

When mixing a color, start with your lightest color and gradually add small amounts of the darker or brighter color to it so you don’t overwhelm it. This tip will save you a lot of paint.

Kid Friendly

(From “151 Uncommon and Amazing Art Studio Secrets,” Tip No. 95)

These rules and ways of handling color are tried and true guides that work for most cases. But in art and life, rules are meant to be broken. Let your own preferences be your final authority.

(Portions of this post originally appeared in the newsletter of the California Art League.) 

Six Tips for Painting Creatures’ Features

I write a column for California Art League's newsletter called, coincidentally, "Art Studio Secrets." Here's a recent entry from the July issue.

1. Outside Rounds

When painting humans and creatures keep in mind that body parts, including facial features, have outside round curves. Your figures will appear more lifelike by following this principle. (See "Study for Madonna With The Yarnwinder" below.)

Leonardo Da Vinci knew the secret of drawing life: every contour is an outside round. In this drawing the curves are sometimes subtle and may appear to be concave, such as the chin line on the model’s right (our left). On careful examination it’s drawn by a series of outside rounds. (Image courtesy of

2. Bright Eyes

High contrast makes eyes appear shining and alive. When painting any eyes, use the darkest black in your painting in the pupil and the purest white for the highlight, placed side-by-side. Apply thick white in a horizontal stroke to catch light and enhance the effect. 

3. A Nose for Art

When painting noses, don’t put black inside the nostrils, even if they look very dark. Keeping nostrils lighter puts more focus on the eyes, optimizing emotional appeal.

4. Blushing Artist

Try real blush applied with cotton to put cheek color onto a watercolor figure. Blush blends easily and the colors are natural. A bit of blush on animals’ ears adds cuteness. 

5. Painting the Two-Lips

Lower lips usually catch more light than top lips; consider warm colors with yellow and white. The top lip usually has more shadow; consider warm neutrals with red. Use dark warm colors for linear shadows between lips. 

6. The Tooth Be Told

It’s difficult to make teeth look natural. If you must paint them, use white toned with gray violet and warm white for highlights. Paint teeth darker as they curve front to back, away from light. Keep shadows between teeth blurred and light.

Of course, these tips are generalities. Many factors influence style and color choices, and each painting requires its own expression.

Naming Paintings: A Picture is Worth a Few Good Words

"Out of the Shadows" by Marjorie Sarnat

What’s in a Name?

A painting’s title is an important part of its emotional appeal. It gives the viewer insight into what you, the artist, hopes the viewer will see or feel in your work. I think of titling a painting as writing a bit of poetry, using words that convey feelings and intangible concepts. Titles such as “Doorway to a Dream,” “Echoes in the Mountains,” and “To Catch a Moonbeam,” suggest a mood rather than a clear visual description.

Some art may work best with titles that convey visual description, such as “Study in Vermillion and Blue,” “Painting Outside the Lines,” or “Maple Trees After the Morning Snow.”

Viewers want to understand your visual narrative so they can get emotionally involved in the art experience you present to them. They want to know what you are showing them and why. Don’t fully explain it, but give them a clue. Leave a little ambiguity for the viewers to solve and make their own. 

Different Strokes

Some artists have a knack for naming their artworks as an extension of their creative expression. For me it’s been a challenge to come up with titles that fit my art and elicit the emotional response I want. Like most artists, my work is visual, not verbal.

I know artists who don’t think about titles until their artworks are finished and they see what their paintings evoke. Other artists have something clearly in mind as they create, and form titles along with that idea. Most artists probably start thinking about a title somewhere in the middle stages of a painting, as their imagery takes shape. As is always true in art, there are no definite rules for titling a painting. 

I’ve developed some approaches for generating titles:

  • Ask yourself what you want the viewer to know, see, or feel. When you formulate a title, consider whether the words help get that across to the viewer. 
  • Write down some key words from your painting, such as “dandelions, pink shadows, abandoned barn, calm, and years gone by” Select the words that best suggest your painting and try to form a title. Maybe a single word “Dandelions” tells the story of abandonment. Maybe you want to put a haunting spin on your piece with the title “Quiet Barnyard Sounds” or a sad note, “The Silence Is Deafening,” or perhaps you simply wish to describe a picture, “Pink Tones Across a Field.”
  • Put yourself in the viewer’s shoes, and point those shoes toward your painting. The viewer doesn’t know anything about you or your painting. Will your title help him or her correctly respond to your artwork? 
  • The sound of your words makes a difference. Alliteration, such as, “Runaway Rosebuds,” can help make your titles appealing and memorable.

Choose words that are comfortable to read and say, as well. I dislike words that are unfamiliar, such as “Whilom” and un-utterable, such as “Mr. Fzaeuhgbheau’s Isthmus.” However unique your title’s idea, use words your viewers can grasp.

Title Types

There are various kinds of titles. Experiment with them to see what fits your painting’s message best. Keep in mind that every painting has more than one good possibility.

  1. Abstract Visual, such as “Checkerboard Swirl” 
  2. Descriptive, such as “Lake Michigan Looking North” 
  3. Intangible, such as “Optimism
  4. Metaphoric, such as “Bathing Beauty” (a pig in mud)
  5. Mysterious, such as “Dancing With Myra” (with no person or creature in the picture)
  6. Nostalgic, such as “When Grandma Was a Girl
  7. Numerical, such as “Surface #7” 
  8. Philosophical, such as “Do Unto Others” 
  9. Prismatic, such as “Turquoise Green”
  10. Reference, such as “Alexandria Revisited
  11. Technical, such as “Encaustic on Weathered Wood
  12. Tenderhearted, such as “Alice’s First Puppy

Combinations of these, such as “Alizarin Crimson At Sunrise,” work, too. You’ll likely think of other categories, as well. The examples above can help give you a jumpstart for generating your next title. 

Become a Collector

Keep a reference file of potential painting titles. Include any words or phrases that intrigue or appeal to you. I call them “Title Makers.” Play with the words and make them your own. Find word inspiration in:

  • Art history, ancient and contemporary
  • Lines from movies
  • Literature – look for book titles, quotes, and lines from literature to adapt and make your own.
  • Names from mythology
  • Names from nature
  • Names of colors in fashion, cosmetics, wall paint, and more
  • Names of other artworks- never copy another artist’s titles, but keep some great ones on file as examples only
  • Names of things that have symbolic meaning, such as butterflies, pillars, mirrors, and clouds
  • Phrases you hear or read – jot down anything that’s evocative, provocative, insightful, beautiful, mysterious, shocking, and whatever moves you.
  • Poetry – scan for phrases and rhythms of word-sounds you like, and words that create moods, then adapt them to make them your own
  • Song lyrics – listen for rhythms of word-sounds and phrases that express emotion, and then adapt them to make them your own.
  • Spiritual and biblical references
  • Terms from astronomy
  • Words that describe feelings and moods – a thesaurus is a rich source 
  • Words that describe intangible ideas – a thesaurus is a rich source 

The Name of Your Game

As an artist, making a name for yourself involves creating great art and marketing it well. Coming up with good titles is part of the creative process. That means “making a name” is important in more than one way. 

Brilliant Colors with Egg Tempera Made Easy

Fairyland Twins.jpg

"Fairyland Twins" is a work I adapted from a Victorian pen and ink drawing from my collection of antique books. This example shows the vibrancy of color that can be achieved through egg tempera over watercolor.

A centuries-old painting technique is back, but without all the fuss. You don’t need to be a monk to illuminate your artwork with incredible detail and radiant color. Mix it in minutes and paint away! 

About Egg Tempera

The egg tempera technique dates back to antiquity. The Ancient Egyptians used it to paint onto stone, and Byzantine artists in Europe used the medium for their illuminated manuscripts. Amazingly, their colors are still vivid today.

Advantages of Egg Tempera

  • Egg tempera produces glowing permanent colors, more vibrant than can be achieved with any other paint or medium.  
  • Egg tempera has a consistency that allows for incredibly fine detail and delicate line work. 
  • Egg tempera is opaque and bright, even over dark backgrounds.
  • When egg tempera is thinned with water, it becomes translucent. It is not as transparent as watercolor nor is it as opaque as gouache (opaque watercolor.) Layering brushstrokes creates gorgeous rich colors.
  • Egg tempera is a permanent medium after it dries. The colors will not fade.

Fast and Easy

Traditional techniques for painting with egg tempera are way too involved for most artists today, so I devised some fast and easy ways to work with the medium. All you need is an egg, water, and watercolors. I can’t guarantee works will last centuries like those of the great masters, but I, myself have paintings completed more than 30 years ago that are still bright and intact.

I’ve put it all together in “Brilliant Colors with Egg Tempera Made Easy.” (PDF 1.6 MB). You're welcome to this free download, and please let me know what you think. 

No. 13 Paper Mosaics

Create paint textures on any surface that can be cut into tiles after the paint dries. Use watercolor, acrylics, crayon, or ink. Adhere the tiles to a canvas, dimensional object, or any other surface with acrylic gel medium. Then paint over your tiled piece, using glazes and impasto techniques or simply coat with clear acrylic varnish.
Kid Friendly
[From “151 Uncommon and Amazing Art Studio Secrets”]