As one colour approaches another there’s always a blended transition. Even if your subject is painted a single colour it will have lighter and darker areas. Because colour 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 colours.
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 colours, but the method is uniquely digital.
One colour into another
In this simple example you can see two primary colours: highlight and shadow. Where the form turns away from the light there’s a colour transition.
On-Screen Mixing with the brush tool
- Sample colour A and paint a swatch of it in the middle.
- Sample colour 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 colour picker window time is saved. To maximise this effect, use the eyedropper (alt) tool as much as you can.
- Create a unified colour scheme. If you are primarily mixing on the canvas, your colours will naturally harmonise 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 colour 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 colours is a worthwhile endeavor.
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 colours – but I like to include mixed gradations as well. Doing so gives me a pleasing colour palette because middle mixtures have a nice neutralising 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 colour 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.
- Sample from squares A and B to create middle mixture C
- Find the middle mixture between A and C
- Use the same technique to mix B and C
- optional bonus: use the soft round brush to create smooth transitions between each colour swatch
So save a copy of this sheet, and start mixing!