Painting Tutorial: Blocking in Color

One of the most effective methods for starting a painting is blocking in. Blocking in means creating an underpainting that indicates general shapes, spatial positioning, value structure and coloring for a piece.

Okay… um… why do this? Planning compositional and color relationships from the start saves many MANY headaches. Seriously… think of the Advil you’d be popping if you labored on the perfect painted passage for five hours only to find it becomes lusterless once surrounding colors are added. Save your pharmacological budget! Block in!

Blocking in can be handled very simply by putting down a thin layer of the basic color of each object and/or single color section in your painting. Blocking in can also be slightly more complex, establishing a base light and base dark for each thing (which is what we’re doing). The latter is especially useful for representational painting where one of the goals is the creation of a sense of light and shadow on form.

Regardless of which method of blocking in you use, this isn’t the time for blending or finishing. the surface. You’re just establishing the basics.


Light + Shadow Blocking In Step-by-Step

  1. Select an object or single color section of your painting. As yourself what is the base/overall color? You want to see things in terms of a definite hue on the color wheel (blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet) rather than as “gray” or “brown”. A lion’s mane may be brown, but is it more reddish or yellowish or greenish in cast? In determining base color, it can help to look at areas of your subject that are hit by light, because that is where you will find the most pure color.

  2. Mix colors that represent the light-side area of a single-color object or section of what you’re painting. Match as closely as possible to what you see. You may not be able to reproduce very high chroma color without special paint colors, but do your best.

  3. Paint in the light-side of your chosen object or section. Refine your drawn shapes as you go. It’s a good idea to keep the texture smooth for a block in, because distinct marks will show through later layers.. Use a soft synthetic brush and, if necessary a little water.

  4. complimentary_colorsNext, mix a color for the shadow area of the object or section you’re working on. Shadow colors can be challenging, because they are influenced by many things. A good starting point is to add a complementary color to the light side color you mixed in Step 2. Complementary colors are those appearing opposite on the color wheel. In a subtractive color system like painting, the addition of a complementary color can “shadow” by reducing intensity.

  5. Paint in the shadow area of your selected object or section, refining your drawn shapes as you go (see step 3).

  6. Step back and evaluate. Are the colors as accurate as possible compared to what you’re painting? Do the shapes match your subject or do you need to make adjustments?

  7. Repeat steps 1-6 for every object or single color section in your composition. You can also paint every light area first and then go back in with the shadows.

  8. second_guessStep back and evaluate. You may also need to reconsider/revise color or shape after everything is blocked in, since things may look different with the addition of surrounding colors or shapes.

  9. If you could use a fresh perspective (and who couldn’t), ask a friend to look at your piece. Alternatively, view it upside down, in the mirror or through a camera lens. All of these methods shift things jusssst enough that the boo boos become apparent (more apparent than most of us would like).

  10. Profit!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s