5 Color Theory Tips for Better Watercolor Paintings
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. Use complementary colors to create depth
  2. Limit your palette for cohesion
  3. Master the art of value
  4. Apply color temperature rules
  5. Mix colors to avoid mud

Looking to add a new dimension to your watercolor paintings? You're in the right place! Today, we're exploring some handy tips on how to improve color theory in watercolor. Whether you're a seasoned artist or a beginner, understanding color theory can make your watercolors more vibrant and harmonious. We're going to dive into five practical tips that can take your painting game to the next level. Let's get started!

Use complementary colors to create depth

The first tip on our journey to better color theory involves the use of complementary colors. If you're wondering how to add depth to your watercolor paintings, this is a game changer. Complementary colors are those that sit opposite each other on the color wheel, and they have a unique relationship that can be used to your advantage.

The Magic of Complementary Colors

When you place complementary colors next to each other, they make each other appear more vibrant and intense. This is because our eyes naturally want to mix colors. So, if you're painting a sunlit landscape, try using blues in the shadows to make the yellows of the sunlight pop. It's a simple trick, but it's a surefire way to make your paintings more visually interesting.

Creating Depth and Volume

On the other hand, if you mix complementary colors together, they can help you create depth and volume. For instance, if you're painting a red apple, adding a touch of green to your red can create the illusion of a shadow, making the apple look three-dimensional. Remember, it's all about balance—you don't want to overdo it. Adding too much of a complementary color can result in a muddy appearance, which brings us to our next point.

Avoiding Muddy Colors

  • When mixing complementary colors, always start with your dominant color and then add tiny amounts of its complement. This allows you to maintain control of the color intensity and avoid muddiness.
  • Another important tip is to let your colors dry before layering them. Watercolor is transparent, so layering colors can also result in unwanted muddiness if not done properly.

In conclusion, understanding how to use complementary colors is a powerful tool in your watercolor arsenal. Experiment with them, and you'll find your artwork taking on a new depth and vibrancy that can truly captivate your audience.

Limit your palette for cohesion

The next step in our journey of improving color theory in watercolor involves limiting your palette. In painting, as in life, sometimes less is more. By sticking to a few selected hues, you can create a sense of unity and cohesion in your artwork. So, let's dive into how limiting your palette can enhance your paintings.

Creating a Harmonious Look

Using a limited color palette can help you create a harmonious look in your painting. When you limit your colors, each hue has a relationship with every other color on your palette. This creates a pleasing harmony and unity in your painting, resulting in a more professional look. Think of it like a well-coordinated outfit—the colors complement each other, making the whole ensemble look well thought out.

Choosing Your Colors Wisely

When limiting your palette, it's important to choose your colors wisely. A good starting point is to select a warm and cool version of each primary color. For instance, you could select a warm red like cadmium red, a cool red like alizarin crimson, a warm yellow like cadmium yellow, a cool yellow like lemon yellow, a warm blue like ultramarine, and a cool blue like cerulean.

  • These six colors will give you a wide range of mixing possibilities, allowing you to create any color you need.
  • Remember to select colors that work well together and suit the mood of the painting.

Exploring the Power of Limitation

Finally, working with a limited palette is a great way to explore the power of limitation. It forces you to think more deeply about color relationships and to be more creative in your mixing. It's a bit like a culinary challenge—how many delicious dishes can you create with just a few ingredients? You'll be surprised at the variety and richness you can achieve with just a handful of colors!

In a nutshell, limiting your palette can lead to more cohesive and harmonious paintings. It's a simple yet powerful way to improve your understanding and application of color theory in watercolor. Give it a try—you might just find that it opens up a whole new world of artistic possibilities.

Master the art of value

As we continue to explore how to improve color theory in watercolor, mastering the art of value comes next. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. It's a key component in creating a sense of depth and volume in your paintings. Let's see how understanding and controlling value can transform your watercolor work.

Understanding Value

Value is the backbone of your painting. It determines the structure, the light, and the sense of three-dimensionality. By mastering value, you can create the illusion of light and form in your paintings, which is essential for achieving a realistic look. In simpler terms, it's like turning on the lights in a room and seeing everything come to life.

Creating a Value Scale

Creating a value scale can help you better understand and utilize value in your paintings. It's a simple process:

  1. Start with pure watercolor at its darkest.
  2. Gradually add water to lighten the value.
  3. Continue this process until you reach the lightest value, which should be barely tinted water.

This gives you a range of values from dark to light. Practice using this scale to familiarize yourself with the different values and how they relate to each other.

Applying Value in Your Paintings

Applying value in your paintings requires thought and planning. A good rule of thumb is to start with the lightest values and gradually add the darker ones. This approach, known as working light to dark, is a common strategy in watercolor painting. It allows you to build up layers of color, creating depth and complexity in your artwork.

By mastering the art of value, you can create more dynamic and realistic paintings. It's an essential skill in improving your color theory in watercolor. So, grab your paintbrush and start exploring the wonderful world of value!

Apply color temperature rules

Color temperature is a fascinating aspect of color theory that can dramatically improve your watercolor painting skills. It's about understanding how colors can be warm or cool and how this temperature affects the overall mood of your painting. So, let's dive into the world of color temperature and see how it can help you improve color theory in watercolor.

Understanding Color Temperature

In the context of painting, colors are considered either warm (like red, orange, and yellow) or cool (like blue, green, and violet). Warm colors are often associated with energy, brightness, and action, while cool colors evoke calmness, peace, and tranquility. By manipulating these color temperatures, you can create a certain mood or atmosphere in your watercolor painting.

Color Temperature and Spatial Perception

Ever noticed how warm colors seem to jump out at you while cool colors recede into the background? That's because our eyes perceive warm colors as being closer and cool colors as being farther away. You can use this principle to create a sense of depth and perspective in your paintings. For example, painting a distant mountain range in cool blues and purples will make it appear further away, while a brightly colored object in the foreground will draw the viewer's attention.

Mastering the Balance

Striking the right balance between warm and cool colors is key. Too many warm colors, and your painting might feel overpowering. Too many cool colors, and it might seem distant and unengaging. Experiment with different combinations, and don't be afraid to break the rules. Art, after all, is about expressing your unique vision.

By applying color temperature rules, you can create more engaging, dynamic, and emotionally resonant watercolor paintings. Remember — it's not just about what you paint, but how you paint it. Happy painting!

Mix colors to avoid mud

Everybody loves a good mix — be it a music playlist, a trail mix, or a color mix. But in the world of watercolor painting, there's one mix you want to avoid: mud. Let's explore how to improve color theory in your watercolor art by mixing colors effectively to avoid that dreaded muddy look.

What is Muddy Color?

You've probably experienced this: you're trying to create the perfect shade of green or purple, and suddenly, your beautiful mix turns into a dull, grayish color — that's what we call a 'muddy' color. It happens when you mix too many colors together, or when you mix colors that don't blend well.

Avoiding the Mud

  • Be mindful of your color wheel: Remember, colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary. When mixed, they neutralize each other, which can lead to a muddy appearance. So, if you're aiming for vibrant colors, try not to mix complementary colors too much.
  • Limit your palette: The more colors you add to the mix, the higher the risk of creating mud. Stick to a few colors and explore their range.
  • Know your paints: Some paints are more prone to creating muddy colors due to their pigmentation. Spend some time experimenting with your paints to get a feel for how they mix.

Cleaning Up the Mud

Already got some mud on your canvas? Don't worry — it's not the end of the world. One way to salvage your painting is to go over the muddy area with a contrasting color. For example, if you have a muddy green area, a thin layer of red might just do the trick.

By learning to mix colors effectively, you can avoid muddy colors and enhance the vibrancy of your watercolor paintings. Remember, color theory is not a set of strict rules, but a toolbox for you to pick and choose from. So go ahead, get your brushes wet, and let the colors flow!

If you enjoyed these color theory tips for better watercolor paintings and would like to explore more techniques to enhance your painting skills, check out 'Improve Your Acrylic Painting Skills' by Rachel Christopoulos. Although focused on acrylics, many of the concepts covered in this workshop can be applied to watercolor painting as well, helping you take your art to the next level.