This is a detailed guide on how to paint color gradations. I wrote this in light of a recent painting, Morning Lookout (shown below). It’s a study of the early morning’s subtle color gradations just before the sun peers above the horizon line.
- Color Gradation Meaning
- Color Gradation Techniques
- A Note on Different Mediums
- Other Examples
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
Color Gradation Meaning
Color gradation refers to the transition from one color to the next. That transition might be smooth or sharp.
Below is a simple example. It features a smooth gradation between different hues.
The image below features the same colors, but the gradations between them are sharper and more abrupt.
The nature of the color gradations you use in painting conveys a significant amount of information. So not only do you need to pick the right colors to paint with, but you also need to paint the right gradations between those colors.
A smooth color gradation might suggest ambiguity (think a foggy landscape or a dark interior painting like Henry Tuke’s A Sailor’s Yarn). Or realism (think of the subtle skin tone gradations in Peter Paul Rubens’ work). Or the gradual change from one object or area to the next (think the change from clear water to the sandy shoreline).
A sharp color gradation suggests clarity or some kind of significant change in the subject.
The gradation might also vary in terms of quality or roughness. The color gradations on a tree trunk tend to be rough compared to, say, the color gradations on an egg or any other smooth object.
It’s important to note that these are all relative terms. A sharp color gradation in one painting might be a smooth color gradation in another. Consider color gradation as a scale between sharp and smooth, rough and refined.
Let’s go back to my Morning Lookout painting as an example.
The sky changes from blue to green to yellow to orange to purple. The colors get darker as it goes from the sky to the distant land, and darker yet as the land gets closer in perspective. These are all color gradations. The nature of them is important. Imagine if I had painted the sky with abrupt changes from blue to green to yellow to orange to purple. It would look like the side of a cake, not the morning sky and its pastel colors.
Color Gradation Techniques
Let’s run through a few techniques for painting color gradations.
The simplest technique is to blend one color into the next. This will create a natural and smooth gradation, depending on how refined your brushwork is. For a rougher color gradation, use rougher brushwork.
This is the technique I used for both Morning Lookout and Fraser Island, High Key (below). For painting the sky, I worked blue into green, and green into yellow, and yellow into orange, and so on. I left the brushwork rough, but you might prefer a more refined finish.
Blending is perfect for capturing delicate skin tone gradations. Take John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X (below). The colors melt into each other. The smooth and refined color gradations capture her youth and softness. They also contrast nicely against her sharp and intricate facial features, hair, and clothing. Remember, painting is all about contrast.
Instead of blending two colors together, place an intermediate color between them. For example, say you have blue and yellow. A dab of green in between would help smooth the color gradation (green being what you get when you mix blue and yellow). If you have yellow and red, place a dab of orange in between. If you have green and blue, place a dab of greenish-blue in between. You get the idea.
You might use this technique over blending if you prefer a more blocky, broken appearance. Or if the paint has dried on your canvas, making blending impossible.
The technique of the Impressionists. Nicolai Fechin describes it well:
“To avoid murky results, it is necessary to learn how to use the three basic colors and to apply them, layer upon layer, in such a way that the underlying color shows through the next application. For instance, one can use blue paint, apply over it some red in such a manner that the blue and the red are seen simultaneously and thus produce the impression of a violet vibration. If, in the same careful manner, one puts upon his first combination a yellow color, a complete harmonization is reached – the colors are not mixed, but built one upon the other, retaining the full intensity of their vibrations.”
It typically involves painting with small dabs of distinct color. Instead of painting the sky with smooth blue tones, you would use dabs of blue, white, gray, and perhaps a touch of green or purple. The dominant color of an area is the sum of many small dabs of color. (Refer to my post on broken color for more details.)
It’s a rough technique by nature. You won’t get the smooth color gradations of blending. But you do have some control over how rough the gradation is.
Take Child Hassam’s Sunset at Sea for example (below). The water transitions between areas of blue, green, red, and yellow. Some areas are more distinct than others. Notice how each area contains dabs of color from the surrounding areas. The yellow areas contain dabs of green. The green areas contain dabs of blue and yellow. The red areas contain dabs of yellow and green. These familiar colors help soften the gradation between the areas.
The same goes for the sky, though it has much sharper color gradations.
Below is a painting from Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge series. Look at the bridge in particular. There’s a relatively smooth color gradation as you go from the bridge, to the bridge’s shadow cast over the water, to the water in light. Blue, to blue-green, to green-blue with dabs of yellow and white.
John Russell’s work also comes to mind. It’s similar to that of Claude Monet, but his use of broken color was often more dramatic.
Here’s a closeup I took at the New South Wales Art Gallery. Look at all those wonderful textures and colors. Notice the slight overlap in colors as it goes from light to dark. The more overlap, the softer the color gradation.
Hatching is a shading technique where you draw parallel lines to darken an area. The closer and thicker the lines, the darker the result. But we can also use it to soften color gradations.
Say you want to soften the gradation between a light and dark area. You could use dark hatching to push into the light area, or light hatching to push into the dark area, or both. Steve Huston does this often in his paintings. Peter Paul Rubens as well. Refer to one of his sketches below. He used hatching to transition between light and dark areas. The hatch lines also reiterate the structure and form.
Layering involves painting a thin, partially translucent layer of paint over another layer. It can produce fine, almost ethereal color gradations. Joseph William Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is a great example. Thin washes of color contrast against the impasto brushwork.
Below is a closeup. Notice how effortless some of those color gradations appear.
Layering is particularly suited to watercolors. As an example, refer to Edward Compton’s painting below, particularly around the shadows.
You can create color gradation by varying the density of color either by using more strokes, more pressure, or thicker paint.
For example, if you paint a thin wash of color over a white surface, some of that white surface will show through. As you continue to build up paint in an area, the color will get stronger, resulting in a gradation from weak to strong color.
Below is another example. It’s an extract from my sketchbook (thanks to New Masters Academy for reference). Notice how some areas are richer and darker as a result of more strokes and more pressure on the strokes.
A Note on Different Mediums
Your painting medium will somewhat determine the color gradation techniques you use.
Oils: Versatile by nature. Suits any technique.
Watercolors and Gouache: Suits thin washes or intermediate color. Blending is also possible, though the outcome is unpredictable compared to oils.
Acrylics: Suits blending or intermediate color. Layering is not as effective as the paint dries too fast.
Pen and Pencil: Suits hatching, broken color, or density.
Let’s run through a few other examples, starting with Emily Shanks’ In the Flowers.
The color gradation from the foreground to the middle ground is softened by the grass and flowers shooting upwards and tapering off. The middle ground to the background is marked by a soft edge.
The girl has sharper color gradations. This suggests light, clarity, and focuses our attention.
Fechin was a master of painting with instinct. Below is Lady in Lilac. The face is delicately rendered with soft color gradations. The rest of the painting features broken color and an almost abstract finish. Fechin was clearly not limited to any few techniques.
In Monet’s Sailboat at Petit-Gennevilliers, there’s a pleasant contrast between abrupt and soft color gradations. Abrupt being the dark clouds, vivid white and yellow highlights, and the burst of orange in the sky. Soft being the rest of the sky and water.
Marie Bashkirtseff’s The Artist’s Sister-in-Law is a play between the subject’s soft skin tones and the sharp color gradations of the surroundings. Also, notice the relatively sharp gradation from light to dark on her face. This suggests a single, strong light source. (The nature of the gradation tells us a significant amount of information.)
- Picking the right colors is just part of the challenge. You must also paint the right gradations between those colors.
- Color gradations can be sharp or smooth. The nature of the gradation conveys a significant amount of information about the subject.
- You can create color gradations using blending, intermediate color, broken color, hatching, layering, or by varying the color density.
- Your painting medium determines the suitable color gradation techniques.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
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