Color Fundamentals

Lesson 18/22 - Demo: Color Subtraction & Value Range


Color Fundamentals


Lesson Info

Demo: Color Subtraction & Value Range

The next part is a little bit, it might be not intuitive to people, a little bit strange. In terms of how we work with color. It's gonna be a subtractive method. We call it subtractive color. Basically all that is, is I'm gonna pull color right off the surface to help me understand my value structure. That's used with a stiff bristle brush. I'm just gonna reach back here and get my paper towels. My paper towels are my security blanket, and I keep it in my right hand so that I can dab. If I don't have it, I literally feel like I can't paint. (laughs) I know it's crazy but it's true. My first go to thing is I'm like, "Oh, that highlight, I wanna establish that highlight." I'm just gonna pull that color right off the surface. This is a guideline for me. I might cover it up later, but it's gonna tell me initially where that shape of whiteness is. Then there's another little bitty one here. It's gonna be the highest light in the whole thing. It's gonna be the highest level of contrast with ...

all the other issues we've talked about. That's important for you to see. Then we have a couple little highlights down at the bottom of the pepper. There not as prominent, but their still there. Their still important for telling us about the form. Now I know the pepper is definitely darker than what's behind it. So what I'm gonna do instead of using the scrub brush. Which would take, again, a long time. Everything should be like economy of motion. Use your tools and use them in a way that you're not taking a lot of time just because you're using the wrong tool. What I'm doing here is I'm literally pulling off the color of the water color to make a lighter tonality. That brown back there is lighter than the pepper. I'm literally just subtracting it right off. I'm rubbing somewhat hard, but not super hard. I'm not grinding into the paper. Paper towel on watercolor paper can rough it up a bit. I'm just rubbing pretty lightly. Gently pulling off some of that color. The green is still there because it will help the relationship with the other colors where the green exists. It doesn't have to be an equal quantity to create that relationship. It's also brown, so when I lay the color down it'll be a little more kicky. I'm moving my paper towel around so I'm not putting the tone right back on it. You can do it dry brush, I mean dry towel. Or you can do a wet towel. The wet takes a little more of the pigment off the surface. It also creates a kind of a interesting texture and surface to work on. To get into that sneaky little corner it's gonna be fun. Let me see if I can get that color off. I'm trying to keep it somewhat consistent back there. No big huge blobby marks, but I'm not being super worried about it. I can always go back in with my scrub brush and pull off some more of that color. But you see how we're creating already the hierarchy of value with lighter background. It's darker, it's lighter than a pepper. We haven't really dealt with the darkness of that purple. I'm gonna use my scrub brush for this part. Get in here and pull off that light. The other thing about subtractive color is ... It's funny because it's something you can do with pen and ink. I did it on the computer as well, in Adobe Sketch. You can do it on any kind of medium that allows you to ... If you can put color on, you can take it away. Its kind of a nice thing that crosses just about any medium. With a few exceptions, inks do not subtract. If you use inks, you can't get that off the surface of the paper, it's permanent. But with watercolor, pastel, oils a subtractive method is totally doable. So there's my pepper. I'm gonna pull off a little light here. Already I feel contrast, because the composition is already pulling together. Because I have some contrast.

Class Description

This class will give you an overview of color principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. 

In this class she covers: 
  • The elements of color, including value, temperature, saturation, hierarchy, complements, light, harmony, and contrast 
  • The use of color complements in image making 
  • The relationship of color to the medium and expression 

Through a series of demonstrations, you’ll learn how to work with color and ultimately make better color decisions. This class covers color theory foundations that applies to all image making, in design, art, illustration, photography, and beyond.


Anna Kotzè

I really liked the informal demonstrations and I also liked the way she set out her pallet with warm and cold colors. This was not only an informative class but inspiring. The casual and relaxed working style, encourage playfulness. Thank you for an awesome class.

Robin B.

I had previously learned basic color theory, but this instructor took my knowledge beyond with layered instruction about value-contrast-complements-hierarchy, etc., and she does it in such a fun way with her own examples of work and great stories! I like her poise and confidence and think this series is a terrific value.


Excellent instruction! Most helpful to me in terms of establishing the focal point of an image through use of value, color harmony. Also helpful to understand transparency and opacity and how that relates to highlights and shadows. MJ is fun and likable.