Exploring Color and Composition


Lesson Info

Grounds and Their Purpose

One of the things that I decided to as a children's book illustrator is spread my wings. I have always relied on illustrating objects and doing environments and scenes with lots of thins in them and also telling very specific stories, but recently I was asked to participate in an exhibition, and I decided to paint landscapes, which was a real leap of faith because there's nothing to latch onto. It's sky, it's earth, and it's clouds. So in making that decision, I decided to really explore color as a form of expression. And the story or narrative, it's very simple. It's about the emotional space I want the viewers to understand when they look at it, so I'm trying to rely on those universal messages of color in order to do this series. So I took photographs of a place that's very near to my home, it's the beach, it's Narraganset Bay, and I took photographs at all different times of day and different temperatures and different lighting situations. And we'll start with the very first painti...

ng that I made. So basically, this photograph, it captured a sunset and what I loved about it, it was this sort of green cloud against this red sort of light and that relationship, that complementary relationship of green to red was really interesting to me, so I thought I wonder if I can capture this in watercolor. So the very first thing that I did was I took the photograph and then I zoomed in in one little spot in Photoshop and I clipped that out and I put that, tacked it on a board, and I just started to analyze what is the color that I'm seeing as the foundational color, and the reason why I do that is because I paint with grounds and ground of color is just the color that I paint the whole surface with before I go to my next set of colors. I never start on white, ever. So in this case, I was trying to figure out what is the dominant color in a section of the photograph? What is it? And I kept looking at it, trying to figure it out, and came up with the idea that it's probably some kind of green, and so I really started to see it right through this section of the clouds. I came up with this sort of blue-green color. It also does happen to be my favorite kind of color (laughs) but in seeing that, I also realized that if I chose this color, it would be reactive to the red of the clouds, that red, green relationship. So I knew whatever it was would have to be reactive to what I'll the focal point, which is the heat in the scene. Now when I do my paintings, it's all watercolor. I subtract color out of the surface of the watercolor, and the way that I do that I use stiff bristle brushes, which literally pull the color off, sponges, paper toweling, and watercolor comes right off of a surface when you subtract it off off, this is all dry and then I go in with the water and I just pull that color off. The reason I do that is I'm trying to create a value system as a place to start the composition. So the next step, and this is, I think, a really important thing for people to think about, which is the tendency is to want to do the really fun, noodly parts of a picture and I want to jump right in and do like, the cloud area, the vibrant color, but when you do that, you tend to miss the big picture. So my recommendation is for a good composition is to start with the big areas or shapes of color. So that's what I did here, I chose a purple-blue color to start to build this shape of color and also, the landscape in the distance and a little bit of green-brown for the earth. Big shapes, not the tiny shapes. So once I've established all those big shapes of color, then I can go in for the really, for me, the exciting part, which is the contrast, the heat of the clouds, the light of the sun, of the orange color, and really push those relationships and start to build, even though it's not form, a sort of dimensionality to this cloud in particular. This painting's called Leviathan Cloud, so like, Leviathan is a big whale, so I thought it'd be really interesting to make it be sort of a focal point of a scene in contrast to these orange colors. I will mention that when I paint, I'm working with contrasts so the contrasts are value, which is the variation of dark to light colors in the scene. I'm also working with temperature, the heat of the sun versus the coolness of the clouds. And I'm also working with, for paint, opacity and transparency. Now I talk about these in the color fundamentals course, but here it is in action. This is all opaque color, these areas that are super vibrant or light, laying on top of the transparent ground and the reason why this is a necessary thing to do is that this orange color is sitting on top of green, a color opposite. If they're transparent, they will neutralize each other out, they'll literally create a brown or a gray color, but if this top color is opaque, you cannot see the color underneath, it literally pops off the surface. So it's an important relationship. I'll talk more about that as we go. Just another, a side note on technique. When I'm creating watercolors, I don't just paint on a surface and let it dry because it tends to make watercolor paper wrinkle or any kind of paper, so I take my, once I've done my drawing, I take the whole piece of paper, I soak it in the bathtub in lukewarm water, both sides, and then I put it onto a board and I staple the edges. And the reason that I do that is because if I soak and let it try after it's been stapled, it's tight as a drum when it does dry and every time I paint on it, it wrinkles a little bit while you're painting, but then when it's fully dry, it's flat, which is great for reproduction or for hanging in a show. The other thing I want to mention is that this little color study was really the key and the guide to making the finished painting. I had to do that first because I had to figure out which blues, which reds, which yellows will I be using for this painting. I tried a few other studies, they didn't work, so I chose this one. And once I had that, I knew what the palette needed to be for the painting. So a color study is a critical piece of making imagery, illustration, traditional painting, anything. Studies are really important. And this is the finished painting, and what's really exciting for me is that I focused on something I'd never done before, I experimented with only using watercolor, which again, I'm more of a mixed media person, was a challenge, but in the end, I got something that was not a replication of a photograph, it was a translation of something that I wanted to share, which is the sense that something is descending, we're going into a night space, but there's a lot of energy and positivity to that, and so I was pleased with one of my first paintings I did for this exercise. Now this is the study, so it's super tiny. It's like, a little, tiny painting, but I tried to do studies, as I said, each time, and every time the study would be different from the finish and I would learn things. In this picture called Last Light, I wanted to focus on the fact that, this was like, midnight when I took the photograph. It's literally the last light on the horizon before it went out. I saw this and I thought something about this moment felt peaceful, contemplative, but also a little, a little alone, somewhat sad, but not truly melancholy. Just a quiet, and when I did this study, I just felt like it was dialed too blue and it felt too cold to me, too somber, a little too melancholy, so when I went to the actual finish, which is quite large, I shifted to this kind of coloration, which is a little bit more green and yes, it is also one of my favorite colors. I love this palette, but what I also realized was I had to shift the contrast of the shapes. The other piece was, and I'll go back to that. This piece was much too sort of evenly composed and that just means this shape of color here is almost the same size as this shape of color here with this band of light in the middle. That kind of symmetry for composition is kind of boring. It's like putting something in the center of the page. So I don't recommend that, and I kind of realized that after I did this study. It's also this, which is the shape of sand, which is supposed to direct your eye into the piece. It wasn't really working effectively, so that's why when I did the second finish, I stretched the composition so it'd be more horizontal, I pushed the contrast of this piece of sand and I made sure that this band of color was not the same width as this band. So in composition, quantity of color is a really important issue to consider as you make a composition. So this was just a delightful moment that I caught and the color is just vibrant and energized, much like a My Little Pony storybook. So I just said I had to paint this, I have to do this. The challenge though, is when you have this photograph and it's stunning. You think how can I capture this in a painting? How can I possibly get something that will feel like this? So I look at this. I thought, "I'll do this, I'm gonna give it a shot." And so again, I took this snippet, a little piece of the photograph and I started to analyze it, to figure out what would my ground color be, meaning that first passage of color that covers the whole surface. And I'm gonna ask Kenna what would you think that ground color could be for something like this? So, M.J., I'm kind of looking up at the top right corner and maybe blue? Blue. So that's close to what I was thinking when I first started to consider Okay. What should the color because because I was looking at all of this blue color thinking, "Oh, it's blue "or blue-purple, somewhere in there," and I thought about that and I thought about it, and I was like, you know, I think that's gonna be an issue. And the reason why is that if I painted it all blue, when I got to these areas of this warm light and this super orange color, Right. It would really feel, de-saturate the color because orange and blue are opposites, so I thought that's gonna bring it really into a cool space, and this piece has energy. So I thought the pink is a good foundation. I can always lay blue on top for the purple areas, which is actually what I did. I laid ultramarine and cobalt blue to create all the purple zones, but this pink allowed me to still put yellows and oranges that would still react well to the pinks. They wouldn't neutralize, they would stay vibrant. So that was the system. Now again, I used sponges or cloth that's wet to pull out the textures that make the clouds. This is all what I call subtractive, or what we call subtractive color. Now the next step is trying to establish what I would call the focal points, which are the heat passages through the painting, the reds, the oranges, the yellows. Now at this point, I was working entirely in watercolor and watercolor, as many people know, hits a wall in terms of vibrancy. It only goes so far. It's like personality. Like nuh-uh, I'll go this far, but I won't go any further both in value and in saturation or vibrancy of color. So I thought okay, I think I need to play with some other material, medium on top of this. And I am completely happy with mix media. I like to riff, to play with what will make sense for the piece, I'm not a purist. So I analyzed this and thought well, if I shift this to an acrylic painting, I can actually get a deeper vibrancy just like the photograph had this, a deeper vibrancy in the lit areas of the cloud. So I took this watercolor painting, left it this stage, I spray fixed it with spray fixative. There's many different types of brands, but what that did was it held the color in place so it wouldn't move when I laid the acrylics on top of it. So it's just a step to preserve what's there. And then I started to use both acrylic color and watercolors mixed with acrylic gloss medium. That's just a method that I like to use for glazing into these areas of super vibrant color. The mark making's really different. It's more, it dries really fast. Watercolor lets you, you can have this fluidity, and acrylics, they dry kind of in shapes and it's hard to get that fluidity, so you have to build that tonality in multiple layers. So this is all sort of opaque, warm tones on top of that pinkish ground. I built the whole painting this way, and then this is the finished painting. And what I wanted to achieve here was a sense of playfulness and joy, and even though it's the end of the day, it's almost like there's more good things to come as evening descends because it's not meant to be somber, it's contrasting vibrant orange against purple, it's opposite, it's a dark cloud against something light behind it, so all these issues of contrast were things I wanted to play with and I was really pleased with this painting because this is a comfortable palette for me. Vibrancy, I know this, I know this world. So the next picture that I was painting had the contrast of sort of opposite colors. It had cool and warm, it had orange to blue, but dialed in a really, must softer relationship and direction. So I started to think okay, well, what do I want to do here? And again, I could have chosen a blue ground, but Kenna, what would make you think like, why would I say maybe not choose the blue ground? What would be the reason, you think? Well, based on what you explained in the last one, that that blue behind those yellows and oranges would cause it to dull out, or just wouldn't allow you to have those colors. It would tend to de-saturate, and what would the feeling be if the painting's overall under painting is blue? Make it colder. Make it colder, and to my mind, this felt, it's almost like a pastel world, it's a sweet world. I call this like, sweet colors. So I didn't want that and I kept looking at it and as I analyzed it, I saw a lot of warmth underpinning many of the colors, so I decided to go with this orange coloration, and that heat kept that, an emotional feeling of warmth. That was my hope, anyway. So the other thing that I shifted here, was instead of using acrylics, which has that sort of crisper shapes, I went to pastels. You can see a little pastel here in the corner. And that on top of the watercolors, I was able to create a sort of soft modulation of color. So your material use in color has a huge effect on what the color will look like, the texture of the color. So sometimes people think about like, does the material matter? It does matter. Pastel has these soft relationships and tend to feel more modulated and soft as opposed to acrylics, which really crisp. The other thing that I do, and this is something that I talk to my students about because I think it's really important, is I will put masking tape all around the edges of the watercolor painting to create a really clean edge, but I always cover it in white tape because as you're painting, you can see over here, it's sort of getting a little brown and gray, sort of neutralized because lots of colors are landing on top of each other, and if that's a bud in your painting, you're literally losing where is the edge, where is the edge of the piece. And the reason why that's not so good is your composition is defined by those edges. So I get artist's tape and I cover it in white tape and if it gets mucky, I cover it again. I go through a lot Yeah (laughs). Of white tape as I'm painting, but I don't worry about that because I'm still reminded like, where is the edge, what is the series of shapes that I'm looking at within this rectangular shape. And this is the final painting. And again, these are fairly large. So it was also not a matter of drawing or painting like this, it was a matter of painting like this. And again, I think if you're used to working on a tablet or used to working really in small marks, I think it's a good exercise to sort of step out of that and find a way to make large marks, even if it's just in a sketchbook, something for yourself, I feel like that's, it's almost like muscle memory. It's an exercise that helps you to stretch the way your brain is thinking about color, about tonality, about making art. So this was the final for this piece. Now I'd explored sort of color contrasts both soft and hard, but here I wanted to dial the saturation (whistles) way down and really make it more monochromatic. So this is the study and you can see that it's really in sort of a cool world and I decided that I would keep this a limited palette for a couple of reasons because I wanted to explore a limited palette, but also, I wanted to use the contrast of value as the, sort of the key element here. So if you look at this, the value, construction of the piece is really defining the composition. There's very little heat here. There's a little bit of warmth in this passage of landscape, a tiny bit of warmth right along here. It helps the composition, but if you see this in black and white, it's still really strong and it's mostly because the value relationship, the darks all the way to the whitest white have a really nice range. So when I did this study, I was very happy with it, but then when I got to the larger piece, it was something about the size of the image that pushed me to take away from not just being about value, but to kick up the complementary contrast in the cloud to what's around it. I pushed the purple in the cloud and I pushed the kind of minty green. There's a sort of blue-green around it to create not just value contrast, but a little bit more complementary relationship. Maybe I did it because I wanted to capture emotion or maybe it's because I just love complementary colors and wanted to add that level. But it does change the feeling of it. This one feels a little more, to my mind, a little more somber and kind of, what would you describe the emotional difference between say, this one on top, the study, and the finish? Well, I guess if you would call it somber, and again, I'm seeing kind of more greens or grays in there, so, which probably leads to that somber feeling, and so maybe the second one is kind of like your top that you're wearing like, more hopeful? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's interesting because when you increase saturation of color, it does, it's like, it makes us feel like something were alive. So when you dial up the saturation even a tiny bit, there's something about it that creates a sense of energy and life and perhaps we could see that as sort of positive. It's subtle, but it is a difference. Yeah. Now again, I was like, I needed to challenge myself. My tendency is vibrant color. I couldn't help myself in the painting before. I had to dial it up a little, but I was determined in this piece to really remove a lot of the saturation of pieces I'd done before. So this one is a very neutral palette, and this is a photograph, it's an incredibly gray day and the contrast is really in the light area, it's the light behind the clouds. So I had to choose a ground that wouldn't have that vibrancy. I chose something that would contrast the kind of, the cools on top of it, but it's raw umber, it's a very neutral tone. Same process as before, and this is the study. And then as you can see here, the palette ranges from this warm tone to the sort of blue-gray, Payne's gray to raw umber. They're different from each other, cool to warm, but they're not wildly different because they're both very neutral colors. Payne's gray is a neutral blue that has some warmth in it, so the two are more closely related than other, of the pieces that you saw. I also just grabbed this little section of what was on the side of my painting. What I love when I look at that is that it looks sort of like a cityscape. I find that people, when they paint in Photoshop, and this is true of many of my students, many of the work I've seen online, they tend to use one brush type and they tend to work in the same mark all over the piece, so it creates a homogenous kind of look and I want to recommend that you consider texture as part of your conversation about color because it creates an emotional sort of space when you have contrast of textures throughout an image, and this painting I actually really pushed the underpinning texture of the color because I just found it to be really interesting and I wanted the soft of the cloud against the texture of things around it. So this was just like, a little snippet of a reminder to play with the textures. And this is the finished painting. And you can see it's really about value and the focal point is at the contrast of sort of light and the shadow of the cloud. It's using opaque, transparent color, but it has a very different mood and impression of feeling than other pieces that I'd done. It was the last painting I did. Its title is Hope because my feeling is you're in a dark space, but over there it's light, and so I felt like I landed on a more complex, emotional space and I was proud that I had shifted from what I was really more comfortable with in terms of color to something that was less familiar.

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. Mary Jane will guide viewers through useful exercises and practices that help to solve both understanding the color they see and want to recreate, as well as exploring the art of inventing palettes that resonate with expression.

The course will be taught through showing concrete examples and a demonstration that deconstructs the “how to’s” for creating a palette that expresses a mood.

Mary Jane will cover the following topics:

  • Color as meaning: subjective, regional and universal
  • The power and illusion of light
  • Creating color studies
  • Choosing the right medium for color expression
  • Deciding on the palette that works best
  • Harmonizing a color palette
  • Expressing meaning with color focus
  • Pulling it all together to finalize an image
  • Experimenting with color through media and materials

The best way to observe color is from life, but analyzing and recreating an image from a photograph can be a very practical way to learn how to effectively interpret color. Please join this class to continue developing your understanding of color, composition, meaning, mood, and expression.



  • I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.
  • Outstanding course from an engaging, skilled instructor. Mary Jane explains color and composition in a very clear, accessible way. She also puts theory into practice by analyzing a wide variety of illustrations and pointing out what works, what doesn't, the reasons why, and -- for the critique portion at the end -- ways to fix it. Highly recommend!