Why Do Artists Use Unrealistic Colours? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Why Do Artists Use Unrealistic Colours

Although I’ve probably mentioned this subject here before, I thought that I’d take a more detailed look at the question of why artists often use unrealistic colours in paintings, drawings etc…. This is mostly because, until sometime in either 2014 or 2015, it was something that I never really quite understood.

These days, of course, it’s a significant part of my art style. Here are some examples:

"Engine Square" By C. A. Brown

“Engine Square” By C. A. Brown

"Fake 80s Movies - Fossils" By C. A. Brown

“Fake 80s Movies – Fossils” By C. A. Brown

So, why do artists do this? The “traditional” reason that is often given is that – after the invention of photography – artists were no longer expected to be able to produce realistic images of the world. Since cameras could do this, artists had a lot more freedom to be unrealistic and to try new and interesting things.

But, there’s a lot more to it than just this. One of the first things that made me more interested in using unrealistic colours was learning a bit more about colour theory. If you don’t know what “colour theory” is, it refers to how different colours interact with each other within the same image.

This covers things like “complimentary colours” (groups of colours that look nice when placed near each other- like orange and blue). If you want to find a pair of complimentary colours, then draw a straight line across a colour wheel and the two colours at each end of the line will compliment each other. You can also find groups of three complimentary colours by drawing a triangle over a colour wheel and looking at the colours at the points of the triangle.

I also learnt that colour theory also covers things like visual contrast – for example, a pale grey square will look darker when placed against a white background, and lighter when placed against a black background. Although I knew about this for quite a while, it was only after reading a book about painting earlier this year that I realised that it could deliberately be used as an artistic technique in and of itself (rather than just being a byproduct of making “realistic” art).

This, for example, is how I was able to paint the especially bright sunset in the background of the painting below this paragraph. The sun itself is completely white, but because it’s surrounded by a slightly darker yellow outline, it looks significantly brighter by contrast.

"1994" By C. A. Brown

“1994” By C. A. Brown

Of course, knowing about some of the cool things that you can do with colours will probably make you want to experiment. It’ll probably make you wonder what would happen if you turned it “up to eleven”. This, of course, leads to (carefully selected) unrealistic colour schemes in paintings and drawings.

For example, did you know that you can make a painting look significantly more futuristic and/or frightening by using a red and blue colour scheme?

"More Sci-Fi Stuff" By C. A. Brown

“More Sci-Fi Stuff” By C. A. Brown

In addition to this, another reason why I’ve gravitated towards using carefully-selected unrealistic colour schemes in most of my art is because it is both challenging and relaxing at the same time. On the one hand, it has a similar level of minimalist simplicity to it as making black & white drawings does, since you only have to worry about using a couple of colours.

However, although you only have to worry about using a limited number of colours, working out how to use them effectively can be an enjoyable challenge. Like with getting a good balance between black, white and shaded areas in a B&W drawing, you have to work out how to distribute your limited number of “unrealistic” colours throughout your painting, so that every detail looks “right” and the painting as a whole also looks good.

It can take a bit of trial and error to learn how to do this, but it’s a skill that is well worth learning. Not to mention that it can be quite enjoyable too.

So, yes, those are just a few of the reasons why I use “unrealistic” colours in my art. There are probably lots of other reasons, but these were the only ones I can think of.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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