Use This Simple Technique To Learn To See Like An Artist

How To See Like An Artist

Use this simple technique to train your eye to see values and color.

Here's a simple technique to train your eye to see like a painter.

Learning to see values and color can be difficult. It takes time.

I'm sharing everything as I deconstruct how I learned to paint. This is what I did to speed up learning, to train my eyes to mix paint colors more accurately. It worked for me so I believe it can work for you too.

If you follow this simple method when mixing paint, I believe you'll soon see a remarkable improvement in your ability to match colors and values.

To create realistic paintings you need to nail three things. You need to create believable proportions, values, and colors.

Here's an easy method that has helped me train my eyes to better see values and color when mixing oil paint. Let's break down how to do this when working from photographs and when working from life.

Painting From Photographs

When painting portraits from photographs, I like to start with 3-5 pre-mixed piles of paint. I mix the darkest shade, then I add white to create a mid-tone. Add more white to create a highlight color.

These 3 pre-mixed colors are made up of the colors that I think will best match the area I'm working on.

Before painting, load a bit of color onto your brush and touch the paint to your source photograph. Apply a dot of paint onto the source photo in the exact area that you intend to replicate on your painting.

By touching the paint to the photograph, you're testing the paint to see if the value and color are a good match. If it matches, you'll barely be able to see the dot of paint against the photo. If the value or color mix is off, the paint will stand out against the photograph.

Gradations in color and value

It takes more than 3-5 shades to paint a gradation. A gradation is made of a series of small color and value changes.

You'll want to create tiny changes in color and value as you move across the form. These gradations create depth with color and value.

Using the 3 pre-mixed piles as base colors, pull a small amount of one base color to the side of your palette. Use whichever is closest to the desired color and value.

Mix tiny amounts of other colors to slowly adjust the base color until you get a match. Some areas may need a touch of blue or purple, others a touch of yellow or red. If the mix needs to be lightened, add a touch of white, Naples Yellow, light blue, or light pink.

Lightening your oil paint mix

You can lighten a color with another color. Don't limit yourself to lightening with just white.

When oil painting from photographs, I often lighten colors with Gamblin's Radiant Blue oil paint when I want to both lighten and cool down a color. Naples Yellow is another option to both lighten and warm up a color mix.

Each time you adjust your paint mix, touch a dot of the paint to your source photo, matching as best you can the exact color and value of the area you are painting.

Simply wipe the dots of wet paint off of your source photo as you work. I like to have my source photographs printed at I find that the paint wipes off of their gloss paper easily.

Painting Still Life In Oils Or Painting From Life

Mix your paint color to the best of your ability. Load paint onto the paintbrush and hold the brush up in front of your subject. You can visually compare the color and value of the paint on your brush to the color and value of that section of your subject.

Studio lighting is important when using this method. The light that you, the artist, are using to see your palette and your painting should be the same type of light that is shining on your model or subject.

Use the same type of light bulbs to light your model and to light your paint palette and easel. Match the light bulb color temperature and lumens. Color temperature affects the color of light that the light bulb produces. Lumens are the amount of light each bulb produces.

If you use a cool temperature light bulb, everything lit by that bulb will seem a bit bluer. If you use a warm temperature light bulb, everything lit by that bulb will seem a bit more yellow.

Using a warm colored light bulb to light your subject and cool colored light to light your palette can confuse your eye. It can defeat your efforts to match the color.

Try to light your workspace and your model with the same lighting. This will help you better match your paint colors to your subject.

If possible, use natural light to illuminate both.


This simple method can help you train your eyes to better mix colors and value in oil paint.

When working from photographs, simply touch your paint mix to the photograph. If the paint mix seems camouflaged and blends with the photo underneath, you can assume your paint mix is close to the desired color and value. If the dot of paint contrasts or stands out against the photo, you need to adjust your paint mix.

When painting still life in oil paint or working from life, you can use a similar method. Mix your paint to what you believe will match and load some paint onto the tip of your brush. Hold the brush up and visually compare the paint to the subject.

By practicing this simple method often, your ability to mix the right color and value should improve.

When I started using this method, I had to adjust my paint mix 3-5 times before getting a good match. Now I can usually do it within 1 or 2 tries.

When you first begin using this method, you may find that you are way off on your colors and values. Don't worry. My experience has been that we can develop the ability to judge color and values rather quickly. If you'll use this simple method for a period of time, I believe you can learn to see value and color more accurately.

With a bit of focus and some dedicated practice, I believe this simple method can help you see like a painter.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones