Behind the Scenes: How I Choose Calming Color Schemes

December 16th, 2019

Over on the Happier Home blog, I wrote about how to pick artwork that creates a calm space. I talked about how color is one of the things to consider when looking for artwork that enhances a peaceful home. Here’s how I create calming color schemes in my artwork.

But first, a little color theory! Here’s how complementary color works.

Basically, complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Think of classic Christmas colors like the rich red of poinsettias and the deep green of evergreen trees. They look nice with each other, right? That’s because they are complementary to each other on the color wheel.

But if they are too similar in value (lightness/darkness) or saturation (intensity), they clash and “vibrate.”

“This initially exciting effect also feels aggressive and often even uncomfortable to our eyes. One finds it rarely used except for a screaming effect in advertising, and as a result it is unpleasant, disliked, and avoided.”

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

So I use that effect sparingly, since I want to create a sense of peace and calm in my artwork. Clashing complementary colors don’t create a calming color scheme.

Now for more color theory: analogous color.

This is when the colors used are next to each other on the color wheel. Since there’s no wild variation to distract you, the effect is calming. This chart from Elle Decor does a great job illustrating various analogous color schemes:

An analogous color scheme is usually more calming than a complementary color scheme, since the colors are related to each other.

However, to really go for a calming color scheme, I have to dial the contrast down a lot.

My approach lately: nearly monochromatic with a hint of complementary color or a surprise color

It’s been my approach lately to work in neutrals and add something bright or metallic to it. I think it works well. The neutral colors are naturally calming, especially with soft transitions and subtle contrast. The bright or metallic colors break the monotony and offer a nice surprise. This shows that a little color goes a long way.

Brad Blackman, "Hope," 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope” acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 × 24 inches

Abstract landscape showing a snowy field with a high horizon and a gold mass against the gray sky.

Brad Blackman, “In Sun and Snow” acrylic on canvas. 10 × 10 inches

And sometimes, I break out the intense color, and it is calming yet energetic at the same time.

Since I love color so much, sometimes I crank up the saturation. While the colors are intense and somewhat complementary, the effect is an overall calm color scheme since the transitions are subtle.

Hazy, abstracted sunrise in pink, orange, and yellow behind a dark purple landscape.

Brad Blackman, “First Light” acrylic on canvas. 8 × 8 inches

Inspiring Painters: Color

October 8th, 2016

While color is by default the domain of virtually all painters, there are a few artists whose work really pushes the boundaries of what can be done with color. Here are four painters whose application of color inspire me to use it better.

Two Approaches to Color

I’ve noticed there are two main ways of thinking about color (and all art, really). One is the analytical view, which deals with our perception of color and how colors work together. The other is the emotional impact of color, how exaggerating it can create something more “real.”

Analytical Color

Josef Albers

Josef Albers did a lot over his career, but what really stands out for me is his series “Homage to the Square” that explored color relationships within a simple standard framework.
Albers initially taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar. After Hitler shut down the Bauhaus, Albers emigrated to the United States and taught at Black Mountain College and later Yale. He long had an interest in architecture and graphic design, which informed his work. Perhaps his most famous series of paintings is Homage to the Square, which use nested squares to explore how colors work together. In 1963 he published a book, Interaction of Color, that has now been adapted to an iOS app, which at the time of this writing, is free!

Several of Albers’ paintings of nested squares that explored color relationships.
My own college professors mimicked Albers’ methods for teaching color theory. We did this exact exercise. The two little squares are the same color, but appear very different from each other due to the surrounding colors. The same for the gray box inside the mint green and aubergine rectangles.

Claude Monet

I’ve mentioned this before. Monet painted more than 30 studies of the Rouen Cathedral in 1892 and 1893, exploring the effects of light, weather, and atmosphere on color. Monet essentially used the scientific method since he worked with a constant — the same building viewed from the same vantage point — and saw the effect of variable weather conditions to produce a different color outcome every time. I imagine this later inspired Andy Warhol’s screenprints of such stars as Marilyn Monroe.

Emotional Color

Vincent van Gogh

Color had immense emotional weight for Vincent van Gogh. When he uses blue, it’s calm, peaceful, and sometimes a terrifying void. His reds are hot and oppressive and muggy and dangerous. His yellows portend something ominous.

Mark Rothko

Rothko painted in fields of color on an immense scale, using a technique where brushstrokes were not visible. He painted the inner reality of emotions by way of color. His abstract paintings were often six or eight feet tall.

I have yet to see a Rothko in person, but I have heard it is a truly transcendent experience to be in the presence of his paintings. Someday I hope to visit the Rothko Chapel.

I’d also love to travel to London to see his Segrams Murals at the Tate.

Applying All This

There’s so much of color theory to learn from painters like Albers, and so much to learn of emotional impact from Rothko. I hope to someday be as masterful of color as the painters I mentioned above. In the meantime, I can study their work and apply what I’ve learned from them.

Who are your favorite artists in terms of color? Please share in the comments, or shoot me an email.

My Painting was Drab and Dark, So I Did Something About It

June 15th, 2016

Back in January 2016, I participated in the First Saturday Art Crawl by hanging some work in Erabellum Gallery in the Arcade. When I saw all my work together on the wall, I was stunned at how dark everything was.

This was about the time I resolved to get more color and life into my work.

By the time the April 2016 Art Crawl rolled around, I had my chance to show some new pieces I had created that were colorful and broke away from the “dark horizons” I had been doing the past couple of years. I don’t know if I just get bored easily, but I do think it was time to experiment with color again.

I had to carve out some time to get in the studio and explore some new ideas to supplement last year’s work. I was pretty happy with the result. You can see how it looked on the wall here.

New work up at @erabellum in the arcade! Come say hey if you're at the #FirstSaturdayArtCrawl

A post shared by Brad Blackman (@bradblackman) on

Pressure, 2016. acrylic on canvas, 20×20 inches

Bend, 2016. acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11 inches

Scattered, 2016. acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

I wound up donating two of these to the Music City Derby Day silent auction.

As of right now I’m planning on participating in the August Art Crawl. I’d love to participate in the July Art Crawl, but don’t have the time or the space to work on the pieces I have in mind to have new work ready in time, so I’m shooting for August. I have some ideas I can’t wait to try out. I’m thinking even larger next time, with a more cohesive set of works.

Taking Things a New Direction

March 15th, 2016

You may have noticed my paintings have grown progressively darker over the years. It was a surprise to me, but boy did I notice at the end of 2015.

So this year, it’s my goal to paint lighter. I might have to paint dark for a while or from time to time to deal with some things lurking beneath the surface, but my plan overall is to bring back more light and peace into my artwork.

I’ll most likely continue the abstract landscapes I’ve been doing, but with a lighter approach.

It will be a change for me, but I welcome the challenge.

In addition to painting lighter, I want to experiment with video this year. I think video is a great way to look at art and talk about it since it is multi-sensory. You can watch a painting emerge and get a sense of the artist from the way he or she talks about the work.

I’m excited. I hope you are, too. Thanks for being here.

Color Mixology: the art of mixing colors

July 7th, 2015

Apparently in the past few years, the cocktail has made a comeback. Nowadays instead of calling the people who make them bartenders, they are now called mixologists.

I think it’s kind of silly.

But mixing things together to get new things is inherently how we humans create.

Color is no exception.

You can always mix colors together to get new colors. You can put colors side by side to increase the intensity or calm things down.

Color mixing requires an understanding of color theory and an eye for it. If I’m feeling pretentious, I could call it color mixology. But it’s just combining colors to make new ones. Here are some of my go-to color combinations.

Black(ish), the color of concrete

Cobalt + Raw Umber or Burnt Umber

Blue plus brown creates a nice, cold black-ish color that I use quite a bit in my urban landscapes. Add white to it and you get a grayish color that resembles concrete. Use Burnt Umber with Cobalt for a “warmer” color, or Raw Umber for something “colder.”

This works really well in oil. Since I made the switch to acrylic, I haven’t been able to replicate this quite as well. I avoid using a black out of the tube. Colors right out of the tube tend to lack character.

A color created with several other colors is by default more interesting than something right out of the tube. (Tweet that)

Detail from “Interchange” – oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. 2004


Alizarin Crimson + Cadmium Red + Cadmium Yellow Medium + White

I love this reddish-orange. It’s almost a Coca-Cola red. It was perfect for the stripes on the Snow Speeders in my “Hoth” painting. The red-purple of the Alizarin gives it a slight “edge” and deepens the color a bit more than just red-orange. It cools it off a little. That red-orange can be pretty intense. I think this color is delicious.

Detail from “Hoth” – acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11 inches. 2015
I used something similar in my “Ireland” painting, putting it against several greens for contrast.

Detail from “Ireland” – acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches. 2015

Light Yellow

Cadmium Yellow Light + White

If you want to make a color lighter but keep the intensity, mix in light yellow. The yellow helps it retain the chroma, or saturation. But do it in moderation or it will begin to skew the color toward yellow.

Detail from “Dusky Haze” – oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches. 2014
So those are a few of my favorite color mixes. It’s always fun putting colors together to see what happens. It’s not always what you expect.

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Painting with Complementary Colors

June 30th, 2015

Complementary colors are those colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. I love painting with complementary colors. I find it works best when I give the color something to “fight” with.

It creates drama, and drama creates interest. (That’s why reality TV is so successful.)

So if I have a painting that I know will be dominantly green, I will use a purple or pink wash first. If it will be dominantly blue, I might wash it with orange.

In the past I would put down a thin coat of acrylic paint, pretty even and thin, maybe with some modulation as I wiped the excess paint up so the oil paint will stick better. I might grind the color into the tooth (roughness) of the canvas. Then I’ll start painting the dominant color on top.

I took a little bit of a different approach last fall with “Echoes of a Distant Tide” where I dripped light, lavender purple, orange, and red in a stripy, drippy, abstract pattern, then dripped different shades of mint green. The pattern was strong but the values were pretty similar, so it came out kind of subtle, actually. I think I made the red-orange with Cadmium Red Light with a little bit of yellow and a lot of Titanium White.

See the video where I did this.

Then I dripped purples and dark blues and a little bit of black to build up the dark areas.

That’s how I like to work, using complementary colors.

When I painted “Ireland” it started out all pink. Then I added shades of green, plus orange and red to give it drama.

(If you can’t see the video just click here to watch it on YouTube.)

Of course, I don’t always put red and green against each other. Sometimes I shift that a little juxtapose red and teal. These actually “activate” each other better than red and green. I used it a great deal in the painting I did for the Bridges Derby Day silent auction.

Morning Mist 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 20 × 24 inches.

Remember how in college and a little thereafter I used a lot of cerulean with yellow and brown? I call that my “van Gogh” period. This is when I started embracing complementary color and let the contrasting color “shine” through between objects.

Midnight Oil 2002. Oil on canvas, 22 × 30 inches.

The pattern, it seems, is warm vs. cool. Purple can very easily be shifted to a warm or cool color, so it’s hard to pin down where it actually sits. This is probably why I don’t use purple and yellow or yellow-green with each other very much, though I have tried it.

Overpass 2003. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.

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Blue + Red + Yellow: How I Paint with Primary Colors

June 23rd, 2015

Red, blue, and yellow form the basis for all other colors. These primary colors can do a lot. If you’ve spent any time painting you know that there are warm and cool versions of each.

The way painting is often taught to beginners is they are required to work with 2 reds, 2 blues, and 2 yellows along with white and perhaps black. (Some artists never use black under any circumstance.)

And while those aren’t “true” primary colors, they’re close enough for most people and do indeed form the basis for color theory. (For accurate color mixing, you’re best off using cyan, magenta, and yellow and perhaps a white or a black.)

Over the years I’ve developed an attachment to certain paint colors. These preferences have influenced my own distinctive color palette.


I’ve said before that I love Cerulean Blue. It has a cool, greenish tint. (Or warmish, if you’re using the imitation “hue.”) I love putting it next to Brilliant Yellow, Ochre, and Titanium White. But that’s not the only blue I like to use.

Cobalt (or Cobalt Blue Hue) is a much warmer blue and works well with Raw Umber to make a nice, rich black color. I don’t necessarily like it by itself since it seems to lack something substantial on its own, but it’s good to work with in general. It’s actually pretty warm.

Ultramarine and Pthalo blues stain really well, so a little goes a long way. Be careful not to get any on your white shirt!


I love love love love love Alizarin Crimson. It’s such a lovely red purple that mixes well with other colors. It’s pretty transparent, so it glazes well. Add a little yellow and/or white to thicken it up. With how cold my palette has been over the past decade, I’ve kind of rediscovered Alizarin recently. It’s refreshing to reintroduce my palette to something so warm.

I like to take Alizarin and mix it with a hint of warm yellow like a Cadmium Yellow Medium. Or put them side by side straight out of the tube. They set each other off very nicely. They look sharp.

Cadmium Red Medium is a good all-purpose red, and the lighter version is more red-orange. Mix the Cadmium Red Light with Alizarin and you get a delicious, rich warm color.


In general, yellows are pretty thin, transparent. I find I have to mix some Titanium White into it to give it some opacity.

Zecchi in Florence, Italy makes a really delicious brilliant yellow. The closest thing I’ve found in the States is something made by either Rembrandt or Old Holland but that is too green, too cold, and not warm enough for my liking.

Instead, I often mix a lot of white and a little yellow to get something similar. It’s great for making a color lighter while retaining it’s intensity or chroma.

And of course, there’s Ochre. It’s a great yellow-brown. Not quite mustard. It looks fantastic when paired with a bright yellow and a brilliant blue. Think of Van Gogh.

What about secondary colors?

I’ve found mixing a small amount of Dioxazine Purple with Burnt Umber or a blue-brown mix can get some rich blacks.

Green is one of those colors I use with hesitation. For years I avoided it as it proved difficult for me to use. After all, I have a tendency to paint with lots of blues and browns. At one point I decided green was “God’s Color” since the Earth is green. I felt there was nothing I would do with green, but I gradually got over my fear of using it. My greens tend to skew turquoise or very light spring green.

Mixed colors are more interesting than colors right out of the tube. So I make my oranges with Cadmium Red Medium or Light and mix it with a yellow and white to make a good orange.

Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber are great earth colors that mix well with just about everything else.

I’m always learning about color

Color is something I am always discovering and learning about. I’m continually amazed by the things you can do with color, how colors interact with each other. No color exists in a vacuum. They’re all influenced by each other. In a way it’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it?

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Image of pots of pigment at Zecchi Colori via An art-lover’s day-trip to Florence

What’s Your Color Signature?

June 4th, 2015

Over the years certain artists have come to be associated with particular colors or color schemes. Yves Klein. Titian. Van Gogh. You can probably think of some others. Let’s take a quick look, and then ask yourself, what is your signature color?

Yves Klein’s impossible-to-reproduce International Klein Blue

Yves Klein’s patented blue is difficult to replicate on screen or in print. He would paint entire canvases color field-style, flooding the whole canvas with this signature blue. Or copies of ancient Greco-Roman statuary, covered entirely with this blue. (Reference)

He painted models and had them press themselves against the canvas, leaving odd blobs of paint. It sounds pornographic, but I find it actually lends the painting an uncomfortable physicality that I can’t quite put my finger on. It doesn’t glorify the human figure at all; it is messy and uncomfortable in a way I can’t quite put words to.

Titian’s Red

Tiziano Vecellio, figurehead of the Venetian school of painting, was known for what at the time was considered bright and strong color, most notably a brownish red-orange that dominated his paintings. Nowadays this color refers to a certain shade of red hair. See: actress Karen Gillian, who played The Doctor’s companion for a while.

Van Gogh’s yellows and blues

When I think of Vincent, I think of yellow sunflowers against a pale blue wall, or yellow and white stars against a swirling deep blue sky. His bedroom at Arles painting is dominated by yellow and blue, as is the Cafe Terrace at Night. I also think of heavy, oppressive brick red, either in his paintings of poppies or vineyards or cafes. The night cafe feels like either everyone is immensely bored, or something terrible is about to happen. Every one of van Gogh’s colors has a heavy psychological significance. The last painting he did, Wheatfield with Crows, is an agitated yellow-and-blue composition, with the yellow wheat being crushed by a sinister blue sky.

Mondrian’s red, blue, and yellow, arranged on a stark white and black grid

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is synonymous with the De Stijl movement, and if you look at his paintings in the order he made them you can’t miss the simplification of forms into red, blue, and yellow rectangles on a white and black grid. Anybody who’s seen L’Oreal packaging or that Katy Perry video knows what Mondrian’s work looks like.

Me and Cerulean Blue

I’ve loved this bright, almost electric blue for a long time. It’s somewhat ambiguous. It can look warm or cool depending on the light and how concentrated the paint is on the canvas. In my “van Gogh period” in college and for a while after I did a number of paintings of coffee shops. I toned the canvases with Cerulean Blue, and painted yellows and browns on top of it, letting the blue “shine” through.

Do you have a signature color or color scheme? Maybe you use a lot of blue or red, or some other color. I’ve used Cerulean a lot but lately that is the exception rather than the rule. What are you using a lot of, either now or historically?

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