Approaches to colour
Irrespective of the source or
subject matter of your painting,
you should always have some
concept in mind concerning
colour and how you are going
to use it in your work. Don’t
feel you have to reproduce the
colours you see (or think you
see) in front of you. This is
especially true if you are
working from photographs.
Rue des Artistes, Montreal street scene - Original Oil painting by Dermot McKeown
Arbitrary Colours

We tend to think of
photographs as being “real”, and
hence the colours we see in
them as somehow being
“correct”. Remember however,
that the colours you see in the
photo are merely the result of a
chemical reaction on film. If you
doubt this, think of what the
colours would be like if the
picture had been taken at a
different shutter speed, or
aperture, or using Fuji instead of
Kodak film, or using colour filters,
etc. All of these might produce
very different, but equally
“realistic” images of the same
scene. How could they all be
“correct”?
Tramlines - Toronto urban landscapes, street car- Original Oil painting by Dermot McKeown
Use this idea to give yourself a license to break away from the notion that you have to
reproduce the colours you see and instead use colour as means to produce a satisfying image.
Another liberating exercise I have used in the past is to take my three primary colours and re-
label them. Tape the word “Yellow” to you tube of ultramarine, “Red” to your Cad Yellow, and
“Blue” to your Cad Red. Then, use the paints based on the labelled names. Sure, you might
have yellow skies over blue-bricked buildings, but you will be surprised to find that the finished
product is not as wacky as you might expect.
The “Duet”
One approach to colour is what I call a “duet”. In this approach, the painting becomes an
exploration of one colour and it’s complementary colour. (The complementary of a colour is
the one found directly opposite it on the colour wheel). This doesn’t mean you only have two
colours in the painting. Other colours however, will play a subsidiary role.