Getting the Light Right: The Power of the Color Study

color study by Mitchell Albala

An example of a “simple” color study, Peak was one of eight color explorations of a single subject.

Every landscape painting I do begins with a color study. It’s a practice I adopted not long after college when my interest in painting the color of light was in its formative stages. Now, whether I’m doing a small painting in the open air, or a more developed piece in the studio, the color study is an integral part of my process. Without it, I would not be able to face the audacious goal of translating light into paint.

Although color is highly subjective, it is anything but random. The color study is an extension of the idea that color is intentional. As landscape painters, we naturally “borrow” the color relationships we find in nature, but we also rely on color strategies — specific color relationships that can be used as a formula for building our color composition. For example, we might use an analogous harmony, a complementary, or split-complementary relationship. A strategy also includes determining which particular pigments will best create those relationships and mixtures.

I’ve always been surprised by the artist who dives into a painting without having a clear color plan. It’s true that many color relationships are worked out during the course of the painting, but the clearer your plan is at the outset, the more likely it is that you will arrive at an effective color solution in the end. The color study is a way to test that plan. Color studies take extra time, and to some they may seem like an overly formal process, but there is no better way to expand your color vision and flex your color mixing muscles than to do color studies. They can be fun, practical, and very rewarding.

Befriending the color study

When I reflect on so many years of doing color studies, I can think of at least five ways they have helped my practice. I’ll outline each of these benefits, and then present examples of three different types of color studies: the developed study, the simple study, and the swatch study.

1. Get the light right. In landscape, each painting is typically pegged to a moment in time and a particular color of the light. Color studies are a great way to determine which color-light works best for a particular subject, as I did in the studies for The Way Home, page 3. When painting outdoors, I respond to nature. Like the Impressionists, I try to capture the colors as I see them — even though I know that perfect matches are not possible. Here the color study serves as a way for me test which pigments and color mixes will translate the color of the light in that particular subject. In the studio, surrounded by four walls and artificial light, I cannot respond to nature in the same way. Instead, my approach to color must be part ly invented. I rely on photographs and collected memories of sunlight on certain subjects at certain times of day. I am willing to experiment, which is the whole point of the color study.

complementary color study by Mitchell Albala

The color thumbnail. Oil on paper, 3 x 5 inches. This study, executed as a demonstration in one of my workshops, took about five minutes. A color study doesn’t have to be very tight or polished in order to get the message across.

2. A colorful warmup. Color studies are the perfect warmup exercise. Think of them as a painted  thumbnails. Not only do you familiarize yourself with the colors, but the basic design and sketch establishes the basic composition and color groups. The smaller the sketch, the more painterly it is likely to be.

3. No pressure! 
Psychologically, a small study is a low-pressure exercise. You are less likely to be invested in a small “disposable” study than you will be with a larger studio piece. The study is a safe avenue to explore (and get lost) without a large time commitment or attachment to the outcome. Of course, color studies sometimes come out very well and are mini-masterpieces in their own right. They may be entirely salable at a studio sale or a small works exhibit.

4. Beyond photographic color. Many landscape painters work from photographs. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice — as long as it’s done properly. Far too many artists do nothing more than copy the color they see in the photo, which circumvents the act of translating or inventing color. A series of color studies can liberate you from the single and often limited option proposed by the photograph’s color. Studies force you to try alternate strategies and encourage you to be more creative with your color choices. (Also see Using Photographs Like an Artist.)


The Developed Color Study

color-studies-developed-3-upMitchell Albala, 2014, Color Studies, The Way Home, 7″ x 7″ each. These studies, done in the studio as preparation for a larger painting, each took about an hour-and-a-half, or about the same time I would spend on a plein air painting. l took time to consider the drawing and placement of shapes, but I also strove to keep them loose and painterly. Working small helped with this. My reference photo provided an interesting subject, but it is was drab and lacked any suggestion of sunset-like colors. That’s up to me. Each study makes a unique statement about a “color-light” for that time of day. Having done all three, I can decide which one fits my vision best. From left to right: A. Yellow-violet complementary. B. Yellow/yellow-green/green analogous harmony, with contrasting blue accents. C. Split-complementary (yellow-blue).

The Simple Color Study

mountain color studies by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Color Studies, Peak, 4″ x 3.5″ each. This set of studies, which were done for the sheer pleasure of playing with color (there was no intended final painting), are examples of what I call “simple” color studies. Unlike the developed studies (above), these only took about 15 minutes each. Because they are so small, just 4 x 3.5 inches, the brushstrokes are relatively large and gestural. How much does precision and accuracy play in this type of study? Not much. It captures only a general suggestion of shapes and no detail at all. What is important is to define the basic color groups and how they relate to each other.

100 Studies – Stretching Your Color Boundaries

We are so used to trying to paint the colors we see, it’s easy to become restricted in our ability to be inventive with color. In my landscape workshops, I do an exercise called “100 Studies,” inspired by the work of American pastel painter and instructor Marla Baggetta (below). The exercise is designed to expand your color vocabulary by doing as many studies as possible of the same subject. This is a challenge, even for the seasoned painter, because you have to really stretch to come up with so many different color schemes. You don’t have to actually do 100 studies to benefit from the exercise — but the more you do, the more you’ll expand your color range. Here are a few tips.

  • Choose a small size that won’t allow you to fuss with detail. Marla’s studies were about 10 inches, well suited to her style. My Peak studies were just 4 inches.
  • Choose a subject that is relatively simple and can be easily repeated with little compositional variation.
  • Be exploratory. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t try certain color combinations. Try all the various color strategies: every combination of complementary or split-complementary, and various analogous harmonies. Explore the tonalist or neutral palettes. What colors would you use to turn day into night, or make the subject a sunrise or sunset? If there are color families you have avoided in the past, now is the time to test them out. If you run out of ideas, find a painting by another artist with a successful color strategy, and apply those colors to your study.

Marla Baggetta, Going for 100, 2009, pastel and mixed media on paper. Seventy-two of 103 studies, 10 x 10 inches each.


Below: Corina Linden, 2014, Color Studies, River Valley, 4″ x 3″ each. Corina Linden was a participant in my 2015 Landscape Essentials class as Gage Academy of Art.

Corina Linden color studies


from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Preparatory Work, page 130


About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.


  1. Great information. I am doing Virtual Art Academy on line and I am just starting a lesson where I have to do color studies. Coincidence? What a great way for a new painter to learn about all the color combinations on the color wheel. I used to think it was just a wheel of color and now I am seeing just what it truly means and is. Thank you for the article and I will be doing a ton of color studies to understand color, light and, shapes. I find it so hard to see what is really there, to break down shapes and patterns.

  2. Thank you, Mitchell, for sharing this. I received your wonderful book for my birthday and am right at the beginning of the landscape journey. So much to learn! Great advice.