How to use colors like Marta Nael

In this tutorial video, we learn from the wonderful paintings of Marta Nael. If you’d prefer to read it, it is also written out as an article below the video.


This character has bright blue and red in her skin, but it works so well. Why and how? Keep reading to find out – the answer gives us lots of important lessons.

Marta Nael is a concept artist, fine artist and illustrator. She’s done work for computer games companies and music albums and all sorts and she likes to use both digital and traditional media. I really enjoy her use of colour and that painterly style, so I asked her and her publisher Ediciones Babylon for permission to use these images and they said yes, so a big thanks to both of them.

So the first question that sprang to my mind was about these wild colours, with bright blues and oranges sprinkled in with natural skin tones.


Why does it work?


If you get a facial feature slightly out of place, it can look awkward and unnatural. So how come you can use colours that are completely different to actual skin tone, and it still feels like a natural, living person?

The first reason is that what really matters for it to make sense is the values – how light or dark each area is, not the hue, which is the colour itself. Think about how black and white photographs of people, with all the colours taken out, look natural and full of humanity.


Lets make this painting black and white, take out all the colour. Look at those blues and bright reds – what happens to them in black and white? They still work. This just looks like a good representation of light and dark. That bright green is where the light is reflecting. This red is just a little bit of shade on her cheek.

The values don’t need to be perfect to explain the form of the figure. It’s really just their relationships that need to be right. This part darker than that part. This part darkest of all and so on. As long as the relative light and dark are ok, the image will work.


Lets look at what happens when the relationship between the values of the wild colours break that values rule. Look at these yellow eyes – you’d expect the pupils to be darker than the rest of the eye, so even in black and white, they look strange even while all the other wild colours lilke these greens look natural. So she’s broken the rule here on purpose, to give this eeriness to the character.

These colours also have the right shapes. They represent simplified planes which have different amounts of light hitting them, so their shapes need to roughly match those planes, and they do.


Why use wild colours?

She could have used different colours, more normal colours, with these same values. But where would the fun in that be? 

Skin reflects the light of the environment. 

You can have fluorescent colours on skin if the person is standing under neon lights, or some magical sources of energy. So using these colours, to me it makes it feel like this person is either in a sci-fi or a magical environment. A lot of the colours have a strong luminosity to them, which sometimes gives the sense that they are emanating from the character, perhaps like an aura, making the character themselves feel magical.


Balancing warms and cools

We’ve talked before about warm colours and cool colours. You can sense fairly intuitively if a colour is warmer or cooler than another. It’s often good to have a balance of warms and cool. And then she’ll use a mixture of those same colours for some neutral areas which aren’t designed to draw as much attention.


Composition & attention

There’s a few ways to draw a viewer’s attention to certain areas and away from others. 

Lets use some examples. First lets look at values. The character has all sorts of colours, but only has value contrasts in some areas. And they are designed to guide your eye up this sweeping curving to the main focal point. 


At the focal point, you can have more detail. You can also have sharp edges. Notice how down here, the edges are very soft. You can have contrast in colour temperature – warm against cool. And attention often naturally goes to things like faces and hands. 

A lot of this is relative. There isn’t a set amount of these things you need to get attention to an area. It depends how much of it there is in the rest of the picture. So if there are strong value contrasts all over the picture – lots of strong light against strong dark – none of that contrast will attract a lot of attention.

But if there is very little value contrast – everything’s a similar level of light or dark – then just a little bit of contrast will attract attention.

The fairy is part of her environment, and almost not really there. There’s just a little more contrast, sharper edges and detail on her, so attention goes to her. But then there’s just a touch of warmth in the colour in her face and this hand, and because there’s none elsewhere in the painting, attention goes there, and when you get there you get a little bit of a sinister feeling.

Here’s a fun example. The attention goes to the eyes and the facial features, especially because they have the little splashes of warm, saturated colour against the overall muted coolness.

Now, the attention guiding is strong enough that at first, I didn’t even notice this guy and the fact this is all a photo! The edges are sharp here, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no value contrast – it’s all dark. There’s no colour temperature contrast. 

Look at this painting. The composition brings attention to the face. There’s much more contrast in light and dark, more detail, more visual interest, than in the body. But the whole painting is vibrant and full of colourful energy, and the figure has its share of that. The colour is used to bring out some nice details without taking attention from the face.


Ok so away from the focal points, the edges become softer and less defined. A cool way to do this is to allow brush strokes to be rougher and more raw. With watercolour, she’ll allow the water to soften edges and merge into the background. These effects have multiple purposes – look cool, they help bring attention to focal points, and they make the character feel like part of their environment.


So what should you do with all this information? If you consider yourself clueless when it comes to colour, the first thing is to realise that if you have been working on shading and figuring out relative dark versus relative light, then you understand more about colour than you think, because value is one of the most important aspects of colour. If you like to use colour, but don’t know how to make your colours pop, then it’s great to realise that as long as the values work, you can go wild with the colours you use and the image will still work.

While you’re here guys, check out another of our great videos and articles, and thanks again to Marta and Ediciones Babylon for the use of her amazing artwork.


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