Spots of Color in Painting: What They Are & Why They’re Important

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As a painter it is important to see in terms of spots of color – this how all of the old master painters of the past worked. Breaking things down into areas of color completely revolutionizes the way you see and paint. It allows you to stop seeing an object as an object and instead view it in terms of a collection of color spots coming together.

What exactly IS a spot of color though? And how do we apply it to painting?

Why color spots are important

Before we go into the specifics of color spots I want to go over why color spots are so important in the first place. It is physically impossible for us to replicate and paint what we see in the real world. For one, we have an impossibly small value range available to us with our paints when compared to the real world. We cannot paint all the values that we see in real life, not to mention all of the colors.

cargo ship in harbor painted with clear spots of color
A painting by Elisabeth Larson Koehler – illustrates how clear and simple color spots can create a compelling and realistic painting. It is very important to always simplify while painting.

Simplifying is necessary

Because of this, it is necessary for us to simplify when we paint. In addition, it is important to view what we see in terms of color and light and not as things and objects. Your painting will be infinitely more compelling and realistic if you do this.

What is a color spot?

A spot of color is a single area of paint, generally small in size but not necessarily so. It could be larger depending on how much you want to break your colors down.

For example, in the detail below of Vermeer’s “young woman with a pitcher” you can see how the pitcher was built up purely with different shapes and spots of color.

In the detail to the left of Vermeer’s “Woman with a water jug” we can see how he painted the reflective metal jug with color spots. His concern wasn’t to make it look like a jug but rather to capture the light and colors of the jug.

Vermeer grasped the necessity of not viewing something in terms of an object but rather a collection of color spots.

Notes of color

What makes painting so special is notes of color coming together and harmonizing beautifully in different ways. Painting with color isn’t very different from a composer creating a piece of music. Instead of notes you are composing with spots of color and creating a visual experience on your canvas.

How to “see” spots of color

Visual tools for artists such as a box camera can help you to train your eye to see in terms of shapes of color and value instead of viewing things as an object.

To work in this manner is ONLY achievable when you train yourself to see in terms of color. It takes time to stop yourself from seeing objects as things instead of shapes of light and color. Looking at art that are good examples of using color groupings is a very good place to start.

Examples of color spots in art

Even art from 2000 years ago can be of enormous value in learning to see color spots. Here is a Roman mosaic that is a truly splendid illustration of what spots of color are and their impact.

In this Roman mosaic from the national archeological museum in Naples we see how individual color spots brought together create an incredibly realistic picture. Since shapes of color is a universal foundational element it works across all mediums.

You can see how colored stones are placed to represent an area of color. The way the colors work together produces a specific visual effect.

Notice how it is spots of color that create the creases and folds in the toga worn by the man. We also see changes in flesh tone represented by different color spots in the small pieces of stone in the mosaic.

It is a terrific example of an image built purely with color spots. Though it isn’t technically a painting – the thought process is exactly the same.

How to paint with spots of color

In the detail on the left of the folds and creases on the fabric of Titian’s painting “Venus Blindfolding Cupid” we see how color spots play a big role. It is because of the distinct shapes of colors that we have the realistic effect of folds and creases.

Start by squinting your eyes and look at the scene you are painting. Notice how different areas of light and color come together to form an object or landscape. If you practice this first, it will make things much easier when you go to apply paint to canvas. Painting is about the way you think and see. The more you help yourself to see as a painter, the easier the painting process will become.

Begin by simplifying

Simplifying is one of the most important elements that is helpful for seeing and painting with color spots.

In this detail from Vermeer’s “A lady writing” we can see how simple areas of color create the very real and convincing effect the pearl necklace gives off.

You can use visual tools to help yourself simplify more easily. Start by painting large areas of color – this will help you to get away from details and start capturing the essence of your subject matter.

When you start to be able to paint large shapes of color, you can break them down more. This is where you start to work at painting more subtle color transitions.

In the detail to the left of Vermeer’s painting we see how he used very simple and clear shapes of color to convey an otherwise very complex structure. Focusing on simple shapes of color is all that is needed to navigate complicated subject matter.

Start with simple subject matter

It is also very helpful to work from simple subject matter when training yourself to paint and see in terms of color spots. You want to eliminate any temptation to get into unnecessary details that will not serve your painting. Choose motifs that have large clear shapes of light and dark.

In addition, it is very helpful to start with an area that has three clear simple values. It is very helpful to watch a video demonstration on how you can apply this to your own painting.

Still Life with Two Apples, Edouard Manet (French, 1832-1883), The above still life is a great example of how simple subject matter is great for painting clear colour spots.

Do small painting studies

I highly recommend to do small color studies as a regular practice to train yourself to paint with color spots. When you keep the paintings small it helps you to focus on really painting just the color you see instead of worrying about other elements in the painting.

Landscape with River and Mountains, Thomas Sully (American 1783-1872). This watercolor study is a great example of a small color study where the primary concern is with color spots and values. Doing small sized studies are very helpful!

It is incredibly important to implement color spots into your work. This is the manner in which all of the old masters of the past worked. The paintings we all admire in museums use color spots as the basis for the techniques used to create them.

When you start to see the world and paint in terms of spots of color and shapes of light your painting transforms entirely. You are able to elevate any subject matter from ordinary objects to extraordinary combinations of notes of color.


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    8 thoughts on “Spots of Color in Painting: What They Are & Why They’re Important”

    1. Incredibly important information, Elisabeth. This is why good art instructors always tell students to squint. 🙂 Thanks for taking all that time to create such a fantastic post!

    2. Excellent again, you are a good teacher and your thoughts are inspiring. I like the sunflower video, I would never have thought to introduce green into the yellow then alizarin. I do find that I am more able to paint more freely in oils than watercolour, where I tend to tighten up. I love the idea of spots. Thank you again.

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