Welcome to ChromaMagic – the online Munsell color analysis tool. Click the button to go straight to analyzing your photos. If you’re new to ChromaMagic check out the walkthroughs at the end of this post. I also have a post on Munsell and how it helps artists.
This version of ChromaMagic will always be free but any donations towards its upkeep, development and maintenance would be gratefully received. Click the button below to donate securely through Square.
Anyone who donates will get a free upgrade to the next version currently in development.
What is ChromaMagic?
Have you ever looked at a scene or a photo reference and thought ‘What is that color?’ As artists our color perception is crucial in knowing what we see and how we translate it onto canvas or paper. ChromaMagic was developed to help us quickly sharpen our skills in color perception and improve our paintings. It can show you the three Munsell components of color for any color in a photo reference and display them in the relevant color chart.
The Munsell Color System
ChromaMagic uses the Munsell Color System to define color. As artists it is a wonderful way to define and mix color. Munsell classifies color into 3 components of hue, value and chroma. If you’re new to this way of thinking about color it can take a little while to get into the swing of things. But it is well worth it. I can personally say that it transformed my paintings almost overnight.
Starting with ChromaMagic
When you first load up the ChromaMagic tool it has a color wheel photo displayed in the photo area. At the top on the left is the full photo and, on the right, is a zoomed in region. To load up your own photo click the black button on the top right.
Click Anywhere on the Photos to Select a Color
Click anywhere on either the left or right photo regions to select a color. The zoom panel on the right will center on that pixel and display a red cross-hair on the selected color.
Below the photo are 3 representations of that color. On the left are rectangles displaying the exact color and also the nearest Munsell chip color. On the right is the color highlighted in the relevant color chart.
ChromaMagic Munsell Color Tool Detail Panel
Chroma Varies as the Hue Changes
Example Photo 1 – Apple and Pear Still Life
This reference is one I have used in a beginners class. It’s great for honing your skills identifying and mixing colors. See the link for a full step by step watercolor tutorial and video.
Light Values Vary Between the Fruit
Shadow Values Change Hue
Gray Colors Aren’t Really Gray
Example Photo 2 : Landscape Reference
I’ve come a cropper with beach paintings many a time. Finally, with the help of ChromaMagic, I could work out and learn where my colors were wrong. The result was that my paintings were much more successful.
Want to know how to paint this watercolor still life? Follow along with the step-by-step watercolor still life tutorial and create your own version.
Is Still Life an Easy Option for Watercolor?
Still life painting might seem like an easy option when choosing something to paint. In some ways it is. For example things stay where you put them, you can arrange objects the way you want and have control over the lighting. However, I find that you need to increase your observational skills and really nail the values and colors for the result to be convincing. In this post I take you through this fruit watercolor painting. We start with making some value and color swatches. This helps us think through our color choices ahead of time. We then go through the painting in layers from light to dark. In between each layer we let things dry so we don’t disturb the color when the next layer goes down.
Fruit is an ideal subject if you’re looking for still life painting ideas. Most people will have fruit in the pantry and they are lovely bright colors which are always fun to paint. I think this tutorial is suited for all levels but, if you’re looking for a watercolor still life for beginners, you might be interested in my apple and pear tutorial.
Watercolor Materials Needed.
My full list of materials is here but these are the things you will need for this still life watercolor painting.
11″x15″ 100% cotton watercolor paper. I use Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press.
Size 10 and 12 round watercolor brushes. My favorites are Escoda Reserva.
Reference photo (see below)
Artists quality paint in the following colors
Vermillion or an orangey red like naphthol red, cad red light, or pyrrole red
Permanent rose or a pinkish red (permanent alizarin or quinacridone red)
Black. I use lamp black but ivory black is fine.
A white palette for your paints and mixing
Still life Reference Photo
This is the pixabay photo reference we’re going to use. I chose this for a couple of reasons. First the lighting is quite strong and from the side. This gives us a clear separation of light and dark on all of the fruit. This also gives us some nice rich cast shadows on the oranges. Secondly, the background is plain and white. When I’m painting still life in watercolor I like to keep the paintings light and airy. A dark background gives a very different feel and mood.
Color Mixing Preparation for our Watercolor Still Life
Before we start on our main painting we’re going to do some analysis and prep. I like to work out the main colors for the objects ahead of time and do some color swatches. Watercolor is a fast moving medium and, when we’re in the middle of a painting, we might not have time to stop and think about colors. Doing some prep beforehand almost always helps with this and results in a better painting.
Pay Attention to Values and Colors
These are my color swatches for the light and shadow sides of most of the fruit. I treat the light and shadow colors as independent. Sometimes a shadow color will just be a darker version of the light color but often it has very subtle hue shifts. Paying attention to these will result in a more convincing watercolor painting.
Colors are Different in the Light and Shadow
While mixing these colors I pay attention to the values on the light and shadow sides. These values will vary depending on the local color of each fruit. For instance a red apple is often around a mid value on the light side (see the watercolor pear and apple tutorial for an example of this). In contrast a banana will have a very high value in the light – probably around a 9 (0 = black, 10=white). In this reference the fruit are mostly around an 8 or 9 in the light. When we look at the shadows they go from a 5 down to a 3 and the colors are quite rich or high in chroma.
Use ChromaMagic to Help Identifying Colors
If you have a printed reference a color isolator can help identifying the different colors. This is just a piece of mid-value grey card with a 1/2″ square cut out. Placing it over different areas of the photo helps enormously in judging colors without surrounding areas leading us astray. At the end of this post is another reference and some guidance on how to practice this.
Alternatively you can load the reference photo into ChromaMagic and click on different areas to show you the colors. I always like to make a guess myself before clicking and checking how close I am. It’s the best way to get better at seeing color accurately and you’ll be surprised how fast you improve.
First do a Pencil Drawing
I first spend time doing a fairly careful line drawing of the setup. I start by lightly marking out the topmost, bottommost and left and right regions of the setup. This helps me get the proportions correct and makes sure everything is placed correctly on the paper. I then go in and start drawing the fruit. I pay careful attention to when and how the fruits intersect and make sure things line up horizontally and vertically.
The grapes were a pain to draw. I didn’t go overboard with accuracy here but made sure enough shapes were down to give a convincing representation and that they made some interesting shapes. One thing I didn’t draw in were the cast shadow shapes. These will have mostly very soft edges and any graphite lines would probably show through. As I didn’t want this, and the shapes are pretty simple, I left them out and will put them in directly with paint.
The First Layer – Light Values
Now I have to warn you that this first stage will result in something very unimpressive. We’re going to start with just the lightest values on the fruit but paint over the whole fruit including the shadow side. This will result in something very flat. But that’s good! That’s exactly what we want! In subsequent layers we’ll go darker and darker and the painting will become more and more three dimensional. It’s almost like magic! Keep the faith at this stage. Keep the washes light and try and make them as even as possible. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look realistic at this point.
Moving from left to right I paint in the lightest values and colors on each of the fruit. This isn’t going to be a loose painting so I don’t lose any edges between the fruits but keep them nice and crisp. For the light highlights on the fruit I leave a little region of white paper showing and soften the edges a little with a clean, damp brush.
I darken the oranges a little with a slightly darker orange to start to give them shape. I make sure the edges are softened with a damp brush as they fade out into the light.
Wait for everything to dry before moving onto the next stage. We don’t want our next layer to disturb anything we’ve already put down. This stage we’ll start to see things take shape. When you’re done you’ll start to see things look more three dimensional.
Again working from left to right we refer back to our color swatches and see that we have mid to dark values on the shadow sides. The left apple is around a value 5 red and the oranges go right down to a value 3 brown in the shadows. I paint the mid values on the shadow sides of the fruit and use a clean damp brush to soften the transition between light and shadow. This helps show the round form of the fruit. Don’t worry about making them look like fruit right now. Aim to soften those edges to make them look round.
Paint the Grape Shadows – They’re Fiddly!
These grapes look great when they’re done but they’re fiddly! Try to resist painting each one individually. If you can join shadow shapes together and paint them as one do so! We aim to leave a little of the light side of the grape showing and soften the edge with a damp brush to make them look round. It’s the same procedure that we did for the apples and oranges but just at a smaller scale!
Green Grapes Have Light Shadows
The green grapes are a little deceptive. Their shadows are much lighter than for the purple ones so be careful with your mixing. Again, if you want to check the values have a look in ChromaMagic and it will tell you exactly how dark they are.
Add Some Cast Shadows
Using a mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine I add in some cast shadows under and next to the fruit. I make sure to soften all of the edges with a clean, damp brush.
Interested in Learning to Paint in Watercolor?
I have many real-time videos you can paint along to. Please check out my youtube channel or see the selection here.
Well I hope you have something that’s looking pretty good by now! We’re almost done and we’ve done most of the hard work. All we have to do now is put in the darkest darks and a few details. These are the things that really bring the painting to life and make it look convincing.
Some of our shadows aren’t quite dark enough yet. We’re going to go through the fruit again and try and hit the correct value for each shadow. This is the point where you will want to make things look as convincing as possible. Depending on how your first two layers went you might have big adjustments to make or smaller ones. You’ll have to compare your painting to the photo and judge.
Paint And Adjust the Cast Shadows
In mine I first painted on the dark cast shadow on the oranges. These are pretty dark brown and I made careful comparisons to the reference to make sure I got them as close as possible. I also modified and deepened the shadow on the right apple just to take it a shade darker.
I adjust the shadows on the banana and the cast shadows under the fruit. The banana shadow has a little green in it so I blend the green color into the brown while the paint is wet.
Smaller Touches – The Super Darks!
We’re looking pretty good now but there’s still some darks we’ve missed. The crevices of the grapes go right down to a value 1 or 2 so I mix up a very dark value for the purple grapes and add small darks where there isn’t much light. I do the same for the green ones but, as the grapes themselves are lighter, I don’t go quite as dark.
The final touches are to add the stalks on the grapes and the apples and to darken a few of the purple grapes even further. A few tweaks to the shadows and we’re done!
Here’s the final thing. I’m pretty happy on the whole. Looking at it a couple of days later I could probably go a little darker in the shadows on the green grapes but there’s not much else I would change.
Bonus Video Still Life Watercolor
As a bonus here is a video of another still life on my youtube channel that follows a similar method.
Bonus Color Matching Exercise
This exercise is to give you practice in assessing and mixing colors. I always find these quite revealing and fun to do.
Here we have the photo reference. I’ve chosen this for a number of reasons. First it has clearly defined areas of light and dark – no wishy-washy flat lighting. Second the shapes are very clear – the apple, lime, and bananas all have clearly defined edges. Finally the colors are nice and bright. There’s nothing gray and muted about this setup.
A good learning photo does not make a good painting
Now all of these reasons are because I want to get across how to identify and mix color. If I were choosing a setup for a ‘real’ painting I would not choose this. Everything is a bit plainly stated and matter of fact. There’s no nuance, subtlety, or atmosphere here. But what isn’t great for a painting is perfect for learning! And the technique I’m going to describe can translate easily into any painting you like.
The numbered squares are the colors we’ll match
You’ll notice that I’ve marked out a series of numbered squares on the photo. Before we start painting we’ll go through each of these and try and identify and mix the color as accurately as we can. This will feel laborious to start with. And it will take a long time – much longer than you think. But every one of these swatches that you make is worth it. We will go through the hard work of identifying the colors we’ll need ahead of time. The final painting itself will be made easier and we’ll paint it relatively quickly.
A color isolator is a very useful tool for color identification
I strongly recommend you have a color isolator handy if you’re painting from a printed photo reference. This is just a small (say 3″x5″) piece of mid-gray card with a 1/2″ square cut out of the middle. I have a number of these handy and there’s always one close to the easel.
Your brain lies to you about color
One of the many problems we face as painters is that our brains are constantly translating what we see into what it thinks we need. If we look at a white cup in shadow our brains helpfully disregard the shadow and will be insistent that what we’re seeing is white. In practice of course it’s likely a dark blue gray and, if we want to paint it so it reads realistically, that’s the color we should paint it. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we can’t trust that little brain voice and think and look harder.
Context also makes seeing color harder
The other problem we have when identifying color is that what is around a shape affects how we see it. A mid-value gray can look lighter than it is next to black. But when it’s put next to white paper it will look darker than it is. This is where the color isolator helps us.
Use the isolator as a learning tool not a crutch
The color isolator is very useful but we need to be conscious that it’s a learning tool not something we need to rely on. So we need to use it in the following multi-step way
Look at the color you’re trying to match and identify it. e.g. it’s a mid-value bright pinkish red.
Use the color isolator by placing it over the color and see how close you are.
If you’re correct (or close) pat yourself on the back and have a biscuit.
If you’re wrong try and imprint in your memory why you were wrong so you’ll be closer next time.
The first step is the hardest! Thinking – it takes soooo much effort. But it’s really worth it. And you’ll be amazed how quickly you get a lot better at seeing color. And maybe more importantly you’ll start to learn which types of colors you get consistently wrong. For me (and I suspect most of us) it’s shadow colors and especially shadow colors of light objects. After a while when you come across these when you’re painting a little alarm will go off in your head reminding you to pay extra attention to these regions.
Color match each swatch
Here’s my version of these swatches. You can see that I’ve put test swatches by each box until I’m satisfied that I’ve got it as close as I can. Only then do I put the final color in the box. And you can see that some of these colors are very different to what we consider a fruit color. Number 2, for example is the shadow on the bananas. It’s a sludgy dark green. Not bananaish at all! And the shadow sides of both the apple and the lime are really quite dark even though they are still identifiably green and red.
I’m going to be making some more videos on how I go about this. It’s hard to describe in text and much easier to show and learn from a video. I warn you that the process feels awkward at first but has huge rewards. And you’ll be going around identifying colors everywhere you go!
Livestreams and Videos
If you’re interested in this process (and have I mentioned how much it’s helped me? 🙂 I livestream paintings and techniques. If you want to know when these are coming up please sign up on my mailing list. I’d love for you to join me.
Alla prima primroses were the subject for oil painting today. A very complicated subject and an exhausting painting session. Almost 6 hours to get this to an almost finished state. This was done as part of a Paul Foxton workshop and this was the final subject.
Mixing colors Takes Time
I spent a good portion of the time just mixing the colors. It took around 1.5 hours to mix up colors for the light and shadow sides of the flowers, the leaves, the teapot and the background colors. I dialled back the chroma quite a bit from last week’s study as I thought the yellow flowers were too bright. Definitely a good decision.
Small Oil Study
Here is the study for reference:
This was an 8×10 study and was blocked in quite quickly and with only a little drawing. I thought it came out well but wanted a slightly quieter feel to it. I also went larger – 11″x15″ for the final thing. It’s a busy subject and needed a bit more elbow room so took the plunge and went larger. This is always a bit of a risk as relationships can take on more or less impact as you scale up or down.
In Progress Shot
Here is the painting part way through. We spent quite a bit of time on the central 3 flowers. These are the main stars of the show and we wanted to make sure we had the values nailed down here. I think they just about work. Yellow flowers are always tricky especially the shadow colors. We also made sure the values of the teapot were better than the study. The white of the spout in the shadow is really quite dark and we wanted to ensure it really looked like it was in shadow.
Alla Prima Primroses – Studio Shot
This is a shot of my easel in the studio. Some people have asked whether I have trouble with distorted drawing as I have my board at an angle. To be honest I keep it like that as I mostly work in watercolor and I’m used to it. I do stand up a lot and I don’t think I get any distortion from the angle. One day I’ll try the vertical easel and see how that feels.
Want to paint this watercolor boat painting? Follow the step by step instructions (including video at the end) and see how easy this can be!
I just can’t resist painting boats in watercolor. The colors, the details, the sun and shadow – all come together to make painting these watercolor boats so much fun. In this watercolor boat tutorial I break down all the steps and show you how you can paint this scene. Boat watercolor paintings can seem daunting but if you take things slowly it’s amazing how they come together.
Watercolor Materials Needed
Watercolor paper (I like Fabriano Artistco 140lb cold press)
Size 10 round sable or synthetic sable
Vermillion/pyrrole red/naphthol red
Cobalt blue/cerulean blue
Palette/paper towels/water pot
Small spray bottle of water
Watercolor Boat Drawing
The drawing for this painting is pretty important. Sometimes I won’t put much detail into a drawing and just indicate the main shapes. For instance a landscape with trees can be pretty sparse in the drawing. All the detail and texture goes in by eye with just paint. But for this scene there is a lot going on and we want to indicate the position of a lot of different things.
Using a Grid Helps With Drawing Accuracy
I did this drawing by eye but, if you’re not confident with your drawing, you can grid up your paper lightly with pencil and draw it square by square. That way you can be sure you’re getting everything in the right place. It’s not a foolproof method but it gives you far less room for error. I’ve included a gridded up version of the reference below.
The aspect ratio of the photo is the same as for a 10″x14″ piece of watercolor paper. If you mark your paper into quarters on each side and join them up to make a 4×4 grid you can transfer the drawing more easily onto your paper.
Take Some Time to Make a Plan for Your Painting
Before we dive into the painting it always helps to take a few minutes and plan out what you’re going to do. It can be hard to do this – we want to jump straight in and get those brushes moving and paint splashing around. But a few minutes thought at the start always makes for a better painting. We can spot possible problem areas and make sure we know roughly how we’re going to proceed.
Which Direction is the Light Coming From?
I first make note of where the light is coming from and where the shadows fall. In this case the sun is on our right and the shadows are falling on the left. This is always good to keep in the back of your mind. If the reference is unclear in some areas you can work out how the lights and darks should fall even if you can’t make it out from the photo.
The next thing I do is note where my lightest lights are and my darkest darks. Once we’ve located these then we know that everything else has to fall somewhere between those areas. In this case our lightest light is the white hull on the left boat. The darkest darks are in the shadow underneath the boats and possibly inside the cabins. I keep this in mind. Nothing else can be darker or lighter than these areas.
Where are the Main Shapes and Values?
This one is trickier but it pays off giving it some thought. Even though there’s a lot of detail going on in this photo I like to break it down into 4 or 5 main value shapes. In this case I would estimate (or measure using our value scale) the value of the following areas
The hulls of the boats (in light and shadow)
The cabins of the boats (in light and shadow)
This may seem like a lot to work out ahead of time but getting those big value shapes right is an enormous help getting a scene to hang together and getting it to be convincing.
Identify a Few of the Colors
Doing some test mixes of a few of the main colors can also be a good idea. It’s much easier to do this before the painting. When you’re in the middle of the painting there’s so much going on it’s hard to stop and think about this. It’s a bit like prepping for a recipe. Getting all the ingredients measured out ready ahead of time makes putting a meal together much easier. (Not that I ever really do that – but I should!) In this painting I mixed as I went along but it’s a better idea to try out your color mixes at the start. If you think you can’t remember how you mixed your colors then putting a pencil note next to the swatch is a good idea. It’s doesn’t have to be anything complicated – just a list of the colors is enough.
Watercolor Boat Painting – Finally we Paint!
So let’s start painting. We’re going to paint this in layers and build up the painting from light to dark. We’re first going to block in all the shapes with their lightest colors. Once those are dry we can go back in and add in the darks. This way of working takes a bit of getting used to. As we’re starting with the light colors of all the shapes things won’t start to look three dimensional until quite late on in the painting.
I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!
If we put in too much value variation in the early stages then the darks won’t make as much impact when we put those in. In these early stages try and match the color and value as best you can to the reference. And, most importantly, keep these early washes even. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look right at this stage. It takes a bit of faith but once you get used to it it will all make sense.
Keep Going With the Light Values
Keep going across all of the main shapes of the boats. One thing to remember is that we’re putting in the light value of each different shape but these values may vary from shape to shape. For instance, the hull of the red boat is a bright orange-red in the light. The actual value of this is around a 5 i.e. mid-way down the value scale. If we compare this to the beige area above we can see that it’s a little darker. The beige area in the light is around a 7 but it’s still in the light.
Similarly the red stripe on the left hand boat is around a 4 (i.e. darker than a mid-value) in the light. If you have a value scale and a printout of the reference you can measure the values directly. If the color is distracting (and it can be with bright colors like these) squint your eyes and it becomes easier to judge value.
Use the ChromaMagic Tool to Measure Color
Alternatively you can load up the reference in ChromaMagic and click on different areas. It will show you the three components of the color – hue, value and chroma. The color notation is part of the Munsell way of measuring color. It is incredibly useful in painting and makes color very straightforward to analyze.
Paint in the Sea in the Background
The sea in the background goes in next. This is a fairly dark blue and helps to tie the boats in the scene and give us some depth.
As you can see at this point the painting isn’t looking three-dimensional. Don’t panic! This is exactly how it should be looking at this point.
Paint in the Sand Around Your Watercolor Boats
Next we’re going to put in the sand. I really like this bit as we get to put in some texture with our spray bottle. One thing to be careful of – sand isn’t yellow. Or rather it is yellow but a very grayed out low chroma yellow. In this scene it’s a kind of beige so make sure you add in some black to your mix to take out some of the brightness. I’ve made the mistake of painting sand far too bright in color many times. Again mixing a swatch of color beforehand helps a lot as does using ChromaMagic for checking the chroma.
While your sand wash is still wet take a spray bottle of water and lightly spritz the surface. If the paper is the right level of dampness the water will add small sparkles and splodges in the paint. It adds some interest and texture to the foreground. This can take a bit of practice to get right. If the paper is too wet the water will just disperse and disappear. If the paper is too dry the water won’t do anything at all.
Watercolor Boat Painting – Add the Sky
Note: I’ve got the order slightly wrong here. I’ve already put in some of the darks on the boats before doing the sky. The order doesn’t really matter. You can put in the sky before the shadows and everything should work out fine.
Let’s put in some sky now. The reference photo doesn’t really have much in the way of clouds and I didn’t really want a big expanse of blue up there. So I’ve invented some cloud shapes. You have a lot of freedom here. Put in some blue around wherever you fancy the clouds to be. While the paint is wet take a clean (very clean) damp brush and soften the edges of the clouds. The blue pigment will diffuse out into the damp areas of paper making lovely soft and convinving clouds.
Watercolor Boat Painting – Second Layer Darks
Now this bit is where the painting starts to come to life. We’re going to put in the shadow sides of the objects and make them look three-dimensional. Adding in these contrasting areas also helps the visual impact of the scene and it will make the image more interesting as well as more realistic.
Interested in Learning to Paint in Watercolor?
I have many real-time videos you can paint along to. Please check out my youtube channel or see the selection here.
We’ve already painted in the light sides of our objects so we won’t be putting any color in there at all. We’re just going to paint in the shadow colors on mostly the left sides. Make sure your colors are at least a couple of shades darker than your light sides and things will start to take shape. When you get to the insides of the cabins we’re even darker as very little light is getting in there – you don’t need to paint things – just a few dark shapes at different angles will suggest a lot of detail.
Be careful with the shadow on the white hull. We don’t want to go too dark here and keeping that shadow light will really suggest strong sun.
Add a Cast Shadow to Anchor the Boats to the Ground
Finally add some cast shadows on the sand and right at the bottom of the boats. This will make the boats convincingly anchored to the ground.
The Magic Bit – Details on Your Watercolor Boat Painting
By this point you should have something that’s looking pretty three-dimensional. This next bit really adds sparkle and interest to your watercolor boat painting! We’re going to put in some lovely details. Put in the masts and rigging with a small synthetic brush. Make sure they’re not too dark – a mid value gray is plenty dark enough here. The other thing to take care with is not to make your lines too continuous. Leave a few gaps here and there as it will make the masts more convincing than if you carefully paint them in one continuous line.
Continue with the masts and smaller details. Add in a few lines for the railings and the ropes holding the buoys. A few light lines on the white hull will also suggest their structure. I hope everything is looking really good by now!
Flags and Signs
We’re right at the end now. A few red marks for the flags will add a pop of color. The signs on the boat go in with an almost black background. The lettering is suggested with a little opaque white.
Final Thoughts on This Watercolor Boat Painting
If you tried this painting I hope it turned out well. I would love to see your results – please feel free to send them to me. I have also videoed the whole process and you can paint along with the full painting.