How to use color thumbnails to change mood

Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme

Recently one of my students painted a nice watercolor seascape. Her reference photo was of a coastal scene at Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia. It was of a bright day and her original painting reflected this. However she wanted to change the mood of her painting and was not sure how to go about it. So I suggested that she creates a series of watercolor thumbnails to find the color combination that would provide the mood she was after.

Obviously there is a lot more to changing mood than just changing color, such as varying edges, adjusting areal perspective, even textural effects. However this is a simple way to make “a change” in the mood of your painting. For example,changing a sky color from blue to red or vice versa immediately alters the mood and feeling of your painting. I will write more about painting mood and how to change it, with other techniques, in future articles.

Reference photo

Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng
Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng

Original watercolor painting by Margaret Ng

Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng
Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng

After producing this painting, Margaret now wanted to paint the same scene but with a different mood.

Painting mood, color selection

Because she tended to put in too much detail when doing this type of exercise in the past I had her paint her 2” x 3” swatches with a large brush (size 16 round). This stopped her from getting too detailed and let her free up and play with various color combinations. Students usually find this exercise quite fun as they can play with the colors rather than getting bogged down in detail.

Below is a photo of the various color combinations she produced. As you can see the swatches are all quite small so she was able to fit quite a few on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper ( 14.5” x 10.5”).

Painting mood can be changed with color, watercolor swatches about 2" x 3"
Watercolor swatches about 2″ x 3″ Painting mood can be easily changed with colors.

After picking the color combination that best represented the mood Margaret was after (second from the right, top row) she did a larger sketch of the scene using these selected colors.

The image below is the result. This time she included more details. The bulk of the painting was done with a size 16 round brush with a good point. However for some of the details she used a size 8 round watercolor brush.

Seascape small watercolor sketch
Seascape small watercolor sketch 6″ x 4″

She was now able to confidently move on to her final painting. The result is the watercolor painting below which was a very good result.

You can apply this technique yourself anytime you are unsure of how to proceed with the colors for your painting.

When doing this exercise, it is important not to allow yourself to tighten up by using too small a brush. You are not trying to create tiny works of art but just looking for color combinations you can use in a larger finished artwork.

So next time you are stuck with what colors to use for a particular mood you are trying to achieve with your painting why not give this a  go.

Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme
Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme

Author: Joe

Owner and adminstration of the Painting With Watercolors website and forum. I am a professional watercolor artist, though I also use other mediums including pen and ink. I also enjoy playing with computers and the internet so this website is a bit of a hobby of mine.

9 thoughts on “How to use color thumbnails to change mood”

  1. What a wonderful change has been achieved……..just by changing the colours Joe. A very interesting article. Thank you for it!
    I’m going to try the swatch test tomorrow. Actually looks like a lot of fun!
    A really lovely painting Margaret! Well……both paintings are lovely!
    I love the colours you chose for the second.
    Beautifully done.
    Thank you for allowing Joe to share your experiment with us! 🙂
    Hope things are good up North Joe.
    Ro x

  2. Hi Ro, glad you enjoyed the article and Margaret’s lovely watercolors. I will pass on your kind words.
    I am busy finishing my painting with watercolors book which I hope to publish before the year’s end.

  3. That sounds great Joe.
    Let me know won’t you? I’d love to buy one and add it to my collection of art books.
    All the very best with it.

  4. This post is poorly titled. It should be “How to Make Thumbnails”. There’s nothing written here about how color works to affect the mood of a painting. It’s basically, “My student wanted to change the mood of her painting, so I made her do a few thumbnails, pick the one she liked, and now look how awesome the painting is!” Not useful for those of us who want to learn about mood, not thumbnailing.

  5. Thanks for the feedback Stacey. I have made some changes to the article’s heading and text to make it more obvious that it is not meant to be a full treatise on mood, which would require a much longer article if not a series of them. Mood can be changed quite dramatically with color changes and my student got so much out of the technique that I felt it would certainly be of help to others, which is the basic purpose of this website.

  6. Joe, I understood right off what you were showing. slight color variations do change the mood or even the time of day. Thanks, and love your work. Jim

  7. Wow!
    Making of small size thumbnails is a great way to practice before you just jump to paint.
    I learn every day from you all the techniques based on your experiment.
    Thank you, Joe 🙂

  8. I like your idea of making small color sketches. Most teachers have you do a value sketch only, but I think this will help me especially to simplify subjects.
    Thank you. Looking forward to your book.

  9. What a great demo! I would never have thought of doing this. I think both of her versions are much prettier than the original! Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

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