How to use color thumbnails to change mood

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

How to Paint Watercolor Paintings

A watercolor painting usually progresses in the following manner:

  • Large shapes to small shapes
  • Wet on wet to wet on dry (could also be read as from soft edges to hard edges)
  • Light tones (more water in a mix) to dark tones (less water in a mix)
  • Cool colors (distance) to warm colours (closer to the viewer)

All four groups move along at a similar pace at about the same time.

Watercolor Painting Progression Chart
Watercolor Painting Progression Chart


The above is meant as a general guide only not as a rule.

Happy painting,

Joe Cartwright