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How to Use Color to Set the Mood in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Color is important for setting the mood in all your digital paintings. So in this tutorial, I'll show you how to create three different moods using the same drawing, as well as how to use Adobe Photoshop's tools to transition from one mood to another.

What Is Mood?

If you close your eyes and think of a sunset, what comes to mind? Immediately the warmth of the sun hits your face as the fiery, ember-like colors fill the sky. You may even feel a wonderful calmness passing over you as you enjoy the beauty of the day turning into night.

Simply put, this is mood.

Mood in art is the ability to translate emotions onto the canvas using color, composition, and lighting. And whether it's intentional or not, at the core of every artwork is mood. 

How Do I Change the Mood?

First, uncover the basics of color theory. Every color has a mood. And some even have the ability to evoke different emotions all at once.

Understanding Color and Mood
Both red and blue have distinct moods. How do you feel when looking at these colors?

The blood-like passion of red, for instance, can illustrate both love and anger, while the serenity of blue can also represent its polar opposite of intense sadness.

So what are the most important aspects of mood?

  1. Composition
  2. Lighting
  3. Color

But why is color last? Well, first you have to draw the scene; the composition is the anchor to the emotion of your piece.

Since the colors of your painting go hand in hand with the lighting scheme, it's important to establish what time of day, light sources, and even which weather conditions affect your colors. Once that's all set, then you can experiment with different swatches.

The Sketch

To illustrate the power of different moods, I'll take this simple beach scene and paint it three ways: at midday, at sunset, and at night.

Create a New Document at 850 x 700 pixels and 150 dpi. Using the Ellipse Tool (U), I created a quick circle with a 1 pt Stroke and set a New Layer as a Clipping Mask to the circle. Here I drew the sand, crab, and water details using a Hard Round Brush. 

Create a Sketch of a Beach Scene with a Hard Round Brush

This Crab stock from Envato Market inspired the composition, and I filled the rest in with various details I researched online. Notice how the sketch is very minimal. This will allow me to easily transition into different times of the day where I can concentrate distinct changes in the sky and along the water.

Now that we have a sketch all set, let's move on to the paintings.

1. How to Paint a Sunny Midday Scene

Step 1

To make things easier, this first painting will serve as the base to the others. The simple lighting scheme will allow me to transition easily into sunset and night, as long as I use Adjustment Layers wisely. Because it'll be our base, it's important that you paint on multiple layers that you can easily switch out.

Remove the temporary Stroke from your circle, and Right-click to Rasterize Layer. Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) to select it. Right-click and select Inverse Selection.  Create a New Group, and with the selection still active, create a Layer Mask for the group.

Add a Layer Mask to your Group for your Paintings

Place your sketch inside the group. Setting up your painting like this will be the optimal way to organize your layers.

Step 2

Create a New Layer for each section of the painting, making sure that all your major details are separated for better organization. Name the layers after the detail they represent and use a Hard Round Brush to paint the base colors of each section. Blend the sketch layer by setting it to Soft Light and use pale bright hues as the initial colors so that it'll be easy to add light and shadow later.

Paint the Base Colors for Your Beach Scene

Step 3

For each detail, set New Layers as Clipping Masks to that section. This will help keep the painting in only that area. Set the first round of layers to Multiply and begin adding shadow to your scene. Since it's a bright sunny day, the lighting will be from overhead, with no sun in sight just yet.

Clip Masks to Your Base Layers

Collect references online to help you with the lighting scheme. Base your colors on one photo reference to make your painting more realistic. Incorporate texture onto the sand, rocks, and leaves using a Square Pastel Brush (B) from your Brush presets.

Add texture with a Square Pastel Brush

Step 4

Continue developing the lighting scheme. Add New Layers set to Overlay to add light onto the sand, water, leaves, and sky.

Add Light with Overlay

Using a Soft Round Brush, paint wispy clouds along the sky and soft waves in the ocean. For the sky, make your brush strokes wild while keeping the clouds very linear. And for the ocean, make the waves curve as they break onto the shore. Switch to the Eraser Tool (E) at any time to soften your brush strokes.

Paint Wispy Clouds and Waves

Step 5

Continue painting your details on layers clipped to each section. Switch over to a Hard Round Brush at 100% Hardness to define the edges so that the painting doesn't look as blurry.

Define the Sunny Beach Painting Details

In nature, light reflects off many things, so make sure you incorporate bright shiny reflections onto the water and sand. You can do this by painting linear ripples into the water or tiny dots onto the beach.

Step 6

Finish defining your painting. Paint more bright light into the sky to show that the sun might be hiding behind the clouds. Add a New Adjustment Layer of Color Lookup with the following settings to make the colors more crisp and warm.

Add Color Lookup to Adjust the Sunny Beach Colors

Here is the final sunny painting. Doesn't the mood feel warm and happy?

Final Sunny Beach Painting Tutorial by Melody Nieves

2. How to Paint a Sunrise/Sunset

Step 1

Let's move onto the sunset painting. Just like I mentioned earlier, we'll be using our first painting to help transition into different moods and times of the day. So since I'll need to change the lighting scheme dramatically, Delete a few layers from the previous painting and start around the beginning area where most of the major highlights are now gone.

Initial base and final sunset painting
To save time, use layers from your previous painting to help transition the lighting scheme to a sunset.

I'll need to change the direction of the lighting around. So first add to the base colors. Clip New Layers to each section and paint over the bases using the Gradient Tool (G). Make the water lighter, the sand richer, and the leaves darker to simulate a silhouette.

Change the Lighting Scheme with the Gradient Tool

Step 2

Start incorporating colors from the sunset. Set New Layers as Clipping Masks to the sky and use the Gradient Tool (G) to incorporate Linear Gradients of orange and purple into the sky. It helps to keep layers like the clouds still around because you can simply Unhide them to add to the painting.

Use the Gradient Tool to add a Sunset

Step 3

To dramatically change the color and lighting and make the look more cohesive, we'll need to experiment with Adjustment Layers. At the top of all your layers add a New Adjustment Layer for Color Lookup with the following settings. Then select the Layer Mask and softly paint black to remove some of the warmth from the sky and sand.

Add a Color Lookup Layer for the Sunset

Next add a New Adjustment Layer for a Gradient Map, using the colors from the sunset. Set the layer to Color and lower the Opacity to 30%.

Add a Gradient Map to Color your Painting

Keep adjusting until you're comfortable enough to move back to painting. Here I added one more Color Lookup layer with the following settings:

Add an additional Color Lookup to the Sunset
Let Adjustment Layers help you! Now I can move on to painting because the colors are much more cohesive.

Step 4

After all that adjusting, you'll need to get back to painting to balance everything out. Set a New Layer to Overlay to add more warmth to the sky and water, and paint a bright sun as it sets in the distance. Keep the colors orange and white for the best intensity.

Paint a warm sun for the sunset

Sunsets create stark silhouettes, so make sure that you change the color of the boat. Also, take this opportunity to add shadow to the crab, as well as a strong cast shadow underneath him.

Paint a silhouette for the boat and crab

Step 5

Begin to paint highlights onto the water. This time the mood is much calmer than the bright sunny day we painted earlier. Make the water appear still, with a focus on reflecting the sun along the subtle ripples.

Add shine and ripples to the water

Step 6

Just like before, use a Hard Round Brush at 100% Hardness to clean up the details of your painting. Currently the crab is pretty blurry looking, so make sure you outline it with some crisp highlights.

Refine Your Painting with Highlights

Add more highlights to the sand, water, and sky. Incorporate the sparkly dots to keep the style similar to the first painting. When you're finished, here is how the final scene looks.

Final Sunset Painting by Melody Nieves
Can you believe we started with a sunny scene for this painting?!

3. How to Paint a Night Scene

Step 1

Last but not least, it's time to tackle the night scene! Just like before, we can start this painting using the sunny beach day as our base. This time we'll keep some of the bottom parts of the painting while mostly deleting the layers dedicated to the sky.

Before and After Night Time Scene
Start off with the original sunset beach minus the sky so we can turn it into a night-time scene!

Step 2

Merge the layers for the sky together. Then create a New Layer above it and set it as a Clipping Mask to the sky. Use the Gradient Tool (G) to create a Linear Gradient of a dark blue color across the sky. This will help to create a blank canvas for our night scene.

Create a Dark Night Sky with the Gradient Tool

Step 3

To remove the rest of the sunny aspects of the original painting, we'll need to use Adjustment Layers again. Start with two New Adjustment Layers dedicated to Color Lookup. These will instantly make the colors more uniform for a cool night-time scene.

Use Color Lookup to change day to night
Before and After Color Lookup Adjustment Layers
Put your trust in Photoshop to change the color and mood completely with Color Lookup.

Add one more Adjustment Layer for Levels, adjusting the settings for the RGB Channel as follows:

Add an Adjustment Layer for Levels

Step 4

Create a New Layer and set it to Multiply. Add shadow using a Soft Round Brush along the sand, leaving an open space in the middle where the moon will be. Try to simulate a silhouette effect again while creating more drama by concentrating the shadows on the sides. You'll also notice I decided to paint land in the distance to allow the sailboat to pop against the background.

Paint Shadow on the Night Scene with Multiply

Step 5

Create a New Layer set to Overlay to paint a bright white moon against the dark sky. Paint more glow around the moon and let it spill onto the water as the light helps to illuminate the scene.

Paint the Moon and Glow onto the Water

Step 6

As always, switch over to a Hard Round Brush at 100% Hardness to make each detail crisper. Add tiny dots for the stars in the sky and sparkles from the moon shining on the sand and water. Paint the reflection of the moon onto the water with tiny, squiggly ripples.

Paint stars and reflections on the water

Continue to refine your painting. For added contrast and a slight tint, create a New Adjustment Layer for Color Lookup with the following settings.

Add a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer for Contrast

Here is the final night-time scene!

Painting a Night Time Scene Tutorial by Melody Nieves

Good Luck!

You can magically transition one painting into different moods and color schemes with the help of Adjustment Layers and Blend Modes.

Experimentation leads to great results, so learn to break away from your typical linear painting process and have fun with Photoshop's diverse tools and settings.

Learning how to make colorful paintings takes time, so if you have any questions about this process, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

How to Digitally Paint Mood with Colors Tutorial by Melody Nieves
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