Vibrant Paintings | the Beginner's Guide to the Secrets of Color | Erin Kate Archer | Skillshare

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Vibrant Paintings | the Beginner's Guide to the Secrets of Color

teacher avatar Erin Kate Archer, art & illustration

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      Vocab | the Language of Color


    • 4.

      The Fib of the Primary Colors


    • 5.

      Color Wheels | 3 Colors vs Split Primaries


    • 6.

      Cool vs Warm Primaries | How to Spot the Difference


    • 7.

      Building a Strong Base | The Importance of Value


    • 8.

      Making the Right Mix | Color Charts


    • 9.

      The Unlikely Key to Colorful Paintings


    • 10.

      Applying What We've Learned | Final Project


    • 11.

      Final words


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About This Class

Creating vibrant paintings without a background in color theory can be daunting, but with just the basics (and a few tips & tricks!) you can create beautiful, super-colorful paintings.

This class is intended for beginners in color theory who already have some painting experience, but all are welcome!

We'll learn about the secrets of color, starting with basic color theory terminology, color wheel exercises, value scale exercises, making a color chart, and exploring an unlikely key to colorful paintings before moving on to our final project: making a simple reference photo more colorful!

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Erin Kate Archer

art & illustration


erin kate archer is a new york-based artist & illustrator with an ethereal, magical style. her work aims to calm, comfort, and transport. from immersive fairytale landscapes and glowing high-key celestial pieces, to charming flora & fauna and children’s book illustrations – erin makes what was once a static image a tranquil visual journey. 


erin has illustrated children's picture books; was selected for the sing for hope NYC piano painting project; is a skillshare top teacher, and has created work for a number of consumer brands. 


follow along with her on instagram, check out her portfolio for some finished projects, and visit her etsy shop to purchase prints... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Trailer: Have you ever wondered why some artists, even if they're using the exact same paints and brands that you're using, seem to make paintings that are so much more colorful and vibrant. This class is designed to give you the foundational color theory you need to create super vibrant paintings, along with some tips and tricks. We'll work through vocabulary, exercises like color wheels, value scales, and more, and then build up to creating a final piece together and making a reference photo more colorful, and you'll be able to take these techniques into your own work. 2. Supplies: Welcome to vibrant paintings, the beginner's guide to the secrets of color. For supplies you'll need the worksheet in the class resources. I have printed mine now. I'm a little bit of a heavier card stock as I'm going to be using gouache today. For that I will need water paint brush, I recommend a round synthetic brush, a paper towel, your paint, which we'll go over in more detail and a palette for mixing. You can also use a ceramic plate in place of an actual palette. I keep my gouache squeezed out into this box and we'll go over each of the specific pigments I use. All of these supplies will be available in the supply sheet, in the class resources, but I wanted to go through quickly the different pigments I use in case you want to buy the same one. On the left-hand side, I have my magenta, lemon yellow, cyan, which you can also sub cerulean or phthalo blue, phthalo green, which can also sub for permanent green middle and violet. On the right-hand side we have vermilion, cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, cadmium green, which can be sub for lime or leaf green and red violet, or you can sub rose violet in some paint brands, that's what it's called. If you can only buy a few tubes of paint, I recommend cyan, magenta and yellow, plus a big tube of white. We'll talk a little bit more about why those are my three recommended ones in the next lesson. All that said, you can use the principles we're learning in this class for any medium, even if you want to paint digitally, you are more than welcome to do so, and adapt the worksheet and the projects as you see fit. My only recommendation is that you try to treat your digital painting as traditionally as possible, so instead of having a whole palette, try to just color pick from a palette like the one I showed my colors on, and not to use the whole spectrum of the color wheel when we're doing this. A quick note about the quality of paints. You might have heard before, a poor craftsmen blames his tools, or it doesn't matter what pigments you use as long as you know how to use them. In some respects that's correct, but I have noticed specifically for gouache, it can be a big difference depending on the brand. I have three tubes of gouache here, the top one that I'm using right now is from Lucas, and then I also have one from Arteza, and one from Winsor & Newton. This is the Arteza right here, and Arteza is also a really cheap brand, but has pretty nice color payoff. Then the bottom swatch is going to be from Winsor & Newton, which is my brand of choice. It's a professional brand versus the other two which are student grade. All three of these are ultimately in blue, and once it dries, you'll see a big difference. Again, Arteza is also a cheap brand, but for some reason the Lucas brand, it dries chalky and maps, so if there's a time where you feel like you're doing everything you could to paint vibrant colors and it's not working, you might want to take a look at your paint. 3. Vocab | the Language of Color: I hope this isn't too boring, but I'll like to do a level set to make sure that when we are using different words, we're all on the same page about what they need. Grab your worksheet and we'll get started. First up is hue. This one I find is both the easiest and the hardest to understand. Hue is the main property of color, basically what you think of as the name. If the color is red, red is the hue. The color is blue, blue is the hue. Next super important one is value, which is how light or dark your color is. This is something that will be super crucial in upcoming lessons. Note that value is also discussed often as being high or low value. A high value is a white or almost white and a low one is a dark or a black. Saturation is how colorful your color is. It's also called chroma or perhaps most self descriptively, intensity. This basically means, how far away from gray or a dull color is your color. Finally, we have temperature which is how cool or warm color is. This might seem a little confusing, but the gist of it is that cool colors have blue or purple undertones, whereas warm colors have orange, yellow or red undertones. We'll go through this in a little bit more detail in future lessons. 4. The Fib of the Primary Colors: When you first learn color theory, either in elementary school or later on in schooling, you're often told that the primary colors are blue, red, and yellow because those are the colors that can't be mixed with any other color. But in actuality, you can mix those colors from the actual primary colors, which are cyan, magenta, and yellow. It might sound familiar to you because those are the colors that your printer uses to create every color in the rainbow. Soon we'll jump into doing the worksheet and doing some color wheel. So it really put this into action. But I wanted to show you the difference between the red, blue, and yellow that I'm squeezing out in my palette right now versus the CMY, which is the shorthand for cyan, magenta, and yellow. So I know I just did the whole spiel about how you need to make sure your paint is working pretty well. But in this case, it really doesn't matter. It's more about the pigments mixing. So just take it with a grain of salt, the previous lesson. But you can see I added the red and instead of getting a nice bright purple, I got this mud, and then adding the lemon yellow. Again, it's just like turning into brown instead of turning into a nice rainbow. In comparison, if we switch over to our CMY palette, we can get some really beautiful colors. So I'm just gonna squeeze these out on my palette and we'll see how we can make the same rainbow strip. So honestly on the palette, they don't look that different. But when you put them on the paper and start seeing how they interact with each other, you can really see the difference. This blue is a little warmer than the blue that I put down previously. When mixed with our magenta in place of the red, we get this beautiful purple instead of that mud that we got before. Then once we add in the yellow at the end of the strip, you also get the hues of orange and yellow and the warm red in between. So this is a pretty clear picture of why we prefer to use the cyan, magenta, and yellow for our primary colors over the blue, red, and yellow. So make sure you have the right ones when you're picking your paint. 5. Color Wheels | 3 Colors vs Split Primaries: Next on our agenda, are color wheels. If you have done any color study, you probably done one of these before, and it's for a good reason. They are great learning tool. To start out, we're going to do our three color color wheel, which uses our same cyan, magenta and yellow. I'm just going to put my blue on one of the thirds, and then add in some of the magenta to mix the intermediate color of violet there,and then fill in the other third with the magenta, and continue the same process with the yellow. I just do want to know that I am using card stock here for my paintings just because gouache isn't very picky. You don't need a lot of water to make it work. If you're uncomfortable, you can also just draw a color wheel on a piece of watercolor paper, and do it that way. Now I am going to work on blending the magenta into the yellow to make that warm red, and then the orange, and go into yellow and then have the yellow go into the green. This gives you a really good example of how you can pretty much make all colors of the rainbow with just these three colors, and then adding white to lighten or adding complimentary colors to darken. When you're looking at this, you might be wondering why I gave you that long list of pigments if we can make all of our colors this way. The short answer is for convenience. It's really difficult to mix all of your colors using just this limited palette, though, if you're going out to paint while you're traveling or something, It's great to have a limited palette experience like this. I do recommend that you get the full list of the pigments that we talked about the beginning of this class. It's actually organized as a split primary palette, which just means there is a warm and a cold of each of the primaries. We also have a few extra convenience colors like those violets and greens. The split primary color wheel is what we're going to do next. Full disclosure, the beginning of this worksheet, the first version, did not have any lines to delineate where we need to put your colors. I have fixed that near version and I messed it up previously. I've taped a new piece of paper to make sure this one looks good for you. Now we're going to do the same thing that we did before. This time we're working through the split primary. I'm starting out with my cool red, which is our magenta. Then I'll move into our warm red making sure to blend in between. You've got that nice neutral red in between. Then from our warm red, we start moving into our warm yellow, which will make the orange in the middle. Then from warm yellow, we transition to cool yellow, which makes a nice neutral yellow in the middle. Then from the cool yellow we will transition into the cool blue. You might notice that there are not a lot of greens in this color wheel. We just have that little sliver between yellow and blue. That's every observation first of all, and that is one of the reasons why we have the convenience colors in your palette. It's really nice to have a nice lime green and a deep green instead of having to mix them all or making sure that you have your mixture just exactly right. Then from cool blue, we go to the warm blue, the ultramarine, and then ultramarine into magenta, makes that nice violet in the middle. This is our split primary color wheel. If that was difficult for you. I do recommend you do this a couple of times. I find that the mixes really calm more intuitively as you do these over and over again. Feel free to cut it out and then keep it by your desk or do a few as you see that. 6. Cool vs Warm Primaries | How to Spot the Difference: Something beginners often struggle with is how to know the difference between a warm and a cool primary because you just think red is hot and cool is blue, and there is no in between. But the fact is that color is relative, so it's depends on whatever it's next to you. On the left, I am doing my cool primaries, and on the right, I have my warm red primary. This comes with some practice, but the way I like to think of it is just where you're leaning towards. The red that's on the left is leaning more towards our violet side of the color wheel so it's a little more cool and the warm red is leaning more towards the yellows and the oranges which makes it a little warmer. You can apply the same principle to all the primary colors and actually beyond like the greens and purples of the bunch as well. I have my warm blue here versus my cool blue. Again, the cool is leaning more towards the green, where the warm is leaning more towards the violets where it's going red. Then I have my cool yellow. A trick I like for yellows is think of a cool yellow like a lemon, whereas the warm yellow is more like a butter yellow. You can see how you'd look at these two columns and you'd say, "Yeah, both of those are the primary colors," but each one has a different temperature to it. If you're finding it hard to identify warm versus cool primaries, I recommend you try to isolate the undertones of each of these. You can follow my example or just randomly pick one and then try to identify, is this red closer to purple or is it closer to yellow? Try to organize your thoughts that way. 7. Building a Strong Base | The Importance of Value: If you've previously taken any painting classes or drawn classes you probably already know about how important value is to a good painting or drawing. But it's especially important when you're trying to create vibrant paintings, especially if you are looking to have some fun and use some unexpected colors. To illustrate that, I have these two circles here that are the same color and value. I'm going to go ahead and create a background and even though I'm using a very different hue here, and remember hue is the color or name that you'd get it. This is like an orangey-red. I am using the same exact value or pretty close. I'm judging this manually to my little blue circle. Then on the other circle, I'm going to surround it with a very high key light value blue. We can see the difference of how each of these dots will read. Now that I have my two circles, I am going to turn this into black and white, so you can really see the value. Even though on the right-hand side, you could really see easily with the red surrounding that blue dot. It doesn't read at all and so you can imagine if your subject was surrounded by the something of the same value, it would fade away. Instead of making a great impact and turning something into black and white is a great trick if you want to check how your values are looking on your painting. To strengthen our experience with values, we're going to do a color value scale exercise. I'm using a scrap piece of paper. You might recognize this one, and I am going to number my paper from one to seven. Then I am going to create little swatches of paint starting with pure out of the two darkest color at the top, and then adding a little bit more white each way down until we get to pure white. Next, I am going to go ahead and cut out my value scales are not distracted by any other colors around me. Once you've done that, I recommend taking a picture on your phone and turning it into black and white, so you can make sure that your value is correct in this way, and also you can use it as a key at the end. Now we're going to cut off our numbers and cut off each step of the value scale, so they're each separate. Now for the challenge, grab your worksheet and the goal here is to shuffle up your little paint chips here and reorganize them, so they are back in their value scale. I recommend you leave these for a little bit like shake them up on hat or leave them on your desk in a pile and come back to them later. See you don't cheat by accident. Once you get through all of these, the easiest way is to start from the darkest and then the lightest and then build in the middle as you can like a puzzle and once you have them all in place, you can go back to our method of taking a photo and checking it out in black and white. I'm just using the native saturation tool on an iPhone here. It's built right into your phone and looking at it here, it looks like I am right on the first go. If you're not just going ahead and try another time and rearrange until you get the right mix for a final check. I'm just measuring mine against my little scrap piece of paper that I snipped off and then these look good, I'm going to take them down. If this is feeling a little easy for you, or you're just looking for a challenge. You can also try the same exercise, but with different hues of paint. Instead of starting from white and adding blue or vice versa, I'm using all the colors on my palette in different varieties of whites and fit different values to build up a value scale. With this method, we really do rely more on the black light photo because I'm not worrying about making my steps from the beginning. I am just painting colors, and I'm going to try to reorganize them at the end. I definitely recommend including some bright yellows and greens and reds because those colors for some reason seem to trick our eye as far as values concerned. Then just as we did before, I'm going to let these dry, make sure they do dry completely. I don't know if I mentioned that before, and then I'm going to skip them all out and tried to rearrange them in order value from darkest to lightest. Now I'm going to check them with my phone again, just making them black and white. I can see, here again, I've definitely made some errors, and you'd be surprised how often it happens. It seems like so simple when you're looking at it that I definitely think trying with the different hues is a great way to train your value scale and always reverting back to this trick of trying black and white is really helpful for having a good sound, strong base for a painting. 8. Making the Right Mix | Color Charts: Knowing how to mix the color you actually want is super important. You might know that red and blue make purple but it's really easy to get a muddy gross purple if you don't know the right pigments to mix and the difference between the warm and cool primaries. To practice this, we are going to do a color chart. We're on the second page of our worksheet, and I know that this can be a little tedious but I hope you can maybe find it relaxing a little bit too. The concept here is pretty simple, I'm starting out with my magenta which is my cool red, and then my warm red goes in the next column and row. So in the middle here, I will have the vermillion by itself and then in the other two squares, I will have vermillion plus magenta. You can see how those colors mix together and you get this nice regular neutral red. Feel free to do this messily, we're looking at how colors are mixing not brushstrokes in this exercise. Next, we're going to move onto our yellows, starting with a warm yellow because we are next to the vermilion which is our warm red and we are first filling in the outside edges. Here is my warm yellow and then where those two meet is the pure warm yellow, and then when do we have the column where the warm yellow meets the warm red, we have that mix and we'll fill those both in and then do the same with the yellow where it meets the magenta. Next, we have the cool yellow and we'll fill in the outside, fill in the middle part where those two rows and columns meet, and have our pure yellow here and then pure yellow plus warm yellow, and then pure yellow plus vermillion, and pure yellow plus magenta. Moving onto blue, we're starting with our cool blue on each side of the outside and then mixing with each color to see all the beautiful green mixes we can have, and then doing the same with our warm blue. This is a great exercise to build up your color vocabulary and it's also something great to keep with you as reference. If you use a specific brand or color or paint, you can always do a swatch like this or if you change up what you keep in your palette, you can remember oh, I loved when I mix the lemon yellow with the cerulean blue. The green I got from that was super beautiful, and you can have it as a reference for when you're working on your pieces. 9. The Unlikely Key to Colorful Paintings: You've made all the way here to the unlikely key to colorful painting, which is contrast. We're going to go right to our worksheet for this and you can do what I'm doing, which is just filling the middle squares up with blue, yellow, and pink, or you can choose colors that you use often in your work. Say you always use purple, go ahead and use that for your middle squares. Our objective here is to make each color look it's most vibrant self, by what is surrounding it. For blue, I'm going to try to mix up a desaturated orangey red color. This is really honestly a gray and it's called a chromatic gray, which means it is gray with color and it's not a neutral gray like what you would think of when you're mixing just black and white paint. You can definitely see how much more vibrant that blue looks and you can take this even further, a more orangey red gray, one that's a little more saturated. I also like to leave the last square blank, so you can compare how it looks next to the white of the paper. You can continue to do this worksheet, do the same thing for the yellow, referencing your color wheel as needed. We know here yellow is across the color wheel from purple, so I'm going to mix up a chromatic gray that is purple leaning followed by a chromatic gray that is a little bit more saturated, and then for my red pink, making a chromatic green gray, and doing the same there, making a more saturated green at the end. It can take a little bit of practice to get good chromatic grays, but it's really something that is key when you're trying to make different colors sing. The idea here is you pick the color that you want to make sing in a painting. Make a really vibrant yellow, make really vibrant pinky red. Then you build your painting around it using chromatic grays and complimentary colors to really make those colors shine. If you've ever heard the adage, if everything's bold, then nothing is bold, then you really can understand what we're going for here. If you have a painting that's full of a bunch of different vibrant colors and the same values, then your eyes are going to know where to look and you'll end up just having a jumble of colors instead of having one beautiful colors stand out. Once you've completed your worksheet, I recommend taking a piece of paper and overlaying it over the different rows and columns just to see what you prefer and what really stands out. To me, looking at this from my computer screen, I can see that first row really what gets popping out at me [inaudible], the second one does too, which is really more a matter of preference like how crazy you want to go with your colors. The white background one just looks sad in comparison. I recommend you try out isolating different ones, seeing what you prefer and trying these combinations in your next piece. 10. Applying What We've Learned | Final Project: Let's start our final project and apply everything we've learned. I've got my watercolor paper here and some masking tape. I recommend using a neutral-toned one just so it doesn't impact your perception of any colors, and I'm going to tape out the edges. Taping your sheet to a board like this is helpful so that you can move it around if you need to, and also so it has a little bit more security if you use a lot of water. I've got the reference photo that I'm going to be using here in the top-left with our oranges, and you can download this as well as the sketch that I've already got on my page in the class resources, or if you're feeling adventurous, you can pick your own reference photo. To start out, I've mixed the yellowy-orange for the outside pith because that looks like a pretty easy color to match, and I'm using my color chart as reference. We basically know how to use this color already, it's just white plus warm yellow and a little hint of warm red, and so I'm just going to start out here and use this color wherever I see it in the reference photo. I'm not worrying too much right now about how neat my lines are because I know that I'll be able to correct that when I go in with the background. I'm also lightening it up here as I see that happening in the pith when we go further in on the orange, and then next up is the color for the actual fruit itself. I'm starting from that same mixture with a warm yellow with some of the vermilion in it, and mixing it up with a little bit less white than I did for the previous color. You'll notice that I swatch the colors on the side of the page. This is a great way to see how your colors work together without actually committing to putting them on your piece. I'm adding a tiny bit of magenta here. There's a little bit of trial and error to getting the right color, so this one's looking a little bit too pinky, and so I'm brightening it up as well because is a little bit too dark. Now it's looking a little too peach, so I'm going to go back in and correct that a little bit with some more of the warm red, and then I'm going to keep playing with this until I get the right color. Keep in mind that I'm working to mix an average of the color of the orange's flush here. Obviously, there's some darker bits and some lighter bits and highlights and some shadows, but if you squint your eyes, that's the color we're going for. I'm going ahead and roughly filling in the center of the orange, and I'll use this color again wherever I see it in the entire reference photo. I know many gouache artists like to wait until the very end to do any blending, but I like to blend a little bit as I go because it's satisfying and it allows me to see my final painting, how it's coming together a little bit sooner. Next we're going to work on the shadows of the fruit of the orange. Using our color chart, I am mixing in the complementary color to get a darker version of this orange that is neither black nor dark green or anything like that. It's a very nice neutral orange. It's at this point where you could create some color choices of your own here. You could have your shadows lean more towards the blue side rather than the neutral brownie orange that we have here, or you can paint what you see, it's really up to you, or you could even go outside of the realm of what is possible and do something that's more in the pink shades. Really the possibilities are endless as long as you keep in mind that your values have to be correct. Now, I'm using a combination of the orange of the flesh and also the shadow color we use there to outline the orange, being really careful about the shape here because anything that is wonky with a sphere will draw the viewer's eye right away. Now that we've got the basics in for our orange, we can't forget the seed, which it's actually not really an orange or yellow color, it's like a desaturated green color. I am going to use what I already have in my palette. It can help to use the colors that you already have because it adds a little consistency, and I'm going to actually add some cool blue. This will give me a little bit of green color, and then with added white that will desaturate it and brighten it up a little bit for a higher value to make the right color for those seeds. Again, I'm going to just try it out on my page a little bit, adding a little bit of violet here, sorry, to desaturate it and bring the value down to the right level. Trying it on the paper, and it looks good next to everything, so I'm going to add that in here. Next it's time to start the background. I know that there's some detailing we could still do here, but I like to work from largest shapes to medium shapes to small shapes, and so I wait until I earn the highlights at the end and I am going through and painting the rest of the piece first. You might be surprised to see this bright purple, but I am going to make the judgment that I really want to see more color, especially purple, since we have orange as our main theme here. What will make our orange glow is to have a nice purple, the contrasting color, surrounding it. I've mixed a desaturated violet-purple, so it is the direct complement to orange on the color wheel, and I'm going to use that color for our shadow. This is going to be our darkest value of the piece, so I want to make sure I get the shape really right and outline our orange in a way that compliments it and doesn't detract from it. I also don't want to forget that I have the shadow for both the smaller slice of orange and the seed, although I do go in later and lighten up the slice of orange shadow that is sitting on its side because it is a little bit lighter. If you squint your eyes at the picture, you can see, or you could even turn the reference photo black and white, that might be helpful and you can see that the value is a little bit lighter there. Already that's given our piece a lot of life. You can see how it's really looking a lot more 3D with the shadows added. To do the rest of the background, I'm not going to go in and do all of the different folds of the fabric or any of the texture of the linen fabric here. Instead, I am going to concentrate on the colors that I want to use here. I know I want to use the purples and blues to complement the yellows and oranges in this piece, and I'm also doing the desaturated version of that, so I'm not using just a white plus blue, or white plus purple. I'm adding a little bit of the orange, and those compliments will speak to our oranges and allow that color of the oranges to really sing. Something that you are often told when you are painting with gouache is to make sure you mix up more paint than you think you're going to use for a piece, but I actually like to go the other direction and allow for some color variability when I'm working on something. If some areas are a little bit more blue and some are a little bit more purple, that's just a little bit more interest that I can add to my piece. But obviously, that is a personal taste, so if that's not for you, feel free to mix up a big batch of the desaturated purply-blue to use for your background. I'm actually going to leave the background just like this. I'm not going to add any more detail to it because I want the viewer to focus first on the oranges and then next up, I'm going to soften the edges of the shadow again. I want the oranges to look 3D, but I don't want this piece to be about the shadows of the oranges. Here is when I go ahead and lighten up the other slice's shadow a tiny bit, just to make sure our value structure is correct. Now I will let these layers dry before I do the finishing touches, which are a warm white highlight, so white with a lot of yellow in it, and then a little bit darker in the flesh. A little bit more red-orange in the flesh of the orange, just to bring it to life. Bringing in more of the purple into the highlights, just to call back to the orange of the flesh, and adding in the little lines with a smaller detail brush. With that, will be completed. While we are enjoying the satisfaction of the good taper, I am going to show you too how the value check turned out with a little black and white switch. You can see here I definitely went a little bit lighter with the flesh than in the reference photo, but I think it really turns out pretty well as my style's super light and pastel, so I do tend to go a little bit higher key than the reference photo, but it's always good to check at the end of your piece and make sure it reads well. I think even black and white, even though my oranges are lighter than the reference photo, they still read very clearly as what they are. Here we have the final piece. I can't wait to see the ones that you post in the class project. 11. Final words: Congrats on completing the class. I hope you have learned a lot that you can bring into your own work. I'd love to see your completed worksheets and or your completed final project in the class projects section. Feel free to leave comments with any questions you have and I'll do my best to answer them. If you have time to leave a review, that would be great. It helps other people find the class. If you're interested in my work, you can follow me pretty much all over the Internet @erinkatearcher. The same username is here. I will see you in the next class.