Color theory is the study of color. It can be used to create a sense of mood, evoke certain emotions in the viewer and it’s also integral to the design process.
Describing colors is difficult because there are no words in our language that encompass all colors. For example, we have red, orange, yellow, green and blue but nothing to describe brown, purple or grey.
Color theory is concerned with how we can use colors and their properties to create a feeling of harmony or tension within a painting. There are many different theories and systems of color theory, one of the most notable being The Color Wheel which was invented by Sir Issac Newton.
The color wheel was created as a tool for artists to use when making color schemes for their work. Artists often struggle with choosing colors that will work well together and this simple tool helps them find complementary colors that are pleasing to the viewer’s eye.
Color has a powerful effect on our moods and emotions. It is one of the first elements we notice about an object and often what draws us in.
Color theory can be a rather daunting subject, but the basics are relatively simple. If you have done any painting before, you probably have your own personal color scheme that you have developed over time. However, if you are just starting out, it can be helpful to learn the theories behind color schemes so you can make more intentional choices as you paint.
Colors also have meanings that can affect how people perceive your art, whether it’s in paintings or other projects like clothing design. For example, red is often associated with passion or danger while pink carries a softer touch.
There are many different color schemes and each one is used for different purposes. The color wheel is an extremely useful tool when choosing a color scheme:
The primary colors (red, yellow, blue) can’t be created by mixing other colors together. Every other color on the wheel can be made by mixing various amounts of these three colors.
The secondary colors (orange, green, purple) are created by mixing equal parts of two primary colors together- for example purple is created by mixing equal parts red and blue.
The simplest way to get this is to think of the color wheel:
For example, in the color wheel above, you can see that yellow and blue are complementary colors. So if you have a painting with a lot of yellow, adding just a bit of blue will create an interesting contrast. The same goes for a painting with a lot of red (which is the complement of green) – adding some green to your red painting will give it depth and interest.
The color wheel also shows how colors are related by their proximity on the wheel. For example, in the color wheel above, orange is next to red and they are warm colors (more on that later). So if you want to add some warmth to a painting that has too much blue or green in it, your best bet would be to use a warmer color like orange or yellow.
A secondary color is one that is made by mixing two primary colors together. For example, in the color wheel above, orange is made by mixing yellow and red paint together. Yellow-orange will be lighter because it has less red in it; orange will be darker because it has more red in it; and red-orange will be somewhere in between them. You can use this information when choosing what secondary colors to add
The color wheel is divided into three categories based on the qualities of each color: warm, cool and neutral. The warm colors are reds, oranges and yellows. The cool colors are the blues, greens and violets. And the neutrals are the grays, blacks and whites.
These are called “pure” colors because they contain only one hue (or pure color). By mixing hues together, you create more complex colors. Orange mixed with yellow creates a “warm” green; blue mixed with yellow creates an olive green; blue mixed with red creates a purplish red; blue mixed with black creates a very dark purple (almost black); etc. This can get complicated — beyond this point is where many artists stop thinking about their palette in terms of color theory — but it’s easy enough to understand that if you want to create an image with the overall feeling of one particular color tone (such as cool or warm), you want to use colors from that same part of the spectrum.*
Color theory is difficult to grasp, because it is often presented as if it were a math problem. Many people have difficulty with math, and so they are intimidated by color theory. But color can be understood intuitively in many different ways. Color theory is not a math problem; it’s an art problem. It’s something you can learn by doing, rather than by reading or thinking.
Artists need to understand color theory not just because of the way they mix paints and make art, but also because of the way they look at art made by other people (and themselves).
I don’t usually think of myself as a big fan of color. I feel like color gets a lot more attention than it deserves.
It is hard to imagine an artist who is more associated with color than Mark Rothko. But in an essay he wrote for a catalog of an exhibit, he says: “Color is the skin of the painting. It is the most intimate and immediate element.”
The most important thing about color is how it makes you feel. If you want to be accurate, you can say red makes you see things as warm and yellow as cool. But that’s just physics – your brain does all the rest.
If all you care about is how others will see your work, then sure, I guess it makes sense to choose colors that are pleasing to everyone else. But if you want to express yourself, then I think you need to find colors that make you happy.