Tackling Color Theory

There might be some artistic depictions of the nude form below. Just sayin’. All artwork is mine unless otherwise noted: all rights apply to my own work and to the work of other artists which I’ve respectfully used as examples of content.

Artists tend to be artistic, not technical: it might be safe to say that most artists, musicians and poets did really crappy at math in school. So when you mention the word theory to most artists, they get a little distracted, change the subject, or turn an odd color. It’s just, all those rules, right? That’s true of music theory, poetic composition, color theory… you name it.

But the truth is, as an visual artist, it’s really important to know color theory and composition. I did a post on here about composition several months ago. Now I’d like to talk about color theory: both how to stick to it, and also how to break the rules (artists like the ‘breaking the rules’ part).

Color and form are the basic elements of art. As artists we constantly use color. Even if you work in a non-color medium, like pencil, or ink, you are implying color: the human eye fills in areas of more or less graphite or ink and assumes these to be colors. The minute you apply pigment, you are working in color, even if it’s only one color.


Above: In this pen-and-ink illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, the textures and patterns of black India ink cause the mind to sense colors. You might describe the skin as white, the woman’s shift as grey, and the quilt as black: yet all of that information comes from the same two materials, ink and paper.


Above: In a black-and-white photo, only one color (black) is printed in a varied grey scale on white paper, yet the mind perceives an array of colors. Black tones and the white paper combine in dozens of ways to form multiple shades of black, grey and white.

There are several types of color: there are “warm” colors and “cool” colors (we’ll talk about that in just a bit), and there are neutral colors. The neutrals are mostly blacks, greys and whites, though browns and earth tones might fall into that category when viewed artistically (Neutrals tend to be very muted colors). But the colors that are considered ‘colors,’ or hues, are categorized with a chart called a color wheel.

Guitarist with skulls beads

Above, my painting Guitarist With Skull Beads is primarily black and grey, with just a hint of red ochre (a warm neutral) and olive green (a cool neutral).  Below, an illustration by Ashley Wood, all in neutral colors (ochres and siennas) except for the pop of red hair.


The Color Wheel

Let’s start with three colors or hues, the three primary colors on the color wheel. Primary means these colors are prime: they cannot be mixed using other colors, or broken down into other colors, (like a prime a number, a number which cannot be divided without a remainder except by one or itself). The primary colors are red, yellow and blue, and we express them on a color wheel in a triangle like this:


These colors are primaries: you cannot mix other colors to get these colors. The way they relate to each other on the wheel tells you how they will interact in a painting: their relationship to each other is equal. Red will compliment blue or yellow. Yellow will compliment red or blue, etc. Also red is a “warm” color, meaning hot or fiery. Blue is a “cool” color, it implies cold or subdued emotion. Yellow can go either way, depending on the colors around it. Yellow can appear in the flames of a fire (warm), or in the light cast by a blue sky (cool). Yellows like ochre or yellow oxide are neutrals.

Here’s a painting in which I used only the three primary colors; blue, red, and yellow ochre; with Payne’s Gray (a blue-grey neutral value). I mixed red with titanium white for the skin tones. The viewer’s eye moves between the hair, because red is the warmest value, and the eyes, as the blue there is a light value (and the human eye tends to focus on eyes). Because only primaries are used, the face may look a little ‘clownish,’ a little too bright.

acoustic guitarist

More color wheel: secondaries and teriaries

While you cannot mix any colors to achieve the three primary colors, you can mix the three primaries together to get what we call secondary colors. Red and blue make violet (or purple); red and yellow make orange; and yellow and blue make green. This makes the color wheel look like this:


Remember that the triangle of red, blue and yellow are the primaries: the colors between them, violet, orange and green, are the result of mixing those primaries.

It’s a good idea to play with these color combinations yourself, by painting a color wheel. Yours might look like this:


Below is a painting composed of reds and blues, but with green in the background. Green, a secondary color, becomes a ‘supporting’ color, which harmonizes with the reds and blues. Imagine a song like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ Paul Simon sings the lead vocal, and you can hear him distinctly. Art Garfunkel sings a harmony, which supports the lead vocal and adds a lot of texture to the song, but you can still clearly hear that Simon is singing the melody.

The green in this painting does the same thing. You can see that the green is there. But because green is opposite red on the color wheel, the green helps the red and blue to pop. It is a supporting color.


Here is another example of the same thing: In my depiction of Blodeuwedd, the green fields of the background support the red hair and red and blue/purple skin tones to make the hair pop, and to accentuate the shadows on the skin. The eye stands out as the lightest value on the face. The eye color is echoed in the tiny meadowsweet flowers, which draw the eye in a circle around the figure.


Finally, you can mix the primary colors with secondary colors, and get a whole bunch of new colors. these are called tertiary colors:


The tertiary colors explore the full spectrum of color combinations. They include color blends like yellow-green and red-violet. When painting, you might mix your most present colors to get these sorts of combined colors.

Using all the colors

In this water color, note the many blends of reds and blues in the skin tines; also note the varying blends of blue and reds in the trees, blending from blue to violet to purple. Also notice how the reds pop because the overall composition is violet.

Bloudewedd 4

In working with colors, as a general rule, warm colors will stand out from cool colors: shadows might be cool (blues and purples); areas of focus might be warm (reds and oranges). Of course this is a general rule and you will see many, many exceptions.

Child Of The Moon

Child Of The Moon (acrylic on canvas) sticks to the general rule. The figure’s lightest values are warm colors (reds) and her hair is deep red: the background and atmospherics are cool colors (purples, lavender, all related to blue: and also yellow). The shading on the figure is blue/violet, causing the lighter skin tones to pop. While the moon is a very large light valued space, it is lavender (cool), so it fades back a bit from the warm valued light skin tones.


This painting by 60s Margaret Keane influenced artist Eve is an exception to the rule. Even though it is a cool color, and despite the warm orange of the girl’s outfit, the eye is drawn to the boy’s blue jacket, and to the blue eyes of the girl. Note how the blue jacket and orange outfit divide the canvas, creating a warm-cool flow back and forth. Almost like a yin-yang symbol.

 In general, when looking at the color wheel, opposite colors will compliment each other. Colors next to each other will harmonize. So if you want to paint a tree that is primarily green, your background might be reds, because red is opposite green on the color wheel. You might also use blue, as blue is next to green, so they harmonize (same with yellow). To create a bit of tension between fields of color, find the color opposite on the wheel, then move one or two values to the left or right in the tertiaries. So if your primary field is a tint of red, for instance, green would be opposite: a blue-green with a lot of blue in it, like aqua, might create tension against the red. Same with a green-yellow.

By no means are these hard fast rules: you can use pretty much any color with any other color to achieve a particular feel or emotion. Sometimes colors that clash horribly, like bright reds with pinks, might convey the emotion you want to express.


In my painting of a dancer, above, I only used neutral colors for the figure: titanium white, payne’s grey, yellow oxide, burnt and raw sienna, and burnt and raw umber: Except for two primary colors; prussian blue in the shadows and background, and cadmium red hue in the background. The bright primary reds in the background cause the shaded areas of figure to appear darker, and lend more drama to the dancer (at least that’s what I was hoping for). Note that I applied thick layers of impasto white to the tutu and the highlights in the dancer’s skin. This balances the watery layers of color applied using two techniques, wet-in-wet, and as layered washes, to the background.


An effective use of color is to draw the eye to one element first, and detract from other elements, letting the eye fall on them later. The largest fields of color in Dancer At The Barre are neutral, secondary and tertiary colors: secondary purples and pinks, along with large fields of neutral white and black. There is a tiny application of primary red in the eyes and lips. What jumps out at you? What do you notice last?

As photography became accessible in the late 1800s, painters had less responsibility to depict reality (as cameras could now do so), and more freedom to express their subjects through form and color. Among the first group of artists to take advantage of this freedom were the French Impressionists, who relied heavily on color to convey emotional impact.

Here are two paintings by Edouard Manet:


In the piece above, Manet plays with realism and impressionism: the central figure, the bar maid, is very realistic. But Manet himself, reflected in the mirror, is more impressionistic, as are the background elements of the audiences and the chandelier. Manet uses bright colors in the foreground to bring the eye to the bar maid: the many, many details of the background are muted, and noticed later. Manet himself, reflected in the mirror behind the bar, is noticed last, as he is most muted, and off to the side of the composition. Manet often mixed realistic elements with impressions, almost as if he’d just grown tired of painting details at some point in the process.

In the piece below, Manet again used color to draw the eye to the two female figures, one of whom, the bather, is completely out of proportion to the foreground figures. Again, muted colors in her surroundings cause the eye to move to the very bright figure of Victorine Muerant first, then the triangle of the sitting painters and bather, and finally the very muted forest. The entire painting is done in secondary and tertiary colors, making Meurant’s red hair and blue drape pop dramatically.


By the twentieth century, many schools of painters had moved well away from depicting realistic form and color. Pablo Picasso sought to reduce both form and color to their most primal elements, which is called ‘abstracting’ form and color by artists. Here is a Picasso portrait:


The first thing you might notice is that the overall tone is blue, a cool color. This is harmonized by green, the color beside blue on the wheel; the only pop of drama is the orange in the figure’s nose and the background. Even though blue is a cool, calming color, the tiny bit of warm orange gives the piece an unsettled feel. Even though Picasso painted the eye facing the viewer, the pop of orange makes us feel she is looking forward.


As you paint, you will invariably seek to vary a color by mixing in other colors. Any color value is referred to as a hue. Artists often use the word hue when describing colors mixed from pure color, like yellow-orange.

If you mix any pure color with white, you’ve created a tint.

If you mix any pure color with black, you’ve created a shade.

Tints and shades add dimension to your color element. When I add shadow and highlight to skin, for instance, I tint or shade the overall skin color (I usually use vermillion or cadmium red tints for skin) to get the highs and lows. I also use blues and purples for shadow: purple harmonizes with cadmium red, as they are next to each other on the color wheel. Blue and red are both primaries, so they might either blend or clash. But I feel that the cool property of blue works well to add shadow to the warmth of red. I might then mix tints of vermillion, mixed with anywhere from a little to a ton of white, to add dramatic highlights (look at my many step-by-step tutorials here to see how that works).


This color scheme in my painting of three of the nine muses really shouldn’t work, but I think it does. The overall hues are yellows and greens, both cool colors. The green is a secondary, yet it dominates the painting. Deep green eyes and red-yellow hair, plus the perspective, draw the viewer’s eye to the gaze of closest Muse. Note the splashes of color in the figures’ bodies that act as shading and highlight. The only blue, the uniting color, is in the book that the second Muse is cradling.

Color Tricks

Years ago I picked up a great book, Color And How To Use It by William F. Powell (I found it just now on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/World-Color-How-Use/dp/9998723450). Powell talks extensively about color combinations and how they draw the viewer’s eye. One trick he suggests is to determine what the principle color of your piece will be; then take a tiny pin sized drop of that color, and mix it into every color you use on the piece. It’s an interesting suggestion, as it will add a teensy bit of harmony to every other hue that you use.

I rarely mix special hues: I use color right out of the tube. One thing this allows me to do is come back to a piece in a day or two, and use the correct color to correct or develop something. I don’t have to mix the color just right, because I used a particular color that’s sitting in its tube right there. Of course I’ve made tints or shades (usually tints—I seldom mix with black to make a shade). I use those when developing the area.

In watercolor painting, one technique is to build bold colors by applying washes, thin layers of a particular color, one after another over each other. I have found that this works well with acrylics as well. I paint many layers of a particular color over dried layers, adding tints or shades to get desired results. I use wet-in-wet a lot. Water is your friend when painting with acrylics. Sometimes I’ll paint a wash of color, then towel it off after a moment, to get just a suggestion, just a hint of that hue over the dried color on the canvas. To see an extreme example of using wet-in-wet and layers of washes, scroll back up to my painting Dancer 4, above.

When using acrylics, most colors come out of the tube impasto, as a thick paste. But this is not true of certain synthetic pigmented colors, which come out very watery. Prussian blue and phthalo green are good examples: to achieve the right tone, the factory uses a very watery or thin plastic binder to hold the pigment. Sometimes when I squeeze a tube of synthetic paint onto my palette, I get a clear liquid first, before the color comes out. You can use the texture of these synthetic hues to your advantage, by painting with them thinly over a dried or heavily impasto area of lighter color. So if I’ve painted a large area of skin, using a pink tint made of vermillion hue and titanium white, I might shade areas of the skin using prussian blue, which will apply in a very liquid coating, then I’ll wipe some of the blue away: because prussian blue is a synthetic pigment, it will dye the area (rather than coating it) and when I wipe the paint away, there will be a dyed area that still carries some of the prussian blue. You can see the result on the neck, the rib cage, and the thighs of my depiction of Athena, below:


I could probably say a LOT more about color theory and use of color, and in my step-by-step blogs I do… I’ll also maybe do some step-by-steps that focus more on color theory in the future.

I hope this little look at color theory was useful. There are a ton of books and tutorials out there on color theory… use them! Thanks for looking. Please ‘like’ and comment.













Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s