Color Theory for Artists, Learn Color Schemes and Contrasts!

Red, Green and Blue combine to create white light.

What is color theory? Color theory deals with how color can be used as a tool for communication and art. In color theory, use of color is the focus, not the science of color.

Generally accepted statements of color theory for artists have evolved over time. With that said, there are some approaches to color theory that appear to work over and over again. Artists and designers use color schemes to find harmonies color solutions for their projects.

Color harmonies have been adopted widely by designers and artists. When used well, they provide shortcuts to uses of color pleasant to the eye.

We will discuss the color wheel and examples of color harmonies. But I want to make sure I leave you with more than just the basic understanding of color theory.

In this article, we will dive deeper into perception of color by looking at color contrasts, and we will finish up with a great exercise for artists that will hone your understanding of color beyond your expectations!

We will cover the following topics: 

The Three Properties of Color: Hue, Intensity, Value

There are three main properties or qualities of color, they are Hue, Value, and Intensity.

Huea hue is the color itself or the name of a color. Red, orange, green etc. The hue of a color answers what the color is and where it is located in the color spectrum.
Valuehow light or dark a color is.
Intensityhow pure or how desaturated a color is. (also referred to as color intensity, OR saturation, OR color brightness, OR color purity OR chroma.

The Additive Color Process (light)

The additive color process is a scientific model that refers to adding Red, Green and Blue (RGB) light together thereby creating white light. This process begins with a zero light environment (like a really dark room) where red, green and blue light is introduced.

The Additive Color Model

In the additive color process, combining Red and Green makes Yellow. Combining Red and Blue makes Magenta, while Green and Blue make Cyan.

All three colors Red, Green and Bellow combine to create White light.

What are the primary colors of the additive color process?

In the additive color process, Red, Green and Blue are the primary colors, and Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are the secondary colors.

A Primary Color is defined as a color that cannot be mixed, color in its purest form. A Secondary Color is a color mixed by combining two primaries.

In this image, primary Blue is combined with secondary Yellow to make white light. Yellow is made up of the other two primaries, so this is the same as combining three primaries together.

If you want to combine colors in this way in Photoshop, start with a black background, and switch all color layers to Linear Dodge (add) blend mode. By switching to add you will simulate the additive model on your screen!


Don’t confuse the physics of light and color with art and illustration. Artists often look at white as absence of color and black as the sum of all colors, while for physicists white is the presence of all colors and black is the absence of color.

The Subtractive Color Process (pigments)

The Subtractive Color Model

The subtractive color process is a model that refers to subtracting Red, Green and Blue light from white light. This process begins with the presence of light (the presence of Red, Green, and Blue).

Artists use the Subtractive Color Process when painting.

Imagine a white canvas. Looking at the white canvas, we see all three primary colors reflected back at us, Red, Green, and Blue.

The model is subtractive because three primary colors of light (Red, Greed, Blue) are already present, and we subtract from them to see the colors leftover on the canvas.

As you mix yellow and cyan on a white canvas to make green – you are actually getting rid of the other two primary additive colors, red and blue. (yellow subtracts blue, and cyan subtracts red).

How to Understand Additive and Subtractive Color Models Together

Below we will look at how colors reflect back at us, and how the additive and subtractive color models compare during this process. The subtractive color model is somewhat counterintuitive, so there are plenty of examples!

The Additive Color Process (black background) and the Subtractive (white light around it)

Yellow pigment on a white canvas (top left). The composition of white canvas is such that it reflects Red, Green, and Blue back at our eyes in a well-lit environment. When we place yellow pigment on the canvas, it reflects Green and Red, but does not reflect Blue (subtracts Blue), Green and Red reach our eyes and combine so that we see Yellow.

Cyan pigment on white canvas. Cyan subtracts Red from RGB, only Green and Blue remain, combining into Cyan reflected back at us.

Magenta pigment on a white canvas. Magenta subtracts Green from RGB, only Blue and Red remain, combining into Magenta.

Yellow and Cyan on white canvas mix to form Green. Yellow subtracts (blocks, does not reflect) Blue, and Cyan subtracts Red, leaving Green from the Additive (RGB) process.

Yellow and Magenta on white canvas mix to form Red. Yellow subtracts Blue, and Magenta subtracts Green, leaving Red from the Additive (RGB) process to reflect and reach our eyes.

Cyan and Magenta on white canvas mix to form Blue. Cyan subtracts Red, and Magenta subtracts Green, leaving Blue from the Additive (RGB) process to reach our eyes.

The Color Wheel

What is the Color Wheel?

The Color Spectrum, or wavelengths of light visible to the human eye, can be visually combined into a circular diagram called the color wheel. The color wheel is useful in defining primary colors and their compliments, finding color schemes or color harmonies, and identifying a progression of tints, tones, and shades.

The Color Spectrum
The Color Wheel

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel, are considered complementary.

The Color Wheel with inner rings of Tins (white) Tones (grey) and Shades (black).

This is a good time to talk about Tint, Tone, and Shade. When you add white to a hue you get a Tint of that hue, adding grey yields a Tone of that hue, and adding black to the hue, produces a Shade of that hue. Moving from Tint to Tone to Shade produces a progressively darker value of the hue.

Descriptive terms to remember when thinking about color:

HueColor in purest form
Tinta hue mixed with white
Tonea hue mixed with grey
Shadea hue mixed with black

Traditional Primary Colors vs Modern Pigment Process

So what are the real primary colors? It depends on what you are studying:

On a traditional color wheel, Blue, Red, and Yellow are considered the Primary colors. This definition should not be confused with the primary colors of light in physics: Red, Green and Blue or RGB.

In physics, when Red, Green and Blue are combined, we get white light. Scroll up to see Additive Color Process for more on this concept.

To complicate things, we already talked about the subtractive color process and Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow.

So which colors are Primary colors for the artist? Is it the three primaries of the traditional color wheel? the three primaries studied in physics, or the three primaries of the substractive color process?

Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, in theory, have the greatest mixing range in pigments, without reducing saturation. This means that at least in theory, they are the primary despite the definitions of the traditional color wheel.

This is easy to demonstrate. Since the definition of primary colors is that they can be combined to create secondary colors. We can combine Cyan and Magenta create BLUE and Magenta and Yellow create RED

In fact, modern printing uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK), because it is the best way to mix any color in print.

However, consider the following when painting with traditional media:

Although Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, in theory, should allow the artist to mix any color through the subtractive process, in practice that is not always the case. Artists use different media, each media has its own pigments, binders, and fillers creating an imperfect system for mixing colors.

What is important instead of focusing on the question of true primaries, is to train your eyes to recognize color saturation and value and their subtle differences in each hue, tint, tone, and shade.

If you are mixing traditional media to create your art, I suggest focusing on knowing what colors to mix to create the hue you are looking for.

A starter oil palette is suggested together with an exercise for artists at the end of this article. When practicing with this color palette, I was able to mix just about any hue.

Color Schemes of the Color Wheel

We can use the color wheel to find a variety of color schemes. A color scheme is a harmonies choice of colors. The most common color schemes are defined in the table below.

Monochromatic Using a single hue on the color wheel, its tints, tones, and shades (mixing a single color on the color wheel with white, grey and black).
Complementary or DyadicUsing two complementary colors on the color wheel
AnalogousUsing two or more colors next to each other on the color wheel
TriadicThree hues on the color wheel connected by drawing an equilateral triangle inside the color wheel.
Split-complementaryBase color and two colors adjacent to the complementary of that base color on the color wheel
Tetradic (rectangle or square)Two pairs of complementary colors connected by drawing a square or a rectangle inside the color wheel
Hexadic Three pairs of complementary colors.

Let’s look at these color combinations with examples. Keep in mind that while color schemes are often a great way to find the right colors for your project, rarely do artists and designers use the exact colors from the wheel. Each color in a scheme is edited into a tint, tone or shade that best fits the other pairings, and the overall theme of the project.

Monochromatic

Monochromatic color combination.

Using a single hue on the color wheel, its tints, tones, and shades (mixing a single color on the color wheel with white, grey and black).


Complementary or Dyadic

Complementary or Dyadic color combinations use two complementary colors. Complementary colors are always directly across from each other on the color wheel.

Although we are always taught that complementary colors go well together, the effect of placing complementary colors in a composition is more harmonious when it is more subtle.


An analogous color scheme uses two or more colors next to each other on the color wheel.

Analogous

A triadic color scheme uses three hues on the color wheel connected by drawing an equilateral triangle.

Triadic

A split-complementary color scheme uses a base color and two colors adjacent to the complementary of that base color on the color wheel.

Split-complementary

A tetradic scheme uses two pairs of complementary colors connected by drawing a square or a rectangle.

Tetradic

Hexadic color scheme uses three pairs of complementary colors together by drawing a hexagon.

Hexadic

The Seven Contrasts of Color

The Seven Contrasts of Color are well defined in the book The Art of Color by Johannes Itten, first published in 1960. In his book Itten writes:

We speak of contrast when distinct differences can be perceived between two compared effects. Our sense organs can function only by means of comparisons. The eye accepts a line as long when a shorter line is presented for comparison. The same line is taken as short when the line compared with it is longer. Color effects are similarly intensified or weekend by contrast.

The Art of Color by Johannes Itten (ISBN: 0471-28928-0)

I highly suggest Itten’s book if you want to dive deep into Color Theory. Let’s survey the contrasts of color and the effects they produce as illustrated below. Knowing the seven contrasts of color and being able to recognize them will improve an artist’s abilities in designing appealing color schemes.

THE CONTRAST OF HUE

Contrast of Hues

The contrast of hue is formed by the juxtaposition of different hues. The greater the distance between hues on a color wheel, the greater the contrast.
Think of it on a range – the more the colors are diluted, the less intense the effect of the contrast of hue. It is most intense with primary colors.

THE LIGHT AND DARK CONTRAST

Contrast of Light and Dark

The light and dark contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of light and dark values. This could be a monochromatic composition using a single hue or using black and white.

THE COLD AND WARM CONTRAST

The temperature contrast is the contrast formed by the juxtaposition of hues considered warm or cool. How cool or how warm a color appears can depend on context. Cool colors tend to recede and warm colors tend to step forward in a painting.

COMPLEMENTARY CONTRAST

This contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of direct opposites on the color wheel.

Complementary contrast of red and green.
Complementary contrast of red and green and their tints, tones and shades.

SIMULTANEOUS CONTRAST

The simultaneous contrast refers to the degree to which adjacent colors affect each other. In this example, the little square is the same color in both instances, yet appears lighter when surrounded by a darker tone on the left. This contextual variance is very important in painting, where colors, their lightness or darkness, and their intensity become relative to nearby colors.

THE CONTRAST OF SATURATION

This contrast is formed by the juxtaposition of light and dark values and their relative saturation. The top blue in this example is more intense, (more saturated) then the blue below it.

THE CONTRAST OF PROPORTION

The contrast of proportion is the contrast between great and small.

When we begin to discuss uses for anything, color including, it becomes evident that there are many opinions on the matter. Theories change over time, and with time you will see that different artists have developed their own theory on using color to communicate their message.

This wraps up basic color theory! Being able to recognize the properties of color is the first step in learning to manipulate color to your liking. The best way to train is to practice. See if you can spot various color schemes, or color contrasts in your favorite works of art, then try creating your own colorful works.

Color Theory (and Practice) Exercise for Artists

Exercise example 1

Draw a square and divide it into nine equal sections. Plan to use six sections for the exercise as shown above. Create a chart of six sections as follows, in each section lay down three separate colors:

Section 1: Different intensity, same value.

Section 2: Different hue, same value.

Section 3: Different intensity, same hue.

Section 4: Different values, same hue.

Section 5: Different hue, same intensity.

Section 6: Different value, same intensity.

Exercise example 2

You can use any media for this exercise, but I highly suggest oil paint as it provides a great range of mixing colors. The suggested palette for this exercise is as follows:

Alizarin Crimson
Thalo Green
Cadmium Red
Cadmium Yellow
French Ultramarine Blue
Phthalo Blue
Sap Green
Titanium White
Burnt Umber

RATED A2.

This article is rated “A2” in the Workshop’s Rating System because it discusses intermediate art concepts. For more on the rating system and to find other rated content, follow this link: Workshop’s Rating System.

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