The Fundamentals of Color Theory for New Artists

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Theory All painters, illustrators and two-dimensional artists use color theory. Whether you’re newly enrolledin art school or just making art in your own living room, the rules of color theory are likely to play an important role in your exploration of paint, form, and two-dimensional design.

Color theory is not complicated, but it’s not all intuitive, either. In order to understand color theory, you must become familiar with the color wheel and color-related vocabulary. It’s also important to understand the way different colors interact with one another, and which colors must be combined in order to create other colors. The more you understand about color theory, the easier it will be for you to make smart color decisions in your artistic creations.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is a set of color-related rules that artists use to communicate with viewers. Color theory defines the relationships between colors and uses the color wheel to help artists understand color. Through color theory, colors are broken down into different groups and categories that are then are mixed and matched with colors from varying categories to create interesting and useful effects.

The interaction of color across categories is an important factor in many two-dimensional pieces. Artists use color to convey emotions, create striking images, and convey important ideas. Color theory encompasses knowledge of color psychology, color culture, and human optical ability.

Ultimately, color theory helps artists create harmonious and attractive designs. Without color theory, many artists would find the creation of beautiful works of art more difficult, and the success of a piece of art might become random. Successful color usage would become harder to gauge. Artists use color theory to define why some color combinations work, and to understand why others do not.

The History of Color Theory

Color theory originated with the belief that all colors come from three primary or “primitive” colors: blue, yellow and red. In the 18th century, it was believed that these primary colors were the basis of all other colors. This theory was eventually expanded into the idea of contrasting or “complementary” colors.

THe HIstory of Color Theory Complementary colors appear in afterimages in the eyes, so the relationship between colors and their complements have been long been known. Color theory was documented in the early part of the 19th century by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote theTheory of Colours, Charles Hayter, who published A New Practical Treatise on the Three Primitive Colours as a Perfect System of Rudimentary Information, andby MichelEugène Chevreul, who wroteThe Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast.

These important publications established the foundational information that makes up much standard color theory today. However, much of the artistic understanding of color during those early years failed to take into consideration the scientific understanding of color and light that was being simultaneously developed by scientists. Industrial chemistry was expanding the range of synthetic pigments. While artists were themselves developing an understanding of color, scientists were developing their own understanding to create the dyes and paints that would eventually be used in color photography.

These two understandings—the artistic idea of color theory and the scientific understanding of color and light—eventually came together to create technologies that today are used to make color printing possible. Scientific color theory and artistic color theory eventually combined in the 20th century, during which time major advances were made in the theory of color mixing and color design. Today, color theory is a combination of hard science and human psychology as it relates to color. People who understand color theory completely are able to mix color and use color to drive emotions, direct the eye, and create stunning images that have depth, meaning and beauty.

Color Theory Terminology

Color theory terminology is a critical part of the understanding of the color system. This terminology is a gateway to understanding more complex parts of color theory. Color terminology is also used often in discussions about art. Artists regularly use words like “complementary colors” and “hues” and “shades.”

Though people who do not have training in art and design often use these terms, they may not know that these words have very specific meanings.For new artists, it’s important to grow beyond these conventional understandings of color theory words, to develop a more sophisticated and precise understanding of the terms.


For many people, the wordhueis another way of saying the wordcolor. This is not really the case, although anyone who uses the wordhuein place of the wordcolorwill likely be understood.

The word color is a generic term. A color is anything we see, any shade, any tint or hue. Color is all around us.

A hue is the underlying, pure spectrum color that makes up the tints and shades we see. For example, visualize a pink parasol. The color of the parasol is pink. The parasol’shueis red, because pink is a form of red.


The value of a color is its relative lightness or darkness. Value is adjusted in color by adding either white or black to a hue, so the measurement of a color’s value is the measurement of how much white or black has been added to that hue.

So, in the case of the pink parasol, the value of the red hue has been adjusted by adding white. This addition of white has created the color we call pink.

Mastering the ability to create lighter and darker colors is critical for creating the illusion of three-dimensional form. Without value, it is impossible to create a sense of light and dark, shape, shadow and space in a 2D image.

Tint and Shade

A tint is a hue that has been lightened by white. For example, pink is a tint of red. The more white is added to the color, the lighter the tintwill get.

A shadeis a hue that has been darkened by black. For example, maroon or burgandy is a shade of red. The more black is added to the color, the darker the color becomes. Tints and shades are different values of colors.


Also known asintensity, the saturation of the color is the purity of the hue. The more gray is added to a color, the less intense it becomes. A primary color that is unmixed with other colors is fully saturated. Pure primary colors can only degrade in saturation, they cannot become more saturated.

Intensity and value are tied together. When onechanges, the other also changes. Adding white to pink makes its value lighter, while also reducing the intensity of the hue.

The Standard Color Wheel Color Wheel

The color wheel is the circular chart that shows the relationship between the colors on the wheel. The positions of colors on the wheel tells you everything you need to know. Colors are positioned across from one another on the wheel for a specific purpose. They are also placed side-by-side on the color wheel for specific reasons. Understanding these relationships can help you understand the relationships between each color.

Primary Colors

The primary colors are the three colors on the color wheel that cannot be formed by mixing any other colors on the color wheel. These colors are red, yellow and blue. All other colors on the color wheel can be created by mixing colors found on the wheel.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are colors created by mixing primary colors.

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Purple

The three secondary colors are orange, green, and purple. On the color wheel, these colors are positioned between the two colors that created them. Therefore, the order of the colors on a 6-color wheel is: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple (then back to red).

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are created by mixing one primary and one secondary color. For example, mixing red and orange creates the tertiary color, red-orange. All names for tertiary colors are created by combining and hyphenating the primary color and secondary color that were mixed to make the tertiary color. The name of the color always lists the primary color first and the secondary color second. On the color wheel, tertiary colors always appear in between the primary and secondary colors that were combined to create the tertiary color.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are colors found opposite one another on the color wheel. Complementary colors are always pairs of one primary and one secondary color, or two tertiary colors.

  • Blue and orange
  • Yellow and violet
  • Red and green
  • Blue-green and red-orange
  • Yellow-orange and blue-violet
  • Yellow-green and red-violet

Because they are farthest apart on the color wheel, complementary colors make dramatic, high-contrastpairs. When combined in a painting, complementary colors are dynamic, interesting, and can even be uncomfortable. A classic example of the discomfort created by complementary colors can be found in the famous painting “The Night Cafe” by Vincent Van Gogh.

In this piece, the colors red and green are combined in a single image to create a dramatic, despairing 2D space. The contrast between the red and green creates a disjointed interior that seems both dream-like and almost sickening. While there are many factors contributing to the strangeness of the painting, the complementary color pair is one of the predominant features in this disturbing world. This is the power of complementary colors.

Color Harmony

Color harmony is a distribution of color that is neither too harmonious nor too disjointed. Color harmony typically includes a pleasing combination of complementary colors, a balance of light and dark, and a distribution of hues that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Color harmony is not crucial for a painting or a piece of art to be successful, but artists should know how to achieve color harmony, and if they make the choice to create a non-harmonious painting, the action is best when done deliberately.

Color Temperature

The temperature of a color is its warmth or coolness, depending on how much red or blue is mixed into the color. Warm colors are often described as being reds, yellows and oranges. Cool colors are described as being blues, purples and greens. However, this simple definition fails to take into account that a supposedly warm color, like red, can be made cool by simply mixing in just enough blue, purple and gray to give the color an overall cool tone. Any color can be made warm or cool with proper color mixing.

How to Tell if a Color is Warm or Cool This phenomenon was well documented by Claude Monet when he made his famous haystack paintings. In these pieces, Monet painted haystacks at different times of day in different qualities of light. The haystacks themselves were always a shade of brown, orange or red – all usually recognized as warm colors. However, in some qualities of light, the haystacks took on a cool shade. When Claude Monet painted haystackscast in shadow on an overcast day, they possessed a nearly purple tone, while still having an underlying brown base. In this way, the warm brown became a cool brown.

At sunset, the haystacks took on a warmth and a glow from the light of the setting sun. The brown appeared almost orange or red, but only on the side where the sun light illuminated the hay. On the shady side of the stack, the hay took on a cool tone.

Color temperature is often associated with the psychological effects of color. Warm colors are said to excite passions, create discord, invoke fury, and imply action. Warm colors are associated with feelings of love, anger and hatred. Cool colors are associated with peace, calm, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, stillness, despair, depression, and silence.

Artists often use these associations in subtle ways to generate an emotional response in the viewer. An example of this can be observed in Picasso’s paintings from his Blue Period. These paintings were often still, contemplative, andnotably sad, featuring people in a moment of quiet. Many of these paintings portrayed a sense of isolation, sorrow and thoughtful mediation. Had the paintings been red or orange, their mood would have been very different.

Color Mixing

Color mixing is a technical process that requires understanding of the color spectrum as well as understanding of light and wave lengths. There are two ways to producecolor: additive and subtractive. Additive color combines shades of light to create colors. Subtractive color occurs when sunlight reflects off an object.

Additive Color Mixing

Additive Color Mixing Uses Red, Green, and Yellow Additive color mixing is most important in the printing process. If you’re a print maker,graphic designer or an electronics engineer, you’ll likely want to understand additive color. If you’re a painter, having some of this knowledge may help, but this section is not about mixing paint to make color: it’s about light.

Light as we perceive it is made up of energy waves. Visible light is clustered together on a spectrum, with blue made up of the shortest waves and red made up of the longest. Green, red and blue are the most predominant colors on this spectrum.

In the additive color mixing method, colors are created by mixing green, red and blue light. Mixing different amounts of red, blue and green creates secondary colors magenta, cyan and yellow. Additive colors begin as black, but when blue, green or red light is added, colors begin to appear. Did you ever look at an old television screen up close – so close you could see the pixels of red, blue and green? This is an example of additive color.

Subtractive Color Mixing

Subtractive color mixing is what you use whenever you mix paint, so it’s important to understand it, because it’s quite different than additive color mixing. While in additive color mixing, mixing all the colors together creates white, mixing all the colors in subtractive mixing creates black.

As mentioned earlier, there are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. They are considered primary colors because you cannot mix colors to create these three colors. However, when you’re using subtractive color mixing, you can.

Subtractive Color Mixing Uses Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow The primary colors for subtractive color mixing are different than the primary colors you’re raised on. Instead of red, blue, and yellow, the primary colors are magenta, yellow, and cyan. If you’ve ever replaced the ink in a printer, these colors will be familiar to you. When you’re using subtractive color mixing, you can create red by mixing magenta and yellow, or create blue by mixing magenta and cyan.

Red Yellow Blue Color Wheel With the CMY color wheel, the secondary colors are also different. Instead of green, orange, and purple, the secondary colors are now blue, red, and green. Because of this, complementary colors are also different. Instead of red and green being complementary, green is now complementary to magenta, and red is complementary to cyan.

You need to be familiar with subtractive color mixing in addition to additive because the RYB color wheel will only get you so far. When you’re mixing paint or another type of pigment, it’s impossible to get the bright colors out of RYB that you can CMY. When you mix lemon yellow and ultramarine blue, you’re naturally going to get a green that is more muted, like a Hooker’s green or a sap green. If you mix lemon yellow with cobalt turquoise light, you’ll end up with a much brighter green. With CMY, you get very bright colors that you can easily neutralize if you want them to be more muted or subdued.

Neutralizing Colors

Neutralize is a term that artists use to describe what happens when you reduce the intensity of a color. When painting, you may choose to neutralize a color if you would like that color to recede into the background, or you may choose to neutralize all the colors in your painting for a sepia-toned effect.

Neutralizing large portions of a painting can create a subdued mood. What do neutralized colors look like? It depends on how neutralized they are, but they tend to look brown or gray compared to the pure hue.

Artists use different methods to neutralize colors. The method they choose depends on the over all ambiance of the painting, as well as the chosen color scheme. In other words, artists are always striving to find color harmony, and make color choices to support a painting’s harmony. Some neutralizing methods create warmer tones, others create cooler tones. As you continue painting, you’ll get a sense of which methods work best with your color palette.

Mixing Complementary Colors

One of the ways to neutralize a color is to mix it with its complement. The complementarypairs are:

  • Purple and yellow
  • Blue and orange
  • Red and green

Mixing any of these colors together in large quantities will create a kind of mud, but mixing colors in small amounts creates subtle variations in hue. For example, to lessen the intensity of red, dab a small amount of green paint onto the end of your brush and mix it with pure red. The red should turn a darker reddish brown, like maroon. Mixing more green into the red, the red will turn a deeper shade of brown. Equal parts green and red mixed together will result in a brown or gray, depending.

Important tip:When mixing two colors that have significant value differences, like yellow and purple, the purple is likely to absorb the yellow without much visible difference. It takes more yellow to neutralize purple than it takes purple to neutralize yellow.

See it in action:One famous example of complementary color mixing can be observed in the primarily blue and orange Vincent Van Gogh self portrait from 1889. In this painting, Van Gogh wore a blue shirt, stood before a blue wall, and used combinations of blue and orange pigments to paint his self portrait.

Blue is used repeatedly in this painting to neutralize the shades of orange in his hair, beard, eyebrows and skin. Blue creates the shadows on his face and on his head. Blue unifies the painting and softens the effect of the orange pigments, dulling the intensity of its complement.

Adding Neutrals

If you combine two complementary colors, you’re likely to get a shade of brown or gray. This color is known as a neutral. Neutrals are colors that do not appear on the color wheel. They are earth tones, including black, brown, gray and white. Adding a neutral toany color will reducethe color’s intensity.

You can try this yourself by mixing a pure red paint with a deep brown. Start by mixing an orange and blue to create a dark, intense brown. Next, mix the brown and red to create a deep maroon. The red has been neutralized.

How to Mix Neutral ColorsImportant tip: Neutrals, especially black pigments, are often used to create shadowsin paintings. Many beginning painters use the color black to create shadows without realizing that the use of black can easily create a muddy mess without achieving the desired effect. Though some painters in history have used neutrals very effectively to dull the intensity of their hues, this takes skill. Take care when mixing pure black with other colors to create shadows in your paintings.

See it in action: Rembrandt was the master of mixing neutrals with colors to create a complex, nuanced palette. Sources say that Rembrandt was never without his neutral colors like burnt umber and burnt sienna, some of the most useful shades of brown for oil painters. Rembrandteven painted on a tinted canvas, either gray or deep brown, which would have no doubt helped neutralize the colors in his palette.

To see for yourself how Rembrandt’s use of neutral colors were used to neutralize other hues, take a look at his painting “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul.”

Color Psychology

Colors have meanings to people. Have you ever set foot in a blue room, with blue walls? How did you feel when you were there? How would your feelings change if the walls were painted orange?

While the psychology of color is in many ways cultural, the effect of color on people is real and can be dramatic. Good use of color can be used to send subtle signals to viewers. Smart color usage conveys emotions. One example of the use of color to convey a specific emotion can be seen in the famous painting, “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.

For many people, the most dramatic color in this painting is the blaring red-orange of the sky, which conveys a sense of emergency,fear and anxiety. This use of color reinforces the state of the figure, who appears to be experiencing a moment of agony.

Another example of use of color to create a psychological effect can be found in “Office at Night,” a painting by Edward Hopper. In this piece, Hopper uses cool tones to create an atmosphere of subdued loneliness and melancholy. Although the painting itself is of a woman and man together in an office, the subtle blues and greens permeating the painting create a sense of sadness and urban isolation.

If you are a budding artist, especially if you are a painter or graphic designer, understanding the effects of different colors can help you create anemotional response in your viewers. Good use of color can also reinforce the actions of your characters. Here’s what you need to know.


Red Has a Wide Range of Associated Emotions Red is a flexible color that can convey a range of emotions, including love, passion, anger, hatred, violence, and aggression. Red demands the attention of the viewer and pushes cooler objects into the background.

Use red to create strong emotions, especially when applying red to the canvas in its purest form. Want to minimize the effect of red, or prevent it from jumping forward at the expense of other colors? Try mixing it with a little green or deep brown.

See it in action:A perfect example of the power of red can be observed in “Red Room (Parents),” an installation by Louise Bourgeois. It is said that red, for Bourgeois, signified a combination of shame, fear, jealousy, malevolence, guilt and violence. The use of red in this installation conveys these feelings perfectly. The constructed room is at once claustrophobic and disturbing, without any clear reason why. The red color of the bed stands out as a sign of danger.


Orange is a color that people associate with action, anger, heat, passion, and energy. Orange is used much like red, to grab attention and draw objects to the foreground. A classic example of this is the painting “Willows at Sunset,” by Vincent Van Gogh. In this piece, the use of orange conveys a sense of explosive energy, which stands in contrast against the cool, stationary figures of the willows in the foreground.


Though cheerful and warm in some ways, yellow can also be a disturbing color. Its brightness can be harsh or unwelcome in the wrong context. Yellow is also a very earthy color, and can be used to convey a sense of natural beauty. You can see this phenomenon in action in many of Van Gogh’s sunflowers paintings.

In these paintings, yellow is somewhat flat, blaring and portrays a kind of illness or false cheer. This is reinforced by the flowers’ state of decay, as they often appeared to be days old in their vases.


Green can be refreshing, intellectual, calm, and peaceful. People associate green with serenity, prosperity, happiness, good luck, growth, and success.

This sense of pleasure can be observed in Van Gogh’s painting, “Green Wheat Fields.”In this painting, the minty, rolling green and the curving brush strokes perfectly convey a sense of cool breeze and a comfortable day.


Blue is a color that can be associated with many things: peace, sadness, calm, depression, silence, and depression. Blue is used in many famous paintings to illustrate loneliness or glum atmosphere, but one of the most famous examples can be observed in “The Old Guitarist” by Pablo Picasso. In this painting, the guitarist bends awkwardly over his guitar, picking out a tune for no observed listener. The painting is almost entirely blue, and portrays a sense of sadness and isolation.

Another example of the use of blue: “Young Girls in a Row Boat” by Claude Monet. In this painting, blue conveys a sense of peace, calm and serenity.


Purple is a color that people associate with royalty, regality,creativity, and luxury. Purple is often feminine, and can be a symbol of power.

An excellent example of purple and the effect it can have is found in the painting “Still Life with Purple Napkin” by contemporary artist Jos van Riswick. In this painting, the purple satin napkin exemplifies royalty and regality. This shade of purple isalso nicely offset by the golden wine and green-gold pears, the complement of purple.


Black is Associated With Despair, Sadness, and Silence Black is a powerful color, associated with authority, violence, domination, protection, despair, deep sadness, evil, silence, the unknown, and death. Though use of the color black can bring a painting to a very psychologically disturbing place indeed, it does not have to. Black is often used to offset or call attention to lighter figures in paintings.

Chiaroscurois an art term that refers to images and artwork with strong contrast between dark and light. An example of chiaroscuro in a classic painting is the image “The Taking of Christ” by the Italian painter Caravaggio. In this painting, black serves as a foreshadowing for what will come, but also serves the purpose of drawing attention to the drama unfolding on the canvas.

An example of the use of black to create a specific mood can be seen in the painting “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)” by Ivan Albright. This painting of a Victorian-era door, with a gnarled hand curling around its edge, portrays a dark mood and disturbing imagery.

This painting, better than many others, shows the power of the color black. The piece is, in fact, almost entirely black, with only hints of color throughout. Though this is not visible in many pictures of the painting, the door appears scarred with textures like deep scratches, implying a history of damage and destruction, which is perfectly inline with the use of black throughout the painting.


White is associated with purity of spirit and intention, cleanliness, innocence, intellectual insight, enlightenment, virtue, and clarity. You can see an example of this in the painting “Woman with a Parasol,” the famous painting that Claude Monet made of his wife and son. In this piece, the artist’s wife and child stand together on a hill.

The use of white in the clouds and in the clothes of the two figures on the hill conveys a sweetness, innocence and purity. The use of white is supported by the setting, a sunny, breezy summer day.


Brown is associated with dependability, stability, security, intellectual pursuits, and warmth. As an earthy color, brown is also connected to feelings of sentimentality, memory, and age.

This is demonstrated in the painting “The Philosopher in Meditation,” by Rembrandt. This piece is notable for its thoughtful stillness and warmth. It seems to recall a memory of someone sitting at a window.

Using Color Palettes

The best color palettes are made up of colors that bear a relationship to one another. Color palettes are created by selecting colors that have a relationship on the color wheel. Some palettes are made up of colors that appear side by side on the color wheel, while other palettes are made up of colors that are across from one another on the color wheel.

Many artists choose their palettes intuitively rather than deliberately. If you are a painter, you will eventually develop an innate understanding of which colors look best in combination.

Monochromatic Palettes

How to Build a Monochromatic Palette A monochromatic palette is a palette made up primarily of one hue, and tints and shades of that hue. For example, you may choose to create a monochromatic palette made up entirely of the color red, including red mixed white, gray or black.

Monochromatic palettes can be very decorative and are often found in modern residences. Monochromatic palettes can make a bold statement by conveying a limited range of emotions, because the palette is so limited.

Some artists switch to a monochromatic palette to test out a new painting style or to experiment with a new subject matter. They do this because using only one color means there are fewer choices to make while painting. This allows the artist to focus entirely upon the other aspects of the painting that they would like to explore.

Analogous Palettes

An analogous palette is a color scheme made up of three colors, side by side on the color wheel, usuallyone primary and two secondary colors. Analogous palettes have little drama, because the colors bear an obvious relationship with one another. A painting of green jungle leaves and purple or blue flowers nestled among the leaves would be an example of an analogous color scheme.

Complementary Palettes

A complementary palette is a painting made up of complementary colors (like the painting of The Night Cafe by Van Gogh). Complementary palettes are very dramatic, because the relationship between the colors is not always obvious to the observer, and the contrast between the colors is so great.

Split Complementary Palettes

In a split complementary color palette, the artist uses a color, its complement, and the two colors on either side of its complement to make up a color palette. This is a variation on a standard complementary color palette. Split complementary colors are often more visually interesting and complex compared to straight complementary palettes.

Triadic Palettes

Triadic color palettes use three colors evenly spaced apart from one another on the color wheel. An example would be red, yellow, and blue. Another example of a triadic palette is purple, gold, and green. Triadic palettes are vibrant and cheerful, and have more complexity than many color schemes.

Tetradic Palettes

A tetradic color scheme is a 4-color scheme with equal distance between all four colors. An example of a tetradic color scheme might include red, blue, green, and gold. Tetradic palettes are truer to life than many other palettes because they include such variation of color.

Developing Your Palette

How to Develop Your Color Palettes Before Starting Many beginning artists start out learning about the different color palettes and eventually shift to a variation of these palettes, after learning what works for them. Most people do not want to be limited to very few colors in a palette, but do eventually use the information they gather by trying out different palettes to form their own preferred palettes.

When learning to paint, it’s important to sample different colors, mix colors together on the palette, and of course to try the color schemes described above.


Colors have meaning to people. Art viewers and enthusiasts like to see colors in a pleasing array of combinations, and portrayed in meaningful ways on the canvas. Whether you’re learning to paint, pursuing a career in graphic design, or hoping to become a successful artist in another medium, learning color theory can help. In fact, color theory is important in all types of art, not just two-dimensional mediums. Sculptors, installation artists, set designers, and even lighting artists must use color theory to create beautiful and functional designs.

If you are an artist of any kind, it will be helpful to you to have working knowledge of color theory. With information about color theory and how it works, you can create pieces that you and others will love for many years to come.