Understanding Color Theory for Artists

Color theory for artists is the backbone of being an artist. It is an important part of learning how to draw an artwork. Anyone can doodle, but until you can apply the principles of color theory, your work will look amateurish. One of the scariest things about drawing is color theory. You pour your heart into the best drawing you can produce and spend hours doing so, only to realize that your colors are off or your drawing is just plain ugly.

Color theory is an essential tool for the artist. Picking out colors for a painting or drawing can be difficult. The best artists know there’s a systematic way of picking colors and understanding their relationships with one another.

Understanding color theory is a foundational skill every artist learns early on in their career. Knowing how to apply these color schemes to your artwork will greatly improve your skills as an artist. This article breaks down the complexities of understanding color theory for artists and gives you actionable tips for putting it into practice. Are you ready to know more about color theory?

History of Color Theory

understanding color theory for artists

There is evidence that Leone Battista Alberti wrote the earliest reference to color theory around 1435. In his journals in the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci also talked about color theory. At this time, there was a theory that there were three primary colors – red, blue, and yellow – and that those three colors created all the other colors when mixed together in certain combinations.

The color wheel was created by Sir Isaac Newton in his 1704 work, Opticks, when he developed a theory for it. Newton used the color wheel to explain that light was the source of color and that white light produced a spectrum of colors that ranged from red to violet when passed through a prism. The colors he saw were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, which he considered closed systems or wheels.

Color theory explored the psychological and sensory effects of color during the 18th century. Johann Wolfgang Goethe devised a color wheel that explained how each color affects the mind. A blue color creates a feeling of coolness, while a yellow color creates a feeling of warmth. Color psychology plays a vital role in choosing interior finishes for interior designers.

Ink, dyes, and paints were viewed as pigments rather than light as the source of color later on by color theorists. The hue, value, and chroma of pigments can vary, so there are more variants with pigments.

  • A hue is a physical color in the spectrum (blue, red, or orange)
  • Value is how light or dark a color is.
  • The chroma of a color refers to its intensity.

Red, blue, and yellow continue to be primary in these theories today.

The Color Wheel

color wheel for artists

Isaac Newton invented the color wheel in 1666, which plots the color spectrum on a circle. The color wheel represents the relationships between colors, which is what underpins color theory.

A set of colors that go well together describes color harmony. This is something that artists and designers use to create a certain aesthetic appeal and feeling. If you use the rules of color combinations combined with a color wheel, you will be able to find color harmonies. The idea of color combinations is to find the colors that create a pleasing effect by rearranging them to create the maximum number of different combinations.

A Color wheel is also known as a color circle, which is an arrangement of colored objects arranged in a circular arrangement according to their color relationships with one another. Secondary and tertiary colors are positioned between the primary colors on the wheel. It is used to choose and organize colors according to their relationship to one another in art and design.

The color wheel comes in two varieties. Artists typically use the RYB color wheel to combine paint colors since it helps them to understand the relationships among colors. Another type of color wheel is the RGB wheel.

The color wheel consists of three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.

Primary Colors

primary color wheel

It’s no secret that primary colors are like your building blocks; you’ve probably taken an art class in school. In the RYB model, these colors are red, yellow, and blue, which are the three parents of the other colors on the color wheel.

Primary colors are those that cannot mix with any other colors. This is why they are primary colors. We are going to talk about two categories in which they stand alone and can be mix to create additional colors.

Blending three colors together should usually result in black color. When it comes to painting or other coloring styles, it isn’t always easy to discern whether red, yellow, and blue are pure.

Secondary Colors

Secondary Color wheel

Remember that secondary colors come after primary colors. According to our theory, primary colors are like their parents, and then secondary colors are their children. The combination of two primary colors gives you a secondary color.

As you study color theory, you will learn to use the primary colors in equal amounts to achieve the secondary colors. Adding too much or too little of one color can change things drastically, and you do not have a true secondary color by that time. Utilizing the RYB model once again, secondary colors include orange, purple, and green.

Tertiary Colors

tertiary Color wheel

The last set of colors is tertiary. You only have to pay attention to the word “tertiary” in order to know what they are about. On a color wheel, this means that if you look at the set after the secondary colors, you will choose the third color. As a continuation of our parent and child analogy, you can consider tertiary colors as the grandparents of primary colors and the secondary colors children’s.

You need to mix a primary color with a secondary color to get tertiary colors. Primary colors are more prominent in secondary colors than they were when created. This is usually done by blending the primary color with its closest secondary color.

The six tertiary colors of color theory are yellow-green, blue-green, red-orange, blue-purple, red-purple, and yellow-orange. These colors have more personal names as well: chartreuse, teal, vermilion, violet, magenta, and amber.

RGB Color Model

RGB Color model

RGB color profiles are created through additive processes. They are primarily used on computer displays and the Internet. A color can be made through light, which does not have to be a specific intensity. Therefore, RGB colors can cover a wide range of hues. You can see that different colors appear on your computer screen as RGB hues of red, green, and blue. Black is the lowest intensity RGB primary color, while white is the highest intensity.

The human eye perceives colors as light waves. Additive color mixing is a method for creating colors by mixing multiple red, green, and blue light sources. Adding more light makes the colors brighter.

CMYK Color Model

CMYK Color Model

Commercial printing equipment uses the CMYK color mode to create full-color graphics and images, which stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Variable amounts of different colors are used to produce the full spectrum of colors in the printing process. For example, when the “K” represents black, for “key” refers to how the black printing plate is aligned with the white plate. The process color CMYK is also called the four-color process or process color.

Subtractive processes mix colors that appear on physical surfaces. We learned this color model when mixing finger paints in kindergarten, so most people are familiar with it. In the case of subtractive art, it simply means that you add more color to the paper to subtract the light.

Color Temperature – Warm Versus Cool Color

understanding color theory for artists

Warm colors differ from cool colors on the color wheel. The contrast between a warm and cool color is very strong when they are placed next to each other. As an alternative, a color that is placed next to another cool color creates a peaceful, harmonious effect (for example, green next to blue). In the following sections, we discuss these color combinations in greater detail.

Warm colors are traditionally associated with light and activity. On the other hand, cool colors imply a calm, distant, and tranquil environment.

In general, neutral colors are white, black, and gray. The best way to use these neutral colors is to change their value rather than use them for what they are. Using cadmium red as an example, you could add various amounts of gray to produce various tones.

The first thing you should do is decide if you want the painting to have a warm, cool, or balanced (neutral) feel. By neutral, we do not mean using just white, black and gray, but rather balancing warm and cool colors equally.

Color Theory Terms

When black, grey, and white are added to a base hue, they create shades, tints, and tones.

  • Hue

In terms of color, a hue could be any of the colors on the color wheel. The saturation and luminance of a hue are two different factors that can adjust with a color wheel or a color picker.

  • Shade

The concept of a shade refers to the darkening of a hue by adding black to a base hue. In this way, the color becomes deeper and richer. However, shades can sometimes be quite dramatic, and they can be quite overwhelming at times.

  • Tint

Adding a white tone to a base hue creates a tint. It is a way of making the color appear lighter. Adding this effect can help reduce the intensity of the color, which is useful when you need to balance contrasting colors.

  • Tones

The tone is created by mixing black, white, or grey with a base hue. It is similar to a tint, which is a naturally occurring color with subtle changes. In addition to being less likely to appear pastel, tones can reveal complexities that the base color would not reveal.

Color Schemes

Color Schemes for understanding color theory

Complementary Colors

In color theory, complementary colors are hues that are placed in opposition to one another and contrast with one another. In order to create harmonious color schemes, you can use the color wheel, a table arranged by the color relationships on the spectrum. When placed right next to one another, complementary colors enhance each other’s intensity. Due to this reason, they’re often used in creating bold, highly contrasted images.

Analogous Colors

A color wheel of analogous colors is adjacent, or close to, another color wheel. Unlike complementary colors, which are intense, these two colors work together to create a calming effect. A color scheme of analogous hues usually includes a dominant shade, a secondary hue supporting it, and a third shade acting as an accent. Artwork that depicts nature or relaxing scenes often employs analogous schemes.

Triadic Colors

Primary colors and secondary colors are combined to form triadic colors. The traditional color wheel has six tertiary colors: vermillion (red-orange), magenta (red-purple), amber (yellow-orange), teal (blue-green), chartreuse (yellow-green), and violet (blue-purple).

Split-complementary Colors

Split-complementary color schemes are just like complementary color schemes. It uses three colors instead of two colors next to each other on the color wheel: one primary color plus its two complement colors. To avoid looking too cluttered, it is best to use two colors as accents and one as the dominant color in a split complementary color scheme.

Final Words

The final takeaway for artists is that choosing colors for your artwork shouldn’t be done at random. You should always start with a specific idea in mind and then apply the color schemes to your art accordingly. This is how you ensure that everything comes together seamlessly and puts an end to those moments of frustration where you can’t seem to find the right colors or combinations for your artwork.

The best way to start using color theory is to make it a point to become more conscious of the colors you use. Whether you’re making art for fun or posting on social media, pay attention to the colors you choose and how they might affect your message. Understanding color theory for artists should be more accessible for you now that you’ve read this article.

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