Lesson 2 - A Quick Lesson in Color Theory

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is essentially the science and art of color—its principles. It is the culmination of the studies of color, its measurements and its relationship with other hues.

Color theory creates the rudiments and nature of hues for artists to follow. However, we must remember that it’s rules are not absolute. The concepts you’ll find within the theory should be merely considered as guidelines and should not hinder your creative process.

The logical structure that we follow can be divided into three (3) categories, namely: The color wheel, color harmony, and colors in context.

What is color?

Color is our eye’s perception of light. The process of light bouncing off objects and into our eyes includes the making of color combinations. Our brains then interpret those combinations and translate them into what we call color.

Definitions and Terms

1. Hue

It is essentially what the color is. Or in the context of speaking, it is the color you are specifying. It also refers to the dominant wavelength of color out to the 12 colors. For example: the hue of navy is blue

2. Saturation

It is the intensity of color. In other words, saturation is the measurement of how pure a color is. To have a high saturation means the color is very bright. Desaturation means the color is washed out or grayed out

3. Varieties of color

a. Tints are hues to which white is added. hue.

b. Shades are hues to which black is added

c. Tones can be produces by adding gray to hues

4. High Key and Low Key

This refers to the overall value scale used in a painting. High key paintings have high value scales. In other words, light. And vice versa

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is considered a tool for artists. However, there’s a common misconception that it is a tool for finding color combinations—that’s rarely the case.

The theory behind the color wheel is the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Therefore, the wheel is a tool for determining the relationship of the colors we want to choose.

The color wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton around the early 17th century. In his book, Opticks, he concluded that light is made of different colors, and those colors are arranged in a particular way for a reason.

The Color Wheel is a circle divided into twelve equal parts. The parts in turn are colored purposefully.

As I’ve mentioned before, the theory behind the color wheel is the relationship between Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colors. Consequently, you’ll find that the distance between each primary (secondary or tertiary) colors are equal, and in between, you’ll find the succeeding set of colors.

Primary Colors

Red, blue, and yellow. These colors are “primary” for a reason. The reason is that they can not be made from other colors. In other words, they are essentially the most basic of colors—the parent color. Furthermore, because they are the root of every color, they can be mixed to produce a wide gamut of colors.

Secondary Colors

Green, orange, and purple. Think of secondary colors as the children of primary colors since they are a mixture of two primary colors, and can be found in between them.

Tertiary Colors

Think of these colors as grandchildren of the primaries and children of the secondaries. They’re a mixture of two (2) secondary colors and can be found in between them.

The tertiary colors in the color wheel are as follows:

  1. Yellow-orange

  2. Red-orange

  3. Red-violet

  4. Blue-violet

  5. Blue-green

  6. Yellow-green

There you have it! One big happy family.

This wheel, as I've mentioned before, can be used to determine the relationship of each color—that is it’s true purpose.

Colors In Context

Color Psychology

Like many things, color has affected our psyche in one way or another. Psychological triggers are used to encourage the viewer on how to see the painting.

With that in mind, we can conclude that color has various influences on the human brain. For as long as we can remember, humans assigned each color a meaning because each color gives off a certain emotion. But as painters, we should know that the assignment of emotion to color is not entirely subjective.

Here are some examples:

  1. Red: love, anger, danger

  2. Orange: Vitality, creativity, activity

  3. Yellow: happiness, hope, energy

  4. Green: Health, nature, money

  5. blue : Trust, security, serenity, wisdom

  6. Purple: Creativity, royalty, wealth

  7. Black - death, power

  8. White - purity, peace


Value is basically how light or how dark a color is on a scale of black to white. In other words, it is the degree of lightness or darkness of a hue.

Value is one of the most important variables to the success of painting. It may be simple to understand but can be difficult to apply when color is added to the concept.

Color Temperature

Color Temperature in the context of color theory refers to the warmness and coolness of a color. There are assigned psychological differences to warm and cool colorslike red being warm and blue being cool.

Warm colors are generally vivid or bold in nature. Examples of warm colors include red, yellow and orange. Warm colors tend to appear closer to the viewer in space while cool colors tend to recede.

Cool colors are considered calm or soothing in nature and not overpowering. Examples include green, blue, purple and also neutral white and grey. Cool colors tend to sit back in space. For example, distant mountains appear a cooler blue or purple color while objects in the foreground might have warmer notes.

Artists can use warm and cool colors to create realistic and exciting works by knowing how to see a colors temperature in the subject and use it in their paintings.