All About Color Theory

The psychology of color: 

As artists, color is our most powerful tool. We can use it to direct our viewers eyes and illicit strong emotion. This is just scratching the surface of why the Color Theory is important, it's a specific science we see used correctly and incorrectly every day.
Have you ever felt a soothing calm wash over you when you look at a bright blue ocean or the feeling of uneasiness that something is right behind you when in a pitch black room? The psychology behind colors runs deep in our society and personal experience. While we can't speak for you we can go over the general emotion people when looking at certain colors.

Note: colors and their meanings change from culture to culture, in the following examples we will be referring to how western cultures experience color. 

Red - placed on the warm tone side of the color wheel, red can be associated with: romance, passion, hunger, anger, danger, heat.

Orange - placed on the warm tone side of the color wheel, orange can be associated with: energy, warmth, creativity, enthusiasm. 

Yellow - placed on the warm tone side of the color wheel, yellow can be associated with: joy, caution, friendship, cowardice.

Green - placed on the cool tone side of the color wheel, green can be associated with: wealth, growth, nature, health, envy, sickness.

Blue - placed on the cool tone side of the color wheel, blue can be associated with: calmness, sadness, peace, tranquility, coldness.

Purple - placed on the cool tone side of the color wheel, purple can be associated with: mystery, luxury, spirituality, wisdom.

Pink - placed on the warm tone side of the color wheel, pink can be associated with: love, youthfulness, compassion, playfulness.

Brown - placed on the warm tone side of the color wheel, brown can be associated with: stability, earth, warmth, honesty, comfort.

White - A tone that can be added to other hues on the color wheel or used on it's own it is neither warm not cool, white can be associated with: purity, cleanliness, innocence, marriage, simplicity. 

Grey - A tone that can be added to other hues on the color wheel or used on it's own it is neither warm not cool, grey can be associated with: formality, professionalism, security, rigidity, sadness, gloominess, boredom.

Black - A tone that can be added to other hues on the color wheel or used on it's own it is neither warm not cool, black can be associated with: power, sophistication, style, fear, doom, death, elegance. 

Important terms and what they mean:

Let's also take a moment to go over some terms and what they mean. 

  • Hue - Something important to know is that hue and color are often used interchangeably. Think of hue as the technical term, other than that it is as simple as red, blue, and yellow.
  • Saturation - this is the intensity and vibrancy of the color. A saturated color can be a bit of a double edged sword. It can be very eye-catching and when used correctly can direct the viewers eyes to the important parts of your artwork. However on the other side of the spectrum too many or too much saturated color can be overwhelming and hard to process. 
  • Value - this is a scale that tells us the lightness or darkness of our color. The value of a color can vastly change the feeling of a piece. For example a light blue ocean may feel uplifting, and calm. But the dark blues of the deep ocean may inspire fear and uneasiness. 
  • Shade - a shade of a hue is made by adding black to a color. Do not rely solely on black to to make your shadows very rarely are shadows just black examine your source material and ask yourself what colors do you see. Too much shading can muddy your picture so make sure to take a light hand with it. 
  • Tint - tints are made by adding white to a color. Also known as highlights, lighting etc. 
  • Tone - made by adding grey color.

Types of color combos 

Before we get into the different color combinations it's important we first know about primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

Most of you reading this likely know that the primary colors are red, blue and yellow; and that your secondaries are green, orange and purple. Secondaries are made by mixing the certain primary colors together, for example, red and blue make purple.

Lastly we have tertiary colors, these are made by blending a primary with a secondary for example blending a yellow with a green would simply make yellow-green and so on. 

Monochromatic - Monochromatic uses different one hue, tone, shade or tint.

AnalogousAnalogous colors are any three colors which are side by side on a color wheel. 

ComplementaryComplementary colors are any two colors which are directly opposite each other.

Triadic  Triadic uses three colors that are equally spaced on the color wheel, forming a triangle.

Split-complementary - Split-complementary uses the colors on either side of the complement.

Tetradic - Tetradic uses two complementary pairs, forming a rectangle on the wheel.

The different color wheels 

RBY - stands for red, blue and yellow. The traditional color wheel, first made by Isaac Newton.

RGB - stands for red, green, blue. This is our modern color wheel.

CMYK - stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). This color wheel is what most seasoned artists prefer as you can mix a wider range of colors far easier. You will also see CMYK used in things such as printing. 

Color composition and color harmony

Let's start with the basic definitions of both Color Composition and Color Harmony. 

Color harmony: refers to the property that certain aesthetically pleasing color combinations have.

Color composition: refers to the arrangement of elements or pieces of an image to achieve the most aesthetic and visually appealing results possible.

Now that we know the literal definitions what do these two things mean. Well in it's simplest terms color harmony is what hues you pick to paint with and composition is how you arrange those colors. 

Before we go deeper, this is perhaps the most subjective part of this lesson. Yes there are formulas, theories, combinations and all of that, but these key aspects of art can change drastically. What do we mean by this, well when you ask an artist how they picked the colors they did, they might look and you and say "they looked nice together." or "I liked them."
This is where that subjective thing comes back into play, because while there are methods, every artist uses it in their own way. This is why a formulaic explanation is hard to actually pin point.
Some artists will pick colors that when you look at the palette look absolutely atrocious but when you see it in application it's breathtaking and once again the artist may just shrug and tell you they just painted it, or drew etc. 

So how do we apply this information to our work, well chances are you probably already have! These two aspects of color theory have been present since you first started art. When you choose blue over red, a darker shade of purple or a lighter tint of green. You've practiced harmony, and assuming you put those colors down you've also practiced composition. 
Think about it like a puzzle where everything falls into place perfectly, it clicks together and in that moment you can see the full picture. 

After reading all of that you may be wondering so what's the point, how do I do this? Well we've given you all the technical information we can and there is so much more out there, the fact of the matter is we could give you all the information we can but what helps you truly understand ALL of this is through practice. Apply the knowledge you've learned here today, celebrate success and learn from failure either way you will grow!

Final Notes

"So my first big mistake was overcomplicating my color palette. I bought SO MANY colors and I wish I’d just started out with the basics and added to it as time went on, because it made things way more frustrating. Slimming my palette down to the primary colors plus black, white, and yellow ochre was way easier and I started mixing better colors. The basic palette also gave me a better idea of what I could and couldn’t mix- I use mostly a CMYK palette and while it makes some really nice purples and greens, the orange tones you can mix are really pinky/salmon colored. I end up using a single pigment orange anyways, because I find the mixed ones can be a bit muddy. It was also fun to try out limited palettes? I went through a whole phase with the Zorn palette, which was challenging because you don’t have blue! Using just vermilion, yellow ochre, ivory black, and titanium white, you can mix a surprising amount of colors, and even use the blue undertone of the black paint to suggest blue.

I like using the CMYK palette because I naturally prefer cyan, magenta, violet, and blue-greens more than I like the brighter color palettes you can get with the more traditional colors. Despite that, I have to supplement my palette when I need a vivid red or orange, and to keep the bias of the colors I’m using in mind or the color scheme won’t work.

One of the more helpful things I ever read about establishing a color palette was to refer to colors as having a bias rather than being warm or cool toned. It made a lot more sense to me to say “this blue has a yellow bias” or “this orange has a more yellow bias”. I also find it helpful because it relates back to color theory- if you’re mixing a blue with a yellow bias with a yellow that’s got a bit of a blue bias (if you remember, some of our lemon yellow paints at the store were almost green), you’re going to get a really bright green. That’s because you’ve mixed just yellow and blue together. If you mixed a yellow with a reddish bias, or a blue with a reddish bias, you’d certainly get something more subdued/desaturated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes you need a really desaturated color instead of a super bright one, but you do want to mix that intentionally, rather than wasting a bunch of paint on an accident." - Jessica M.

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