Color Theory In Art: The Definitive Guide for Artists

color theory in art

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Color Theory can often seem intimating or just plain confusing.

But it doesn’t have to be…

In this article, you’ll find out how to organize and make sense of this sometimes overwhelming topic.

The concepts, terms, and examples are designed to simplify each point and organized to build from the basics to practical suggestions on using the ideas in your own art.

What is Color Theory, and Why is it Important?

what is color theory?
Colourful Universe by Simon C Page

Definition of Color Theory

Color Theory is a way of thinking that helps artists and designers look at visual media (websites, advertisements, logos, artwork, etc.) to decide the best use of color to meet the individual project’s goals.

This way of thinking is based on psychology, the science of optics, and historical data. It helps creators understand how most people respond to color combinations in specific situations. If you want viewers to react emotionally to your art, it will help to understand these concepts.

Components of Color Theory

components of color theory
SumaLateral Whole Brain Image by National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Color Theory is made up of:

  1. Relationships between color and light waves.
  2. How colors are created.
  3. How humans respond to color and why.
  4. How the effects of color change with the environments or contexts in which they are found.

Before you as an artist can use color theory effectively, you must understand how each of these components works when taken into consideration together.

Applications of Color Theory

Color theory can be used to influence people’s emotions to help enhance the mood of a painting, like Picasso’s Blue Period paintings.

Using lots of blues can make people sad or melancholy.

Color is also effective for getting attention. In this artwork by Cezanne, the blues, greens, and browns give a feeling of peace and calmness.

applicztion of color theory
Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine by Cezanne

Words You Need to Understand

Before getting into the details of color theory for artists, some terms must be understood.

Additive Color Model Theory

additive color model theory
(Image Source)

The additive theory is used by digital artists for electronic displays on computers, TVs, or other devices.

The primary colors of this theory are Red, Green, and Blue (RGB), which, when added together, create white light. It is called the additive theory because when you add the 3 primaries, you get the presence of white light.

Subtractive or Reductive Theory

The reductive theory is used by painters and artists who work with hand-applied colors.

The primary colors of this theory are Red, Yellow, and Blue (RYB); the primary colors most of us learned in school.

This theory is called reductive or subtractive because, theoretically, when you combine the right proportions of each primary, you will get black or the appearance of the absence of light.

Note: A third set of primary colors (CMYK) is used in digital printing, which will be discussed later.

Color vs. Hue

color vs hue

Hue is the foundation color or color family; These hues make up the twelve Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary “colors”- Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange, Purple, Green, Yellow-orange, Red-orange, Red-purple, Blue-purple, Blue-green, and Yellow-green.

Note: The tertiary colors often have more specific names depending on the color wheel you find or the brand making a pre-made color.

For example, Yellow-green is often referred to as Chartreuse.

color wheel
Photo by Barb Gordon

Individual Colors are based on one of the twelve primary, secondary, and tertiary hues (see the basic color wheel).

Colors are a combination of 1. A foundation hue, 2. A level of brightness or darkness (value), and 3. The saturation or intensity of the color (how much, if any, gray is added).

More on this will be covered later…

All Hues are Colors, but not all Colors are Hues.

The Color teal belongs to the color family of blue-green, but there are other blue-green colors, such as turquoise.

Warm Colors

Warm colors are those that, when looked at alone, without other colors around, appear warm.

warm colors

Typically, the side of the color wheel that spans from yellow to red, and the secondary and tertiary colors in between are warm colors, but remember, they will only be warm in relation to the other colors they are near. (More on that below)

Cool Colors

cool colors

Warm and Cool colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel from each other, spanning from violet to Green and all the secondary and tertiary colors in between. A cool color may “feel” warm if it is surrounded by cool colors that are cooler than the color itself.

Neutral Colors

neutral colors

Neutral colors are evenly balanced between warm and cool. Red-violet and Yellow-green sit on opposite sides of the color wheel from each other and separate the warm colors from the cool colors.

Saturation, Intensity, and Chroma

saturation, intensity and chroma

Saturation, intensity, and chroma are interchangeable and refer to how much of the hue is present in any color combinations in relation to any white, black, or gray.

Think of a brand-new orange tee shirt that is bright in color. That is saturated with Orange. Now consider that shirt after it has been worn and washed hundreds of times. The Orange will now be less intense and appear as a faded orange.


(Image Source)

People often refer to shade incorrectly when they mean color. A shade is a hue with the addition of black. When you shade a hue, you end up with a darker color than the original.


(Image Source)

A tint is any hue with the addition of white. When you tint a hue, you end up with a lighter color than the original hue.


Mix Orange Orange With Blue to Make Gray by Art Passion

A tone is a hue with the addition of gray or the hue’s opposite or complimentary hue, which, when mixed, creates grays.

Value (and Key)


Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color or hue. If a hue has been tinted, it is a lighter value than the original hue.

If a hue has been shaded, it is a darker value than the original hue.

Key refers to the overall value of an artwork or design. If dark colors dominate a painting, it is considered low-key. If an artwork is dominated by light colors, it is considered high-key.

Primary Colors

primary colors

Primary colors or hues can’t be created by mixing other colors or hues. When mixed together in different proportions, it will create all the other hues.

Secondary Colors

secondary colors

Secondary colors are those that are created by mixing any two of the three primary colors. Red and Yellow make Orange.

Tertiary Colors

tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are created when primary and secondary colors are mixed.

The primary color Red, combined with its secondary color, neighbor Purple, will create the tertiary color, Magenta.

The Relationship Between Hue, Saturation, and Brightness In Color?

As mentioned above, colors are a combination of

  1. A foundation hue,
  2. A level of brightness or darkness (value), and
  3. The saturation or intensity of the color.

This can be clearly seen in most digital painting programs.

In the example below, you can see the Hue is red. It is at 88% saturation, and 53% brightness.

color theory for painting

If we change the Hue to a Blue, this is what we see:

artist color theory

If we adjust the saturation to our original red color, you can see it becomes greyer as we reduce the saturation.

color theory for artists

And if we increase the brightness of our original red, you can see it becomes brighter:

art color theory

Different Color Wheel Primary Colors?

“I thought the primary colors were Red, Yellow, and Blue. What’s this about Green being a primary color?”

As mentioned in the glossary under Primary Colors, there are different primary colors depending on the form the visual media takes.

RYB Color Wheel Model (Subtractive)

ryb color wheel model (subtractive)

Red, Yellow, and Blue are the primary colors that most visual, fine artists use to create all the other colors they may need for a painting, drawing, or ceramics glaze.

These three colors fall into the subtractive theory and cannot be made by mixing other colors. When combined in different proportions, any two of these primaries will create a secondary color.

Secondary colors combined with their adjacent primary colors on the color wheel will produce tertiary colors. This RYB Color Wheel is often referred to as the Triacic Color Wheel and is used for most artworks that are not digital or created with an ink printer.

CMYK Color Wheel Modelcmyk color wheel model


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). This is also a subtractive theory since adding all the colors will theoretically give you black.

It is based on the Munsell color wheel (discussed below) and is primarily used for ink cartridges printers.

RGB Color Wheel Model (Additive)

rgb color wheel model (additive)

Red, Green, and Blue are the primary colors of the additive theory since adding all three will give you white light.

As mentioned in the Words You Need to Understand section above, this theory and primary set of colors are used in digital displays.

Triadic vs. Munsell Color Wheel

triadic vs munsell color wheel
Left: Triadic Color Wheel                                        Right: Munsell Color Wheel

The history of the color wheel and the differences between each color wheel (Newton, Harris, Geothe, Munsell, Triadic, etc.) is far beyond the scope of this article.

The Triadic color wheel is used for fine artists, the Munsell color wheel is used for graphics art such as printing, and the additive RGB wheel is used for digital displays on electronic devices.

How Colors Affect Each Other

how colors affect each other
(Image Source)

The interpretation of color and its effects are not uniform or standardized. For example, due to its green foundation, a Yellow-green Chartreuse may appear cool when painted onto a pure white canvas.

Still, it may be interpreted as a warm color when surrounded by pure blue.

The following is just a brief introduction to some of the ways color effects can be manipulated.


Photo by Tim Cresswell

Context means the environment in which the color or color combinations are found and the conditions under which the color is viewed.

We perceive colors because when light hits paint on a canvas or pencil on paper, all the colors in the ray of light are absorbed by that color, except the color we see.

For example, when light hits a red spot of paint, the yellow and blue are absorbed by the area while the Red is reflected back to our eye, so we perceive the spot as red.

This isn’t as simple when many colors are next to each other on the surface. The reflected light from each color mixes with the reflected light from all the different colors surrounding it, causing these reflections to mix to some degree and change how we perceive the colors, either in value, intensity, color, or all three.

For this reason, some artists cut a small hole in a piece of paper when trying to match a color from a reference photo or painting.

Placing the paper over the reference so the hole only shows the color to be matched allows the artist to only see the reflection of that color which allows it to be matched more easily.


Artwork by Carl Purcell

Color harmony refers to the use of color combinations in a way that makes them feel natural together.

We are used to seeing certain colors together in nature while other colors paired together are not so common and feel unnatural. This will make more sense in a moment when we discuss Color Schemes.

Selecting colors that fit naturally together can add a sense of calm, stability, or predictability.


Artwork by Neo Rauch

Colors rarely seen together in natural environments or synthetic colors not found in organic substances, like neon, can cause discord or chaos. Soft greens and yellows with a spot of hot pink may make you feel uneasy.

This is not to say you shouldn’t use clashing colors; you need to understand how they affect the viewer to use them effectively.

Suppose you wanted to focus the viewer on a specific part of a painting full of soft greens and yellows. In that case, add a dash of hot pink in that spot to create a focal point for their attention.

How Color Affects Us Subconsciously


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A post shared by Folt Bolt (@folt_bolt)

Color is so powerful it can cause our bodies to have physical reactions. For example, restaurant menus often use the colors red or orange because studies have proven those colors cause people to feel hungrier.

Color associations

Artists, designers, and filmmakers understand color has the potential to communicate volumes to audiences in a simple, primal, and non-verbal way. In movies, the themes and plots can be enhanced with color to make the messages more robust than relying only on dialogue to drive the plot.

Think of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch.

the scream

The face shows emotions of terror, but imagine how less effective the painting would be if the colors were less intense and more realistic. The heavily saturated oranges and blues are opposites, so they scream chaos and disharmony (pun intended).

Warm and cool colors are only warm colors or cool colors based on the other colors around them. Becuase of this, color associations can change.

For example, cool colors like blue violet, can be cool if placed next to yellow or warm if placed next to green.

Below are a few commonly accepted associations for some basic colors. Remember, the context has much to do with how people interpret the color.

  • Blue: Cold, calm, seclusion, depression, sadness
  • Green: Nature, growth, life, ominousness, progress, material value
  • Yellow: Sickness, madness, caution, naivete, immaturity, timidness
  • Orange: Warmth, friendliness, happiness, outgoing, nourishment
  • Red: Love, passion, danger, power, anger, violence
  • Purple: Royalty, mysticism, fantasy, eroticism, prosperity, lack of inhibition



Nowhere is color studied or used more for psychological effects than in marketing. Hundreds of thousands of controlled surveys and experiments have been conducted to determine how color can manipulate and drive consumer behavior.

Packages are often brightly colored and use a color scheme to grab people’s attention and help products to stand out among countless other products on the same shelf.

If you want to “sell” the concepts of your art or want to force an emotional reaction from the viewer, using color effectively can be a powerful tool.

Color Schemes

Color Schemes are generalized pairings of hues or colors that have proven to work successfully together to create specific effects in visual media. Some people refer to these schemes as color palettes.

Think of a color combination template that you can apply to your preferred palette of colors to create a desired mood or encourage a particular interpretation from the viewer.

Below is a description of the most common color schemes used in art and design.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

monochromatic color scheme
‘Stripes and Ceramics’ by Britanny Cartie

Monochromatic works use one hue in different shades to create the artwork. The painting, drawing, or design would be predominantly all Blue-green with subtle variations of tints, shades, and tones by adding white, black, or gray.

A monochromatic color scheme like this might communicate drudgery, sterility, or depression.

Analogous Color Scheme

analogous color scheme
Paintng by Alice Andreini

A painting with analogous colors would utilize 3 hues next to each other on the color wheel. The example above is using the analogous colors of orange, yellow, and green.

analogous meaning in art

Usually, artists will choose one of the 3 colors to be dominant, and the 2 other colors next to it in the color wheel on either side would be used in lesser amounts.

An analogous color scheme can be used to create a mood of harmony, naturalness, or safety because analogous colors are so closely related.

Complementary Color Scheme

complementary color scheme
Painting by Victoria (Tori) Hagaman

Artworks using a complementary color scheme are made with 2 dominant colors. One color is often chosen as the dominant one. Its opposite, or complement, which can be found directly across from it on the color wheel, is used in a slightly smaller proportion.

The example above uses the complementary colors of yellow and purple.

Understanding Color Wheel transformed

The main pairings of complementary colors are orange and blue, purple and yellow, and red and green.

Since any complement pairs will include all 3 primaries (i.e., orange-blue is red + yellow and blue), you can use other colors in the artwork, but usually in much smaller amounts than the 2 dominant colors.

Complementary color schemes still have some harmony (opposites attract). However, complementary colors create a bit of tension which creates interest.

Split Complementary Color Scheme

In split complementary color schemes, artists will again pick one dominant color. Still, this time, instead of choosing its opposite, they choose the 2 colors on either side of the opposite. For example, instead of blue and orange, it would be blue and red-orange, and yellow-orange.

split complementary color scheme
Two Eggplants Ink Watercolor Color Scheme by Chris Carter

The example above uses the split complementary colors of purple, yellow green and yellow orange.

Split complementary works still have contrast, but it tends to be slightly more subtle than the complementary colors scheme. You might use this scheme to casually suggest a hint of caution.

Triadic Color Scheme

triadic color scheme
Dice, Secondary Triad Color Scheme by Chris Carter

To create a triadic color scheme, imagine an equilateral triangle drawn inside the color wheel with each triangle point resting on a color. You will either end up with the 3 primary colors, the 3 secondary colors, or 3 tertiary colors (notice there are 2 sets of potential groupings of tertiary colors).

The painting above is using the triadic colors purple, orange and green.

color relationships in art

One color should be dominant, as with all the color schemes (except monochromatic).

Triadic color schemes often portray a sense of stability and balance. Even though 1 color is dominant, adding the other 2 colors makes the work feel more stable, yet complex, psychologically.

Tetradic Color Scheme

color theory drawings
Painting by Barb Sailor

A tetradic color scheme is also called a double complementary color scheme. If you choose one dominant color, skip over the color next to it (in either direction) to a color 2 spaces away, you then cross the color wheel from each of the 2 original colors to find their complements.

In the image above, you can see the tetradic colors of green, indigo, orange and red.

tetradic color scheme

Artworks using the tetradic color scheme will feel more complex. The work will appear busy because you are focusing on 4 colors instead of 3, as in the other schemes. You may use this to emphasize the bustle of a busy city street.

Famous Palettes from History

color in artwork

Anders Zorn was a Swedish artist well-known to oil painting enthusiasts but largely unknown to the general public. He used a palette limited to just 4 colors.

Such a limited palette would be extremely challenging for novices and intermediates. Still, for advanced artists, the 4 colors Vermillion (substituted with Cadmium Red in modern times), Flake White (Titanium White is the contemporary substitution), Ivory Black, and Yellow Ochre present some advantages.

With only 4 colors to manage, it is easier for artists to travel or paint outdoors on location. Still, more importantly, it creates a sense of harmony in each painting and the artists’ entire portfolio. Using many pre-made colors in one artwork can make the painting feel artificial and disjointed.

The disadvantage is that when mixing colors with this palette, it is easy to create dull colors, often called “mud.”

You might notice the absence of blue because Ivory Black (as with most blacks) has a blue tint, so creating purples and greens is still possible.

The palettes of some other famous painters can be found below.

art using color

John Singer Sargent: Flake White, Mars Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Vermilion, Mars Red, Madder Deep, French Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Emerald Green, Ivory Black, Raw Sienna, and Mars Brown.

at color painting

Pierre August Renoir: Flake White, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Dutch Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light, Naples Orange, genuine Cadmium Vermilion Red Light, and Alizarin Crimson.

art by color

Rembrandt Van Rin: Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Ochre, Kassel Earth, Azurite, Lead White, Lead-tin Yellow, Vermillion, Smalt, Carmine, Madder, and Bone Black.

Choosing and Using a Palette of Colors

All this information may make it easier or harder for you to choose a set of colors or what artists call their palette. Below are some tips to help you apply the information above to your work.

Warm and Cool of each Hue or Color Family

warm and cool of each hue or color family

A useful strategy is selecting a warm and cool of each primary color plus a white.

Different Whites

different whites

Your choice of white can influence the mixtures of other colors. Zinc White is cooler, Titanium White is more neutral, and Foundation White has a warm cast.

Using Pre-made Black

using pre-made black

Most pre-made blacks have a cool cast or tone, whereas making your own blacks with combinations like Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Raw Umber allows you to control the temperature to warm, cool, or neutral.

Colorful Grays

Mixing white with pre-made blacks will make gray, but many artists “liven up” their grays by creating their own black (mentioned above) to mix with white.

You can add very small amounts of a complementary color to make your original color less intense or saturated. The more of the complementary color you add, the grayer it will become.

You can play with these techniques to control the temperature of your grays to make them cooler or warmer to match the mood or temperature of your painting.

Tips When Mixing Colors

Some tips will help you be more effective when mixing paint, regardless of which colors you select for your palette.

  • Use a non-absorbent tool like a palette knife to mix your paint. Clean this tool well before picking up a new color.
  • Add tiny amounts of darker or stronger colors into the lighter, weaker ones. If you try to make Green by adding yellow to blue, you will have to use a lot more yellow to get the Green you want than if you add little dabs of blue into the Yellow.
  • Use the same color palette as the color of the surface you will paint on. Some artists use a glass palette and slide a piece of colored paper under the glass that corresponds to the dominant color of the canvas (see the section How Colors Affect Each Other above).
  • ·Avoid using more than 3 colors in one mixture to avoid creating “dead” colors.

Best Books on Color and Color Theory

There is no substitution for experimentation when learning about color theory as it applies to painting or other forms of art or design. However, reading tips and tricks from experts and seeing examples of what they look like in practice can make experimentation more efficient and enjoyable.

Here are some helpful books to explore.

color harmony in paintings

The best book on color I have seen is Color Harmony in Your Paintings by Margaret Kessler.

It is effective because it is written in simple-to-understand terms yet detailed enough to keep advanced artists engaged. There are plenty of examples with great images to illustrate each concept. It’s one of the best oil painting books available, but its lessons apply to any medium.

how to study color theory

Color by Betty Edwards: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors is a good book for beginners looking to understand the basics of color.

how to understand color theory

A great book for practical applications is Color Theory: An essential guide to color-from basic principles to practical applications by Patti Mollica.

study color theory

For more advanced artists willing to wade through complex material, Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition by Joseph Albers gives university-level content on color theory.

Final Touches

This article is packed with useful information on color theory for artists. Don’t feel bad if you need to read it several times to absorb all the facts, concepts, and advice.

To learn more about art concepts like this, check out this article ranking the top art courses online.

If video is your preferred medium of learning more about color and how to use it effectively, try this Color Theory Bootcamp Course from New Master’s Academy.

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