Using Color: Color Theory and How to Apply it

How was everyone’s week? I caught a pretty awful cold, and being the baby that I am, I stayed in bed for four days because of it.  In the beginning I was so foggy I could barely form sentences, but I treated myself well, scrubbed the apartment clean, and I’m almost all better now.  I got to do a bit of sketching, but unfortunately it knocked me out of schedule, and my initial plan for this week had to be delayed until next week.  C’est la vie.

In my previous post, I had discussed the different elements of art, but I left color a little vague.  That’s because color is a HUGE topic.  Sure, everyone knows what color is, but do they know the science behind it?  Do they know how to properly use it?  What exactly is color theory?

Color occurs when the spectrum of light interacts with the cone cells in your eye.  What you need to understand is that our eyes are not perfect, and color is more or less an illusion.  Colors bounce off of each other and interact with each other: an object that is blue might look purple, green, or gray depending on the lighting, the time of day, or the objects surrounding it.  Test this by taking an object and bringing it into multiple different light sources.

But let’s go back to the basics of color for a moment.  Maybe you’re familiar with ROY G. BIV, an acronym for the colors of a rainbow. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.  Now let’s be real for a sec: the indigo is a part of this specifically so you can remember Roy G. Biv as a name.  It doesn’t really belong, because when you take it out and put these colors in a circle, you get the color wheel:

The colors marked P (Red, Yellow, Blue) are the Primary colors.  This means that any of the other colors in this wheel can be made using these colors alone.  The secondary colors: Orange, Violet, and Green, are exact mixes of the primary colors. Therefore Red + Yellow = Orange, Yellow + Blue = Green, Blue + Red = Violet.  The tertiary colors are that third set of colors in between Primary and Secondary sets: Red Violet, Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet.  To make it easier to remember these colors, list the primary color first, then the secondary color.

Before I go on to talking about some color combinations, I want to quickly talk about how these colors can change.  When you see the color blue, it might not always be a pure blue.  When I think of blue, I tend to think much brighter and more vibrant like the ocean.  But again, the ocean changes color depending on the lighting, the time of day, and even the clarity of the water.  This is where hue, saturation, and temperature come into play.


A hue is the pure form of a color.  This means it has no black or white added to it.  A shade is when black is added to the color, making it darker.  A tint is when white is added, making it lighter. A tone is when a mix of the two is added, meaning the color is grayed.


Saturation is similar, as it describes the intensity or purity of a hue.  When a color has been completely desaturated, you’re left with only the value that the color once was: a 100% desaturated version of any color is gray: the initial value of a color determines what the desaturated version’s value will be.  Most colors that we see are at least somewhat desaturated.


Temperature is a perceived warmth or coolness to a color.   Typically, warm colors are red, yellow, and orange: they make you think of fire and heat. Cool colors are blue, green, and violet, like the ocean.  However, some colors blur the lines of temperature a bit: you can have a warm green, or a cool red.  

You can also add warmth or coolness to a hue.  Picture those rare golden sunsets you might see during the summer: the sun bathes everything it touches in a yellow light, making everything appear warmer. Similarly, think of those full moon nights where everything is illuminated by the moon.  There’s little light, so everything appears blue-toned. 

Using the knowledge of Hue, Saturation, and Temperature, you can create any color of the rainbow by mixing just the three primary colors, black, and white!  How exciting is that?  Now you need to understand how to use colors in conjunction with each other so that they interact with one another.  There are different sets of color schemes built right into the color wheel.  Color harmonies are basic color combinations that are visible on the color wheel that make for awesome and creative colored art any time.


The first basic color chord is complementary colors.  These are colors opposite of each other on the color wheel: these are high contrast images that look super cool in art.  You can play with the saturation and purity of your colors to really make it pop.

One awesome thing to note about complementary colors: if you find a color to be too vibrant but you don’t want to mix in black or white to make it gray, you can mix in it’s complement to get a muted tone!


Analagous colors are colors that sit right next to each other on the color wheel.  These are colors that suit each other naturally, and the lack of jarring contrast is typically soothing to the eye.



Triadic color schemes are really fun: they occur when you evenly space out three colors in a triangle wheel.  These often look best when one of the colors is toned down or shaded, one is left vibrant, and one is tinted, but the best way to find out what you like is to experiment on your own!

Split Complementary

Split complementary takes the basic idea of complementary colors and breaks it apart into three colors. You take the compliments blue and orange, and split one side to the colors adjacent to it on the color wheel: blue and orange becomes blue, yellow-orange, and red orange.

You can experiment a lot by mixing color. Color tells the viewer what time of day it is, creates a mood, and can make or break a piece of art. Claude Monet created a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, each at different times of day/in different weather. The only difference between the paintings are his color choices, but take a look at each of them. Each piece creates a different mood, thanks to color’s ability to impact our emotions. The cool image shown first feels gloomy, whereas the third one in on top feels bright, sunny, and happy.

Please go ahead and try playing with color on your own!  You can use any of these color wheels as a guide to help you.

For this weeks prompt, I want you to try and use one of these color schemes in a piece of your art.  Have fun creating!  I can’t wait to see what you make.


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