Color theory primer

Color has been used symbolically throughout history, from body painting to clothing, and for decorative purposes in our built environmentsColor has also been used as a means to identify goods for barter or sale, to differentiate product or service offerings, and, in the case of some cultures, to signify spiritual or mystical traits.


Color (hue) is one of the elements of art. Artists use color in many different ways. The colors we see are lightwaves absorbed or reflected by everything around us In nature, a rainbow is white light that is broken apart by the moisture in the air. People discovered that white light can be broken apart using tools like prisms or a spectroscope.

The colors of the visible light spectrum are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

White light consists of all of the colors mixed together. The color of an object depends on how it absorbs and/or reflects light. If an object absorbs all of the light wavelengths, it will appear black. If it reflects all of them, it will appear white. If an object absorbs all wavelengths except red, for example, it will look red.

Artists have invented many different media that imitate the colors of light. Painters, for example, use powdered pigments to reproduce the colors of the rainbow.


Pigments give color to paint. In the past, pigments were powders made by grinding up minerals, plants and animal parts. The most expensive pigments used to be gold, vermilion (a red pigment made from sulfur and mercury) and ultramarine (a blue pigment made from a stone called lapis lazuli). Modern pigments are made from chemicals which come in brighter colors, resist fading, and are less expensive.

Pigments are mixed with a “binding agent” such as egg, oil, animal fat, water or synthetic resin to make a paintable liquid that dries

Primary colors

The primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Primary colors cannot be made from other colors. Artists create secondary and intermediate colors by mixing primary pigments.

Secondary colors

The secondary colors are green, orange and violet (purple). A secondary color is made by mixing two primary colors. Each secondary color is made from the two primary colors on either side of it in the color wheel.

Color wheel

Color wheels show how visible colors are related. Primary, secondary, and intermediate colors are organized on a circular chart. Color wheels help artists remember how to mix and think about pigments

Intermediate colors

Intermediate colors, sometimes called tertiary colors, are made by mixing a secondary and a primary color togetherSome examples of intermediate colors are yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-violet.

Cool colors

Cool colors are made mostly of green, blue and violet (purple). This family of colors is called cool because they remind you of cool things like a cool forest or a cold lakeThis painting by Claude Monet uses cool colors to suggest a quiet pond.

Cool colors can even make you feel cooler because they can slightly decrease your circulation and body temperature!

Artists use warm, cool and neutral colors to create moods, show contrast and create depth in artworks.

Warm colors

Warm colors are made mostly of red, orange and yellowThis family of colors is called warm because they remind you of warm things like the sun or fireWarm colors can even make you feel warmer because they can slightly increase your circulation and body temperature!

Artists use warm, cool and neutral colors to create moods, show contrast and create depth in artworks. Vincent van Gogh used warm colors in this painting of Sunflowers

Neutral colors

Neutral colors or earth tones are not seen on most color wheelsBlack, gray, whites are neutralBrowns, beiges and tans are sometimes neutral tooNeutral colors can be made by mixing: black and white, complementary colors.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel. Complementary pairs contrast because they share no common colorsFor example, red and green are complements, because green is made of blue and yellow.

Complementary colors can appear very exciting and seem to vibrate when placed side by side. By placing brilliant orange flowers against a bright blue background, Vincent van Gogh’s painting buzzes with visual energyBecause van Gogh did not smooth his brush strokes, it’s easy to see how he used complementary pairs. The red of the flowers contrasts with the green of the leavesHe also included dashes of violet which interact with the yellows.

Local colors

Local color means realistic color-color as it appears in nature (green grass, blue sky, brown horses, etc.) In his painting, The Road to Concarneau, William Lamb Picknell uses local color to show the road, the grass, and the bushes of this rural landscape.

Earth colors

Earth colors are not seen on most color wheels. Black, grays, whites, browns, beiges and tans are Earth colors and can be made by mixing all three primaries together with some black or white.


Tints are light values of a colorOne usually makes tints by mixing a color with different amounts of white.


Shades are dark values of a color. One usually makes shades by mixing a color with different amounts of black.

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