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Elements of Art—Color

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7 elements of art. Each an essential tool in your art arsenal. We’ll be diving deep into each element in a series of articles and explore the nooks and nuances that'll contribute to your mastery of art.

Today, we’ll be looking into color.

Color is a big player in establishing mood and telling a story in your artwork. It helps you, the artist, manage depth and visual interest as well.

But color can be difficult to get right. There are so many choices, and so so many ways to go wrong.

So here it is. A comprehensive breakdown on color, and how you can get the most out of your pigments and pixels.

We're going to start with the basics. And it all begins with the color wheel.

Color Wheel

The color wheel allows you to easily see the relationships between colors.

The closer two colors appear on the color wheel, the more similar and harmonious they will be. The farther they are, the more different they are and the more contrast they will generate.

Primary Colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue

There are other sets of primary colors depending on what color model you're going off of, but for the sake of simplicity, we'll be using the traditional RYB color wheel (or the painter's color wheel).

No matter which color model you'll be using however, primary colors will be the foundation. Through combinations and some artist alchemy, the color wheel can be filled out with just these colors.

Secondary Colors: Green, Orange, Purple

These colors are created when you combine two primary colors with equal parts. A mix of 50% red and 50% blue will create purple. 50% of red and 50% yellow will create orange. Blue and yellow creates green.

Tertiary Colors: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet

Tertiary colors are created when you mix a primary color with a secondary color in equal parts.

3 Dimensions of Color

To manipulate color like a master, there are three dimensions you must be aware of—hue, value, and intensity.

Hue: the color(s) you select for your artwork

Value: the lightness/darkness of your colors

Intensity: the saturation of your colors


The color wheel is a map of colors. Like cities are names for geographical locations, hues are names for locations on the color wheel.

In short, hues are names for colors.


Intensity refers to the saturation of a color. Your favorite shirt is said to be most intense when you first get it. As you wash it, the colors fade and fall in intensity.

Adding gray or mixing with a complementary color will lower the intensity. Changing a color's value by adding white or black will also change the intensity.


Of the three dimensions, many artists consider value to be the most critical. It is what gives your artwork structure.

Hues can be “wrong,” intensities can be off, but if your values are correct, your art will still look right.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. Light colors are higher in value. Darker colors are lower in value.

By manipulating the value of a color up or down, you can create (what is essentially) an infinite amount of different colors. So, with just a few hues, an artist can orchestrate a symphony of colors.

Selecting Your Hues

Warm vs. Cool Colors

When selecting your hues, it helps to think of them in terms of warm vs cool.

Warm and cool colors arouses primal psychological and physiological reactions. Understanding these reactions will give you greater mastery over establishing mood.

Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow remind us of fire. So warm colors will evoke heat sensations. They can be lethargically hot. They can evoke a sense of joy and activity. Or they can even evoke warmth and comfort like when one is relaxing by a warm fireplace. Generally, however, using warm colors will give your artwork a sense of energy.

Cool colors like blue and green remind us of ice or lakes, so cool colors will evoke coldness. They can evoke a sense of calm and quiet like walking outside and seeing a snow-covered landscape. They can evoke a sense of mechanical roteness. Or, even, a sense of defeat.

That said, warmness and coolness exist on a spectrum. Warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow can be made cooler by adding blue. And cool colors will look warmer the closer they get to yellow.

What you are deciding is the overall slant of the piece. If the colors tend towards the cooler end of the spectrum, (even if the artwork is full of yellows and reds) the artwork can still be described as cool. And likewise for warm colors.

Emotional Associations With Color

Hospital rooms aren't painted in deep black. Goth album covers aren’t displayed in pastel colors. And you won’t see any male presidential candidate wearing a pink suit anytime soon.

Colors are highly symbolic and pull on our heart strings like a marionette.

Masterful artists understand this, and they wield color to stir in us an emotion, a reaction.

When selecting your hues, pay attention to what your colors are communicating.

Are they energetic? Glum? Do they exhibit a sense of serenity?

Some usual associations between color and emotion include:

  • Red - excitement or heat
  • Blue - calm or distance
  • Green - nature or coolness
  • Yellow/Orange - sunshine
  • Violet - mystery

To get a sense of what colors can communicate, watch movies. Pay attention to how the cinematographers utilize color to create mood, emotion, and tension. Some common uses include:

  • Pink - sentiment and romance
  • Green - ghostliness and horror
  • Blue - moonlight and evening
  • Bright warm colors - excitement and gaiety
  • Cool grayed colors - stillness or despair

It isn't necessary to select colors solely based on their emotional and symbolic connotations. In fact, you'll find many times the natural color of something contradicts the mood you're trying to convey.

When these situations arise, ask yourself some questions.

  • Are these colors typical of the subject?
  • What effect would you like?
  • What colors help you create that mood?
  • Would these colors look good together?
  • What colors need to be muted, made more intense?

Deviating from what is typical should be done with a good reason. So take some time to deliberate.

Value and Structure

One of the reasons value is so important is because it provides your painting structure. Strip the painting of all its hues, and if the values are correct, the painting will still stand.

The viewer would still be able to identify areas of interest as well as make out what you are recreating. Take a look at the above painting for example. (Solva (Fishing Village in Pembrokeshire), 1936 by Frances Hodgkins) Even with all the hues stripped away, you can still differentiate between hill and house, cow and grass, sky and land.

Many artists prefer to operate only via value when doing their initial sketch. This makes it easy for them to organize and conceive an image without any distractions.

Getting your values correct begins with creating a value scale. To create a value scale, do this.

Begin by identifying your lightest element and darkest elements. Then decide how light or how dark these areas are to be. Once you have the extremes plotted out, you can fill the rest of your values in-between.

How dark or how light your extremes are will depend on the effect you're looking to create.

A value scale that is narrower in range will create a dreamy, hazy feel. Value scales that are deeper in range will feature more contrast and be more visually striking.

The important thing here is to avoid putting yourself in a box. Play around with different options to see what will help you create the aesthetic you’re looking for. Try value scales that tilt towards lights for a delicate, pastel effect. Play with value scales that lean darker for a gloomier, lethargic feel.

Depth, Advancing/Receding Colors

Colors are one of the many ways an artist conveys depth.

All three dimensions of color, hue, value, and intensity, can be manipulated to create an illusion of depth. This is called aerial perspective or atmospheric perspective.

First coined by Leonardo da Vinci in his book, Treatise on Painting, he says: “Colours become weaker in proportion to their distance from the person who is looking at them.”

Objects in the distance are much lighter and less intense than objects closer by.

Distance also distorts light waves, and so, color. Warm colors will seem nearer, and objects in the distance will become cooler and cooler as distance increases.

Color Context

Your eyes lie to you sometimes. Red isn't always going to be red. Blue isn't always going to be blue. And yellow isn't always going to be yellow.

These colors don't magically shapeshift into other colors. What happens is, because of how our eyes use context to interpret color, sometimes we get it wrong.

Take a look at the diagram below for example.

What if I told you the “blue” box outlined in the picture on the left picture is, in fact, the exact same color as the “red” box outlined in the picture on the right?

It might not look the same at first glance, but when you put the picture into photoshop and use the color picker tool, you find they're the exact same color.

Don’t believe it? Here they are side-by-side.

Color context matters. And masterful artists are vigilant about what colors she decides to place together.

Lighter colors will appear much brighter when surrounded by dark colors and will appear duller when surrounded by other light colors.

Analogous colors will seem duller when placed together and will spring alive when placed next to a complementary color.

Color Proportion

Through color proportion, the masters of the past were able to execute and create timeless works of art.

Color proportion helped them tell a story. Through the use of dominant and accent colors, they were able to depict: what/who is important? Where is the action happening? In what direction should the viewer’s eye travel?

Beyond telling a story, color proportion helps you create more aesthetic color schemes. Equally proportioned color schemes can lead to “busy” compositions that lack focus.

(from Famous Artists Course in Commercial Art, Illustration and Design)

Color Harmony

Some colors look better together. And certain color palettes will be more effective in crafting a specific mood over others.

Remember the color wheel?

It’s time to dust it off. Many harmonic color relationships can be uncovered just by looking at the color wheel.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are colors that are side-by-side on the color wheel.

When used together, they create an aesthetic that is easy on the eyes. Analogous color palettes elicit a peaceful, comforting mood.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are colors directly opposite on the color wheel—the farthest distance possible. This means complementary colors, when used together, will feature the most contrast.

Complementary colors often appear in nature. Red cherries in green bushes. Orange clouds in a blue sunset. The contrast will be striking and vibrant, almost too much so. Because of this, they shouldn't be used in equal proportions. Whichever you choose to be the dominant color should be weaker in intensity to offset some of the contrast.

Complementary colors, in this fashion, can make your shading much more interesting. By playing with the value and intensity, you can introduce a small bit of contrast, which wouldn't have existed if the shading were done in just black or grey.

Ps. For artists working with paint, you can mix complementary colors to get more interesting grays. The grays can be made warmer or cooler depending on the proportions of the mix.

Split-complementary colors

Split-complementary colors are similar to complementary colors except it involves the colors adjacent to the complementary color instead.

Using a color palette featuring split-complementary colors will create a lively, joyous mood. There will be less contrast in comparison to complementary colors which gives you a lot more room to play with.

Triadic colors

Triadic colors are a set of three colors, all which are equidistant on the color wheel.

These color palettes can be difficult to pull off because of how much is going on. Because of this, triadic color schemes are often found in cartoons or surreal art.

Tetradic/square/double complementary

Double complementary color schemes feature two pairs of complementary colors.

With this many colors, things can get messy.

For this reason, unless they're going for a particular aesthetic, many artists opt to separate the complementary colors. (eg. one pair of complementary colors in the foreground and the other in the background)

Sometimes, you'll see even one pair of complementary colors be lower in intensity to provide more focus.


Monochromatic color schemes feature only one hue. By adjusting value and intensity, paintings are given life.

Monochromatic color palettes are atmospheric and best used for a single subject.


Hands down, the best way to get better at color (besides doing it yourself) is to observe the professionals who get paid the big bucks.

Watch movies. A lot of them. Movies are amazing resources to pull from—especially because you can handpick the ones that are praised for their cinematography. Go through these movies and pay close attention to hues they use, the value scales they use, and intensity of the colors.

Look at scenes with an investigative eye. What effects do the colors have? What do the colors tell you about the character? About what they are feeling?

And when you have accrued a nice little set of notes, apply them in your artworks.

Try a limited palette to begin your studies. By beginning with a limited palette, you learn how to utilize value and intensity to their maximum potential without the headache of having to juggle ten different hues.

Many artists, even masters, prefer to begin their artworks this way and add hues as they progress. It’s much easier to organize this way.

Color is the most complex element of art so don’t worry if you’re not a master after 2-3 weeks.

Just remember to have fun.

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