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Color Theory for Absolute Beginners

Color has an influential effect on painting. Frequently, artists are looking for the best color that conveys the idea or feeling that they want to express.

Color is a powerful way for an artist to convey their message and emotion. There are no universal rules as to what color conveys what emotion, so it is up to the individual artist to decide how they want their painting to express their feelings or ideas.

As a beginning artist you probably don’t have a wide variety of colors in your paint box so you try and mix the color you need from what you have. 

For most beginners, myself included, you end up with a lovely shade of “after – the – rain – mud”. Don’t let it bother you, it’s part of the learning process. 

The more you paint, the more comfortable you will become with your color choice and how the colors interact with each other.

color wheel with small circles showing various color mixes
Color mixing using the color wheel

The way colors are mixed together can also change the tone of a painting, as well as how it is received by those viewing it.

The use of color in your artwork works the same way as marketing a product. It takes a few seconds for people to decide if they like a product, and most of the time that decision is based on color.

In a painting, people are attracted to the overall colors, how they work together, and how they express the emotion or mood of the piece.

Here are some of the basics of color mixing.

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Color Theory Terms

a color wheel and blocks of color showing hue, saturation and value of the color red
Hue, Saturation and Value

There are a few basic color theory terms that would be helpful to understand before continuing with learning about color theory.

Hue

Hue refers to pure color or base color. It is generally the fist color the human eye sees when looking at an object. The primary and secondary colors, red, yellow, blue, green, violet and orange are usually referred to as hues. For example raspberry would have a red hue since its base color is red.

Saturation or Chroma

Color saturation or chroma is the intensity of a color relative to its own brightness. It describes how vivid or bright a color is. You can tone down the saturation of a color by adding a little grey or a complementary color. For example you can tone down or desaturate, a bright green by adding a little red, which is its complement. I explain more about complementary colors below.

Tonal Value

Tonal value refers to how light or dark a color is. The value scale, sometimes referred to as a grey scale, ranges from white to black, with various strengths of grey in between. If you take a color, say red, and add various amounts of black or white to it you can create a blue value scale. It should be noted that black and white are not always the best choices to lighten or darken a color. Sometimes yellow works better to lighten and sometimes blue, purple or raw umber works better to darken a color.

Tint

In art, tint is a color mixed with white to lighten it. A tint will always be lighter than the original color.

Shade

A shade is a color mixed with black to darken it.

For more information on tonal value as well as tints and shades, see my post on Tints, Tones and Shades.

Color Mixing and The Color Wheel

The color wheel was designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and is still used today.

A color wheel is basically a wheel divided into the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, and their secondary and tertiary colors. It is used to show the relationship between colors. The color wheel is a useful tool for understanding color theory.

Studying the color wheel and understanding how different colors mix is a must for an artist. Color wheels are relatively inexpensive to buy and are a great tool to help with color mixing. I use this one.

Don’t be afraid of color. As an artist you paint what you see or feel, not necessarily what others see. Learning to mix the right shade will give you much more freedom and flow in your artwork.

Below I have outlined the basics of color theory. You will learn more about technical theory as you progress, but this should give you a good start to expand your color pallet without creating mud.

Primary Colors

The primary colors are blue, red and yellow. They cannot be made by mixing other colors, hence the term primary. From these three colors all other colors are made.

Primary colors can be mixed to create secondary colors that can then be mixed again to make tertiary colors.

Primary colors are the original hues that make up all other colors in the world. These primary colors cannot be created by any other color or combination of colors and cannot be a mixture of two other colors.

Primary color wheel
The primary colors are red, blue and yellow

Secondary Colors

Mixing any two of the primary colors together will give you a secondary color. Mixing all three primary colors together will give you a muddy, murky grey. The chart below explains the primary color mixes.

red + blue = violet red + yellow = orange

blue + yellow = green

So now you have six colors, red, blue, yellow, green, orange and violet.

Secondary color wheel

Tertiary Colors

If you mix a primary color with an equal amount of a secondary color , you get a tertiary color. There are six tertiary colors. 

For example:

red + violet = red violet yellow + green = yellow green

blue + green = blue green red + orange = red orange

Tertiary color wheel
wooden artist palette with blue and purple paint and three artist brushes
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Color Schemes

Color schemes are groups of colors or color combinations that work well together. A color scheme is typically composed of two or three colors and their various tints and shades and give an overall feel to a painting. 

Using a particular color scheme can provide color harmony if you are not sure how to best combine your colors in a painting. The most popular color schemes are listed below.

Complementary Colors

complementary color wheel and squares of blues and oranges
Complementary colors

Complementary colors are opposite on the color wheel and work well together. The three pairs of primary and secondary colors are called complementary because they produce a very strong contrast. They also have a high contrast when placed next to each other. 

In art class, artists often mix these complementary pairs of colors together in order to create different shades of the same secondary color. In this way an artist can create many different hues of a certain color by using only two primaries and one secondary color palette.

For a more in-depth look at complementary colors read my post on Understanding Complementary Colors.

Analogous or Similar Colors

analogous color wheel and squares of red and orange colors
Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel

Analogous colors are similar colors that are next to each other on the wheel. This color scheme produces a harmonious effect when used in a painting.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

monochromatic color wheel and squares of shades of red
A monochromatic color scheme uses tints and shades of the same hue

A monochromatic color scheme uses variations of just one color. A black and white drawing or painting is a monochromatic color scheme. Using tints and shades of just red, or just blue or any other color would also be a monochromatic color scheme.

Triadic Color Scheme

triadic color wheel and squares of purple, green and orange
The triadic color scheme uses three colors

The triadic color scheme uses three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. This combination of colors provide deep contrast in a painting and is a good combination to use for a vibrant effect.

Split-Complementary Color Scheme

split complementary color wheel with squares of orange, blue and green
Split Complementary colors

A split complementary color scheme is a type of color scheme that uses one main color and two colors next to its complement. This color combination will give you the same contrast as a complementary color scheme but with additional color options.

Warm and Cool Colors

Color wheel showing warm and cool colors
Warm colors are reds and yellows while cool colors are blues and greens

Color temperature is the quality of a color based on its relationship to cool and warm colors. A color can be described as “warm,” “cool,” or “neutral” based on which side of a particular point on the color wheel it appears.

A warm color is an amber, peach, or any other analogous color that is located near the “warm” side of the spectrum. 

A cool color is one that is bluish, purple, or any other analogous color that is located near the “cool” side of the spectrum. 

Neutral colors may be any hue on either side of the spectrum or a mixture of both.

When you think of colors, what comes to mind? Many people may associate warm colors with summertime, the sun, and heat. Cool colors often invoke feelings of winter and coldness.

Warm colors include yellows, oranges, and reds. Cool colors include blues, purples, and greens. 

The different variations of these two types of color are often used in artwork to create different moods or feelings.

If you draw a line through the center of the color wheel, you will separate the warm colors from cool colors .

Learn more about warm and cool colors in this post Warm and Cool Colors.

Final Notes

Since the color tints and pigment concentrations can vary by brand and medium, you may get slightly different colors when mixing them.

The best way to be certain of the color you will get is to make yourself a basic color wheel using your own paints and experiment with the colors you have. 

Make note of the colors you used and the ratio of paint. Keep the sheet for reference and add to it as you learn more about color.

Making color swatches of the paint you have is also a good idea. Acrylic paint usually dries slightly darker and does not always match the color on the tube.

Having a color chart that shows what the color looks like when dry can help you when deciding what colors to use. You can add to the sheet whenever you buy a new tube of paint.

I like to use acrylic paper for making swatches since it holds the paint better.

painting pad with blue and black cover and white lettering

Thanks for reading.

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

6 thoughts on “Color Theory for Absolute Beginners”

  1. I purchased Barn Red premixed paint. It’s a bit too orange for me. How can I turn it a little more burgundy?

    1. Hi Linda: You can try adding a deeper red to the color to move the bias away from yellow and make it more red. If that doesn’t give you the color you want try adding a very tiny amount of Dioxazine Purple to tone down the color slightly and give it that earthier burgundy color. If you don’t have purple, try using a blue that has a purple bias such as Ultramarine Blue. Experiment on some scrap paper until you get the color you are looking for. Hope this helps. 🙂

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