Color Theory

How Color is defined  – As explained by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in contrast to Isaac Newton’s mathematical comprehension of optics, there would be no color, variation of tonal value or even shadows as we recognize them without light. In developing his Theory of Colours from observations based on human color perception, he claims that color itself as we see it including darkness was the result of interaction with light and shadows. He explains that light is white void of color but when intense light interacts with matter the colors of yellow and blue hover closer to the light, where red and violet colors gradually fade into the darkness. At varied distances, where there is an overlap in the light spectrum green is visible and when there is an overlap in darkness magenta becomes noticeable.

Goethe’s analytic concentration was not as much about accuracy in measurement of color (which contributed to his theory’s loss of validity in the scientific world) but was more favorable towards how color is observed by the human eye. Might I include my personal opinion to say that in creating a successful painting there must exist an aura of measurable interest to the eye. To do so when expressing with color, how the color is utilized to arose this interest as the eye sees it is an important segment of art. For this reason alone his theory had experienced extensive influence predominantly in the art world.

As an analysis tool the color wheel was created as a means to calculate the subtractive process of color mixing and is something you probably recall learning all about in elementary school but just in case here’s a short review.

Primary Colors – The color wheel starts with three primary colors, placed in a triangle configuration. Any value equivalent is used normally of the colors red, yellow and blue. These colors are placed in triangles above the corresponding primary color combination.

Secondary – When two primary colors are mixed a secondary color is made. These mixtures produce three secondary colors usually some value of green, orange and purple.

Tertiary Colors – By mixing one secondary and one primary color six additional colors are made which will now become yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue violet, blue-green, and yellow-green. From these basic steps of mixing color and adjustments to brightness, saturation or hue is how all other color values are managed. This method provides an artist with a visualization of different color combinations and their associations with each other.

Below are some interesting web tools from other artists and web masters designed to expand color observation and assist artists with making color decisions.

The Original

The Original

Tube Oil Colors & Pigments Converted for Ink and Pigment Artists

“This is the only colour wheel like this in the world…. I hope every artist copies it …It is original and made for the natural realistic painting artist to paint neutral colored shadows by mixing correct pigment oppositions. The center links to the photo pigment color chip chart page. Pigment artists, don’t miss it! The wedges are numbered from 1 to 36.”

by Donald A. Jusko
Order this complete color course on CD, $35.00.
Order only a 5″X5″ Laminated Real Color Wheel $10.00.

Painting in Color – requires a measurable amount of additional practice to grind pigments for desired results. Even watercolor demands understanding the effects of  the light from the paper under the paint. Experienced observation increases perception of the properties of color:

  • Chroma – (saturation) is the color purity that diminishes through subtraction.

  • Hue – is the actual color relationship on the color wheel.

  • Value – measures the color lightness or darkness in comparison to different shades of grey which can be obtained by blending any two complementary colors or any color hue with black or white.

  • Temperature – color temperatures are generally exemplified by how they are placed on canvas where cooler colors are placed in shade and warmer colors are used to render light.

  • Using color perspective to depict aerial perspective is an old Leonardo DaVinci theory that has been used by artists ever since. Although it is not considered a property of color itself, placement based on the temperature of color will effect the perspective in a painting.

Blending – Values between lightness and darkness in comparison to shades of gray can be obtained by gradual blending of complementary colors as apposed to white and black.

Experimenting with warm/cool color combinations of blue/orange, yellow/purple, etc. is useful in determining the graduations of a two toned “limited” pallet or for tonal values for individual segments of a painting.

Tones in relation to color – You may notice when blending complementary lighter warmer colors with darker colder tints you will create a measured blended palette comparable to that of a gray-scale image. This is where choice of hue, chromatic, and  tonal associations are developed within an painting. Many Impressionists such as Georges Seurat who developed the Pointillism technique  applied tones side by side similar to what is seen in a pixilated image with only minor  subtraction of the colors used. Where use of black paint was shunned, grays were created by mixing colors and the equivalent values of each complementary color that would be placed side by side creating a  luminous tension.  This moved further into founding the style that was known as Chromoluminarism (also known as Divisionism) where in theory only primary and secondary colors were used applied in a series of dots as an effort to combine colors optically producing the appearance of an additive mixture. As a artist, cultivating sensitivity to the effect of light within color relationships this way (painting in dots or not) offers a unique calculated approach to painting.

Color Schemes – Every artist has his/her own theory about the appropriate use of or how to create harmony with color. For those who find it important to keep up with designer trends to improve sales, understanding the promotion of a color scheme and how your painting becomes intricately  part of the scheme is essential. Some basics are:

  • A Monochrome  scheme uses varied values (light and shade) of ONE  color compared to that of a grayscale or grisaille image. However, a monochrome  scheme may consist of any color on the color wheel.
  • The Complementary color scheme employs use of color opposites on the color wheel.  There are many different limited palette schemes for painting, but one of the easiest to learn and use is the energetic and vibrant complementary color scheme. By using only two colors you can produce the effects of a full color range by blending between the two. Complements will always be opposite each other on the color wheel, so generally one will be warm and the other cool providing temperature or light/shade contrast.
  • The Split-complementary color scheme is a alteration of the complementary color scheme where as an additional adjacent color is added to one of  its complement such as blue across orange/red or purple across yellow/orange.
  • An Analogous color scheme combines neighboring colors on the color wheel but favors a dominate hue. These comfortable schemes also dictate temperature from using warm colors such as orange/red, yellow/orange or cool colors like blue/green or blue/violet.
  • A Triadic color scheme utilizes one dominate hue with two additional  accent colors taken from evenly spaced areas around the color wheel. Even with less saturated values this color combination becomes somewhat brilliant therefore it should be delicately balanced.
  • The Tetrad color scheme uses four colors arranged placed into complementary pairs. This scheme promotes balance between warm and cool colors when the opposing two colors are kept close such as blue/purple and yellow/orange or blue/green and orange/red.
  • A Neutral color scheme excludes colors usually found on the color wheel called neutrals such as the light earth tones of beige, brown, or gray and of course black and white.
  • An Accented Neutral scheme uses the colors from the neutral scheme with small accents of a brighter color from the color wheel.

If your work is not commissioned to complement a specific color scheme, designers have found ways to develop a scheme from the colors within your painting. An interesting tool, The Image to Colors Palette Generator – assists the user to determine what colors work best with an image.  This is also a great tool to assist artists with making up the color palette and determining a mat color when framing. By dissecting the image, it provides the complete artist’s palette as well as additional light and dark tonal ranges that are compatible with the image.


Related links

Color Scheme Designer

The Dimensions of Colour – by David Briggs

Color Wheel Pro– a program that allows you to see color theory inaction: you can

create harmonious color schemes and preview them on real-world examples.

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