What is color theory – Easy and useful guide for artists

Before learning color theory, I’ve had a lot of trouble picking the right color too. You probably have wondered “how do I pick the right colors?” or “what is color theory?”. 

I’ve seen a lot of articles online on color theory, but most are specific to design. After spending a few hours researching and finding examples, I’ve adapted them to apply to art. 

Keep in mind that these concepts apply to both digital art and traditional art. Enjoy!

What is color theory?

Color theory is the study and strategies that help you create color combinations that are appealing to the viewer. You can also achieve specific purposes like attracting attention or blending in with the environment. Color theory is used in art, design, architecture, movies, and pretty much anything that communicates visually.

The color wheel

Left – Sir Isaac Newton’s color wheel 1660s. Right – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color wheel 1810. Sources: Wikimedia, scihi.org

The first color wheel was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton in the 1660s [1]. He experimented with light and prisms and concluded that there are seven observable colors. This led to other significant scientific discoveries and the color wheel we have today.

Primary, secondary, tertiary color

Color wheel showing primary, secondary, and tertiary colors

Learning about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors is important because you will learn how different colors are created and how to mix them.

Primary colors – are 3 basic colors: red, blue, yellow. All of the colors observable by your eyes can be mixed with these three colors. 

Secondary colors – are 3 colors made by mixing primary colors. Ex: mixing blue and yellow creates green, a secondary color.

Tertiary colors – are 6 colors made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. Ex: mixing green with blue will get you teal.

Of course, you can play around with combining these colors to get a variety of colors in between these main values. These act as a guideline when you are trying to find a suitable color.

Hue, saturation, and value

Hue, saturation, and value are important because they affect the way the color looks without changing the base color. By adjusting these, you can create a lot of different colors from the same basic one.

Differences between hue, saturation, and value. Image source.
  • Hue – how that color appears to the eye. A pure color. Ex: yellow, green, teal, indigo.
  • Saturation – how intense and pure that color is. If you decrease the saturation of a color, it will look greyed out. 
  • Value – how light or dark a color appears. You can create the same hue (red) of different values (pink or dark red).
    • Tint – you can create a tint by adding white to the color. Ex: pink.
    • Shade – add black to create a shade of that color. Ex: navy blue
    • Tone – add grey to create a tone of that color.

Side note – creating these colors are much simpler digitally since you just pick it. In traditional mediums, you have to play around with color mixing.

Color temperature and why it’s relative

You can get cool and warm colors if you divide the color wheel in half.

Color temperature refers to how “warm” or “cool” a color is or when compared to another color. Warm colors usually represent activity, sunshine, warmth, heat, or passion. For example, a painting of a sunset or bonfire will have a lot of warm colors. Cool colors can be calm and soothing, and they represent things like water, sky, ice, snow, darkness, and cold weather.

Example of how color temperature is relative. Art by Mam BA.

Color temperature is also relative. If you look at the painting above, the red of the character’s clothes is warmer than the blue of the sky. But, the bright red areas are also relatively warmer than darker reds or reds with tints and shades. 

If you place warm colors right next to cool colors, they create a nice contrast. But, you can also place warm colors with warm colors (or cool colors with cool colors) if you want to blend them in or create more harmony. One mistake people often make is by having too low of a contrast between a character and the background because they choose similar color temperatures.

How color psychology impacts your artwork

Each color have different meanings and emotions. Source: Pinterest.

Another important thing to consider when picking colors is how each color creates an emotional impact or what kind of things they represent. Here are some examples of what each color represents.

  • Red – strength, passion, love, danger, heat
  • Orange – optimism, pleasure, creativity
  • Yellow – joy, positivity, warmth, curiosity, construction
  • Green – health, luck, plants, peace, growth
  • Blue – confidence, trust, security, success, technology
  • Purple – royalty, spirituality, fantasy, poison
  • Black – mystery, power, evil, sophistication
  • White – innocence, safety, purity, nurses/doctors
Venom vs. Carnage comparison of color psychology. Image source.

Here’s an example of how different colors communicate different things. Venom, on the left side, brings an air of confidence (probably overconfidence) and strength. But, if you look at Carnage, you get a feeling that he’s extremely dangerous. Keep in mind that different designs affect how you view the characters (ex: claw hands vs big muscular hands), but colors play a key role.

Picking the right color scheme

Now that you know the basics of colors, it’s time to pick colors! Choosing the right combinations can be difficult, but knowing these different color schemes will help a lot. You don’t need to follow these exactly, but try them out to see if it fits the look you’re going for.

Also, it’s very important to figure out the color schemes before you begin painting. This helps you keep the big picture in mind and prevents you from using too many colors which can confuse the viewer.

Different color schemes you can use to plan your color palette
  • Monochromatic – use one hue with different shades and tints. Ex: red with pink, burgundy, and other shades of red. Monochromatic schemes usually provide less contrast between objects but offer more harmony.
  • Analogous – use about 3 or 4 colors located next to each other on the color wheel. Like the monochromatic scheme, you can get more harmony from it. Contrast can be created with different lights and darks. For this and monochromatic, you can add a small accent color to make it look more interesting.
  • Complementary – pick a color on the color wheel, and pick another one located right across from it. This color scheme gives you better contrast. You can use this to differentiate the main subject from the background.
  • Split-complementary – instead of picking one color right across from another, you pick two colors beside it. This will soften some contrast and give you a wider range of colors.
  • Triadic – use three colors with an equal distance apart (120 degrees from one another). This gives you a nice contrast and maintains harmony between the three colors. 
  • Tetradic – pick two pairs of complementary colors. This also gives you nice contrast and harmony. Try to pick one dominant color for this scheme. It usually works better.
  • Square – a variation of tetradic color scheme. Simply pick four colors that are equally spaced apart. This works well even when you use four colors evenly.

Color scheme case studies

Monochromatic color schemes give you a great sense of harmony. Art by huleeb.

This painting was created by Huleeb. It features a monochromatic color scheme of teal-ish blue with different tints and shades. This gives you a strong sense of harmony in the environment. You can also add a small accent color like the small, red human figures in this painting.

Analogous color schemes emit harmony even with a variety of colors. Art by Maisie Yang.

In this digital painting by Maisie Yang, you can see that the forest is mainly painted with analogous colors. The main colors you can see are green, chartreuse (yellow-green), and some blue/teal. These colors create a nice harmony. Contrast is created by differences in lighting and by the bright teal color on the center-right.

Triadic color schemes are interesting, balanced, and work well with each other. Art by Sam Hogg.

This character design by Sam Hogg showcases a triadic color scheme for the character’s clothes and accessories. Red, blue, and yellow is a classic triadic color combination, and Sam Hogg does an outstanding job of making it look good. Usually, you should choose a dominant color. This color scheme works especially well with character design.

Free color scheme generators

I personally like to use Coolors’s color schemes generator.

Here are two free color scheme generators that I’ve personally used if you’re having trouble coming up with color schemes for your painting. You can try Muzli or Coolors.

Both are very good, but I like Coolors because you can easily lock the color you like and autogenerate new ones. You can also generate it in the scheme that you want (like monochromatic or triadic). Muzli is good because you can simply select the color you want and get a quick overview of different color schemes right off the bat.

If you’re painting digitally, simply color the codes to the software you use. For traditional mediums, you can compile and print them.

What to do next

Now that you know what is color theory in art and how to use it, try it out and let us know how it went! If you are having trouble creating a good composition, check out our article on composition in art.

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