Color theory is the science behind visual harmony in your paintings or drawings. The right color settings help capture the time and scene, ensuring nothing is glaringly out of place.
Think of a water beach scene in the Caribbean — I picture warm blues highlighted by the sun. Now consider the Maine coast on a foggy day — cool blues capture the moody wildness of the environment.
So, how do you adjust color settings in paint, colored pencil, or markers to get the results you want?
It all comes down to color theory.
The Basics of Color Theory
Color theory creates a logical structure for color mixing, and the easiest way to explore it is through a basic color wheel. Fun fact: Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colors in 1666!
Blue, Red, and Yellow
The concept behind primary colors is that no two colors can be mixed to create them. We could go into an entire dissertation on that, but for the purposes of this guide we are going to keep it simple.
Orange, Green, Purple
Secondary colors result from mixing two primary colors together in visually equal amounts.
What is a “visually equal amount?” Based on a color’s tinting strength you would not simply put together a 50/50 ratio of colors in order to achieve the secondary color. Instead, play with mixing different proportions of the two colors to get a range and discover where the midtone falls within that range of hues to arrive at your secondary colors.
Secondary colors are very helpful in understanding color temperature. We’ll refer to these later.
Yellow-orange, Red-orange, Red-purple, Blue-purple, Blue-green & Yellow-green
Tertiary colors are helpful in our understanding of a colors bias. Tertiary colors result from mixing a secondary color with a primary color. If we focus on the Yellow and Blue primary hues and the Green Secondary hue, mixing them would create either a Yellow-Green or a Blue-Green tertiary hue.
In this example, the Yellow-Green is visually more Yellow than Blue. And the Blue-Green is visually more Blue than Yellow.
Adjusting Color Settings
Once the color wheel is filled out, you can start putting it to use with color theory. Let’s explore how to use complimentary colors, tint, tone, shade, and temperature to draw or paint anything.
Complementary colors are the colors directly across from each other on the color wheel. When you look at the complementary color combinations above, you may notice something: these colors represent sports teams.
They are easily identifiable and have a lot of dynamic action to a composition. When mixed, these colors also tone each other down. It’s like two equally matched teams, tiring themselves out while they mix it up.
This allows you to use a limited palette to achieve cohesion and harmony, and use complementary colors to neutralize and tone down each other. This is much more effective in a painting than throwing black or neutral gray at the problem.
If we think of complementary colors as sports teams, the referee colors (which is how I refer to black and white) can just bring the whole thing to a halt by throwing so many flags and penalties that your painting becomes lifeless and dull. But you can use those colors to adjust the settings in other ways.
Tint, Tone & Shade
Now let’s talk about how neutral colors, such as white and black, and their combination of gray, affect and alter a pure hue to either lighten or darken it through tint, tone and shade.
[one_third_first]Tint a color by adding white, or in the case of watercolor also adding a lot of water, makes colors lighter. Whites make colors more opaque, whereas water makes the mix more transparent.[/one_third_first][one_third]Remember how I said that complementary colors tone things down by neutralizing? Tone refers to hue + gray. When complementary colors won’t do the trick you can add gray instead.[/one_third][one_third_last]If you really need to make a color darker, you can add black. But remember this also makes them more opaque.[/one_third_last]
A color’s value cites its lightness or darkness and scientifically it means the extent to which it reflects or absorbs light. In practical terms this is important as you would use this to plan around your focal point.
The higher the value, the more dominant a color’s role. Having a variation in value gives a painting interest.
You want the lightest lights and the darkest darks to be clearly defined; otherwise the painting gets lost in the midtones. This can be especially true when working with watercolors. A watercolor painting needs layers to deepen the colors in the areas you want to have a darker value.
A color’s chroma (intensity) talks of its brightness. This can be changed by adding the colors complement.
Adding more and more will let it turn into neutral colors like browns and greys. In the case of this painting, I used the Green Gold as a complement mixed in with the Alizarin Crimson to tone down the shadowed areas. Complementary colors are much more natural and effective for toning down than adding dull colors like black and brown directly.
Colors are often broken into two categories: warm and cool. These colors are opposite hemispheres of the color wheel. Yellow, orange and red hues are considered warm. Green, blues and violet hues are considered cool.
But this is an oversimplification. In reality, there are warm yellows and cool yellows. And the same can be said of every hue in the spectrum.
A color’s temperature is easiest to figure out if you consider a color’s bias towards the secondary color.
What is bias as it relates to paint color? A color’s bias represents its leaning towards another color. For example, a red can lean toward orange or purple, depending on the pigments used in its creation.
In the following table you have two examples of each hue of blue, red and yellow. In each set of colors, the left hand side represents the cool temperature and the right hand side represents the warm temperature of that hue.
Try mixing the cool and warm primary colors listed above to get a range of colors that can fit into the temperature of your setting.
For this exercise, use two reds, two yellows and two blues. In the spaces marked YC put the cool yellow. In the spaces marked YW put the warm yellow, and so forth until you have filled out the three primary color ‘spokes’ of the wheel. Then mix the visually equivalent midtones for your secondary colors and the tertiary colors inside of each ring of your color wheel.
Download the printable PDF version of this blank warm and cool color mixing wheel here.
Putting Color Theory Into Practice
So what does your picture need in order to fit the settings of its environment?
This trio of cherries is a good example. They are painted outside on a sunny day, so the reds in this case will take on the color of their surroundings – in this case the sun. A warm temperature red that tends towards orange is called for. If I had painted this scene further – and shown a sunny day outside; but cool red cherries; something wouldn’t feel right about the painting.
For the cherries, I worked with a Pyrrole Red Light and a Quinacridone Gold on those parts. I also brought the Quinacridone Gold into the stems along with a Green Gold, which has a tendency towards yellow, not blue.
But when it comes to the sides and shadowed parts of the cherries, think of what the sky looks like. It’s blue. Our atmosphere is essentially blue. I’m no scientist, but it makes me think about ‘blue light filters’ so that my mind’s eye doesn’t think it is daytime.
But think of shadows as blue, aka cooler colors that tend towards blue. And so I brought in Permanent Alizarin Crimson for the more shaded areas to start, since it is a cool red.
In addition, using these three colors, separately, mixed and overlaid gave the painting visual harmony. This is why sometimes you will hear of painters using a limited palette and mixing their colors from that palette – to give harmony to the painting.
A color’s bias does lend to the authenticity of how the scene is interpreted by the viewer. Everything is up to interpretation – and you as the artist, get to interpret and create the scene to your liking. These color adjustments are a tool you can use every time you set out to paint your scene.
Sally Lynn MacDonald
Art Supply Authority for Sketchbook Skool