Color Theory Basics
Hi everyone! Today I am going to cover art color theory basics. Color theory can be applied to just about any creative endeavor; I definitely think it was one of the most fundamental components of design, as bad color choices can easily ruin a creation. Color theory was one of the first subjects covered in my undergraduate art studies, although I had been familiarized with the concept beforehand, since I was always taking art classes through middle and high school. One thing that was always stressed: not only is color theory important, but it is one of the easiest components of design to get wrong. It is usually considered easiest to work with black, white, and grey values (known as greyscale) as supposed to color, and for that reason many art students are taught to work in black and white, or limited color palettes, when initially learning the foundations. Fear not though, I think the use of full and varied colors in art is actually less complicated than many make it seem.
I am going to cover the basics of color theory, since it can become complicated very quickly, especially for non-artists. Even if art is not your formal background, I hope this post will be easy enough to understand, as I will break down each of the most important sections and explain as much of the terminology as possible. So with that, let's get started!
Basic Art Color Terms
Here are few of the most common (but still important) color theory terms:
Types of Colors
There are different types of colors, at least in the art sphere. The concept of a primary and secondary color may not be new to some, as it is (or was) usually taught to school children. The concept of tertiary colors may be a bit less familiar.
Primary: Red, blue, and yellow are the three primary colors.
Secondary: Orange, violet, and green are the secondary colors. They are the result of the primary colors mixed equally together (red+yellow+orange, blue+red=violet, blue+yellow=green).
Tertiary: Yellow green, blue green, yellow orange, red orange, red violet, and blue violet are the tertiary colors. They are the result of the secondary colors with a dominance of one of the parent primary colors (red+violet or blue+violet, green+blue or green+yellow, red+orange or yellow+orange).
The twelve color types listed above compose the standard color wheel and are the basis for more complicated color spheres. This color wheel can then be divided and manipulated in different ways as I will explain later. You can see the simplified wheel below. (Note: you may see the colors, and the wheel itself, looking slightly different depending on the source and the type of color wheel. The concept, however, remains the same).
High Key and Low Key: These terms refer to the saturation, brightness, darkness, value, and hue of a color or more commonly, group of colors. Simply put, high-key colors are mostly brighter, whereas low-key colors are mostly dark and muted.
Warm and Cool: Colors have what is referred to as "temperature", which is best described as the feeling a particular invoke. Warm colors are considered more intense, whereas cool colors are more sedate and relaxing. A color wheel can be divided evenly into warm and cool sections. The cool colors are violet, blue violet, blue, blue green, green, and yellow green. The warm colors are red violet, red, orange, red orange, yellow orange, and yellow. Imagine you are dividing the wheel above in half, vertically.
Black, White, Gray, & Brown
This is where color theory becomes a bit complicated. Therefore, I will only touch on this area briefly.
Black, white, grey, and brown may or may not be considered colors depending on who you talk to in the art world; most non artists generally see these as colors, however. The nature of black, white, and grey is usually a bit more complicated than that of brown, since it involves art theory as well as some scientific theory related to light and color. This relates to how light is filtered through a prism, as essentially this light source starts as white. However, black is generally considered the absence of color since it is not be possible to achieve through a prism; in science this is also somewhat true, given the nature of celestial objects like black holes (these have no known light, but absorb everything around them).
Grey is considered somewhere in between black and white regardless of whether one or both of these two are considered colors. Grey is referred to as achromatic; it is thought of as a color without a true color. Grey can also be created from true colors; most commonly it is by combining the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) but not in equal parts (usually more blue than red and yellow).
Black and white are commonly referred to as shades. As I mentioned above, true colors mixed with degrees of black are also shades; with varying degrees of white they are tints. Colors mixed with grey are usually referred to as chromatic grey (grey with color).
Brown is usually considered a color, but not in the same way as the true primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Brown is commonly referred to as a compound color, meaning it is the result of a variety of other colors mixed together. Some more complicated color wheels will display brown as a shade of orange, or existing somewhere in between red and orange. It is also considered a warm color. There are many ways to create brown. Most commonly it is through combining an equal amount of the three primary colors. Other times, it is through combining black with orange. Other ways exist as well.
The Color Harmonies
With the basics covered, let's go over the harmony portion of color theory (this is the fun part).
Harmonies are different formal color combinations that are considered to work well with one another from a design perspective. The use of harmonies is often taught with the pure color wheel colors, but they can be used with other colors (different tints, shades, saturations, etc. of the original twelve colors that compose the spectrum) as well.
Some of the most common applications of color harmony, complementary harmony involves two colors that are opposite from each other on the color wheel. As an example below, I have yellow and violet; you can see from the line that the two colors are directly opposite each other on the wheel (their points would touch if they were full triangles).
Split Complementary Colors
We will use yellow and violet again for the example. This harmony involves one complementary color and the two colors opposite the other color's complement, for a total of three colors. This can work in both directions, with both complements, as shown below.
So, instead of using violet with yellow (complementary harmony), you would use yellow with blue violet and red violet (split complementary) because two tertiary colors are one either side of violet. You can also go in the other direction and use violet as the first color, then instead of yellow, use yellow green and yellow orange (yellow's tertiary colors).
This involves the use of one color and two, three, or four other colors directly adjacent to it, ether on the left or right of the wheel; you will generally be working with 3-5 colors for this harmony. Additionally, you can use shades and tints of one or more of the adjacent colors. I have included some examples below. In this example I used red, red orange, yellow orange, and yellow. I also used some reds, oranges, and pinks below the wheel.
Triad involves using every forth color on the wheel, so you will be using three colors (think 12÷4=3). Start with any color on the wheel then count every fourth color from the starting point (you will have three colors in between each stop, for additional reference).
Tetrad Rectangle Colors
Rather self-explanatory, you would use four colors that form a perfect rectangle when lines are drawn from them on the color wheel. This can go in any direction as long as the result is a perfect rectangle. On the two shorter sides of the rectangle, your space between colors is one, and the two longer sides of the rectangle, the space between colors is three.
Tetrad Square Colors
Also rather self-explanatory, you would use four colors that form a perfect square when lines are drawn from them on the color wheel. This can go in any direction as long as the result is a perfect square. You will have two colors in between each point/side of the square.
Monochromatic involves one color and its different values, either light or dark (you can also have a mix of both, usually in an even amount, such as two tints and two shades, plus the original color). Many hardware store paint samples are monochromatic scales, so this may look familiar. Below is an example using violet, along with some of its tint and shades.
As I said above, the harmonies above can be applied to other colors besides the twelve on the standard color wheel. More complicated color globes and computer software can be useful when working with a variety of other colors that branch off from the twelve of the primary+secondary+tertiary spectrum.
Tips on Using Color Theory
If you are serious about utilizing color theory in a creative discipline, it may be helpful to invest in several types of colors wheels, globes, and greyscale value finders. You could also try to make your own, but this get complicated, especially for beginners. You can use a computer, paint, or even colored pencils. Acquiring paint chips is also a good option since these are usually free. Acquiring a light prism may also be helpful.
There are several factors that can contribute to your chose of colors, color harmonies, whether you use warm or cool temperatures; there will also be other design factors to keep in mind. Here are factors to consider:
Don't forget you can also incorporate black, white, grey, and brown to balance out different color combinations. Black and white can work well with most colors (be careful with black+orange or black+yellow, and white+red), grey can go surprisingly well with any color, brown generally works best with blues, pinks/red violets, and greens.
Of course, these art theories are not the set rule for how different colors, hues, shades, etc. can be used. A common saying in art: learn the rules so you can break them! I do that quite often. It takes some practice, but finding good color and hue combinations that straddle multiple harmonies or that do not fit perfectly into one theory can be done. Some people have a natural gift for using colors, so this artistic experimentation might come easy to you. If you are a synesthete, then colors are often more than visual elements, but complex stimulations of other senses and cognitive functions. Either way, have fun! Color is great!
I also plan to explore color combinations, science, and theory more extensively in later posts, so stayed tuned!
I hope you enjoyed this post! Until next time!
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