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Color Theory For Painting



A colors hue is the name of the color. Hue is determined by the specific wavelength of the color.


Primary Hues:


Red, yellow, and blue. In theory, these are the hues that all other hues are made from.


Secondary Colors:


Orange, green, and Violet. Hughes obtained by mixing two primary colors together.


Tertiary Hues:


Hues containing all 3 primary colors.


Complimentary Hues:


Hues that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Yellow and Violet, Blue and Orange, Red and Green, Blue - Green and Red - Orange, etc.


Analogous Colors:


Closely related colors; colors that are neighbors on the color wheel.




A colors intensity has to do with how bright or dull a color is. Intensity is determined by the quality of light a color reflects. ( AKA - Chroma)




A colors value is determined by how light or dark it is. It has to do with the quantity of light a color reflects.





Relating to differences of light and dark: the absence of color.




A hue with black added to it.




A hue with gray added to it.




A hue with white added to it.



Objects have many different colors.  When painting in realism paint what you see and not what you think you see. 

Atmospheric Perspective:


The farther away an object is, the more blue it often appears to the eye. For example, mountains in the distance often appear blue. This is the effect of atmospheric perspective; the farther an object is away from the viewer, the less contrast there is between the object and its background color, which is usually blue. In a painting where different parts of the composition are blue, green and red, the blue will appear to be more distant, and the red closer to the viewer. The cooler a color is, the more distant it seems. If a cloud cast a shadow the hill will be darker.




From Italian tenebroso ("dark, gloomy, mysterious"), also occasionally called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using profoundly pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular in Baroque painting. 

Tenebrism is used only to obtain a dramatic impact while chiaroscuro is a broader term, also covering the use of less extreme contrasts of light to enhance the illusion of three-dimensionality. The underlying principle is that solidity of form is best achieved by the light falling against it. Artists known for developing the technique include Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. It is a mainstay of black and white and low-key photography.


Yellow: is the color between orange and green on the spectrum of visible light.

Because it was widely available, yellow ochre pigment clay was one of the first colors used in art; the Lascaux cave in France has a painting of a yellow horse 17,000 years old. Ochre and orpiment pigments were used to represent gold and skin color in Egyptian tombs, then in the murals in Roman villas. In the early Christian church, yellow was the color associated with the Pope and the golden keys of the Kingdom, but it was also associated with Judas Iscariot and used to mark heretics. In the 20th century, Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to wear a yellow star. In China, bright yellow was the color of the Middle Kingdom, and could be worn only by the emperor and his household; special guests were welcomed on a yellow carpet.

The 18th and 19th century saw the discovery and manufacture of synthetic pigments and dyes, which quickly replaced the traditional yellows made from arsenic and from the urine of Indian cows fed only on mango leaves.

Titanium Yellow (nickel antimony titanium yellow rutile, is created by adding small amounts of the oxides of nickel and antimony to titanium dioxide and heating. It is used to produce yellow paints with good white coverage and has the LBNL paint code "Y10".

 According to surveys in Europe, Canada, and the United States, yellow is the color people most often associate with amusement, gentleness, humor, and spontaneity, but also with duplicity, envy, jealousy, avarice, and, in the U.S., cowardice. In Iran it has connotations of pallor/sickness, but also wisdom and connection. In China and many Asian countries, it is seen as the color of happiness, glory, harmony and wisdom.


Red is the color at the end of the visible spectrum of light, next to orange and opposite violet.

Red, black and white were the first colors used by artists in the Upper Paleolithic age, probably because natural pigments such as red ochre and iron oxide were readily available where early people lived. Madder, a plant whose root could be made into a red dye, grew widely in Europe, Africa and Asia. The cave of Altamira in Spain has a painting of a bison colored with red ochre that dates to between 15,000 and 16,500 BC.

A red dye called Kermes was made beginning in the Neolithic Period by drying and then crushing the bodies of the females of a tiny scale insect in the genus Kermes, primarily Kermes vermilio. The insects live on the sap of certain trees, especially Kermes oak trees near the            Mediterranean region. Jars of kermes have been found in a Neolithic cave-burial at Adaoutse, Bouches-du-Rhône. Kermes from oak trees was later used by Romans, who imported it from Spain. A different variety of dye was made from Porphyrophora hamelii (Armenian cochineal) scale insects that lived on the roots and stems of certain herbs. It was mentioned in texts as early as the 8th century BC, and it was used by the ancient Assyrians and Persians.

Red pigment made from ochre was one of the first colors used in prehistoric art. The Ancient Egyptians and Mayans colored their faces red in ceremonies; Roman generals had their bodies colored red to celebrate victories. It was also an important color in China, where it was used to color early pottery and later the gates and walls of palaces. In the Renaissance, the brilliant red costumes for the nobility and wealthy were dyed with kermes and cochineal. The 19th century brought the introduction of the first synthetic red dyes, which replaced the traditional dyes. Red also became the color of revolution; Soviet Russia adopted a red flag following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, later followed by China, Vietnam, and other communist countries.

Since red is the color of blood, it has historically been associated with sacrifice, danger and courage. Modern surveys in Europe and the United States show red is also the color most commonly associated with heat, activity, passion, sexuality, anger, love and joy. In China, India and many other Asian countries it is the color of symbolizing happiness and good fortune.


In painting and traditional color theory, blue is one of the three primary colors of pigments (red, yellow, blue), which can be mixed to form a wide gamut of colors. Red and blue mixed together form violet, blue and yellow together form green. Mixing all three primary colors together produces a dark grey. It lies between violet and green on the spectrum of visible light.

Surveys in the US and Europe show that blue is the color most commonly associated with harmony, faithfulness, confidence, distance, infinity, the imagination, cold, and sometimes with sadness. In US and European public opinion polls it is the most popular color, chosen by almost half of both men and women as their favourite color. The same surveys also showed that blue was the color most associated with the masculine, just ahead of black, and was also the color most associated with intelligence, knowledge, calm and concentration.

Blue pigments were originally made from minerals such as lapis lazuli, cobalt and azurite, and blue dyes were made from plants; usually woad in Europe, and Indigofera tinctoria, or true indigo, in Asia and Africa. Today most blue pigments and dyes are made by a chemical process.

These minerals were crushed, ground into powder, and then mixed with a quick-drying binding agent, such as egg yolk (tempera painting); or with a slow-drying oil, such as linseed oil, for oil painting. 

Egyptian blue, the first artificial pigment, created in the third millennium BC in Ancient Egypt by grinding sand, copper and natron, and then heating them. It was often used in tomb paintings and funereal objects to protect the dead in their afterlife.

Natural ultramarine, made by grinding and purifying lapis lazuli, was the finest available blue pigment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was extremely expensive, and in Italian Renaissance art, it was often reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary. The more it was ground, the lighter the blue color became.

Ground azurite was often in Renaissance used as a substitute for the much more expensive lapis lazuli. It made a rich blue, but was unstable and could turn dark green over time.

Indigo dye is made from the woad, Indigofera tinctoria, a plant common in Asia and Africa but little known in Europe until the 15th century. Its importation into Europe revolutionised the color of clothing. It also became the color used in blue denim and jeans. Nearly all indigo dye produced today is synthetic.

Cobalt has been used for centuries to color glass and ceramics; it was used to make the deep blue stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals and Chinese porcelain beginning in the T'ang Dynasty. In 1799 a French chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard, made a synthetic cobalt blue pigment which became immensely popular with painters.


Black is the darkest color, the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. It is an achromatic color, a color without hue, like white and gray. Pigments that absorb light rather than reflect it back to the eye "look black". A black pigment can, result from a combination of several pigments that collectively absorb all colors. If appropriate proportions of three primary pigments are mixed, the result reflects so little light as to be called "black". This provides two superficially opposite but actually complementary descriptions of black. Black is the absorption of all colors of light, or an exhaustive combination of multiple colors of pigment.

It was one of the first colors used in art. The Lascaux Cave in France contains drawings of bulls and other animals drawn by paleolithic artists between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago. The black lines were drawn with the tips of burnt torches made of a wood with resin. Different charcoal pigments were made by burning different woods and animal bones, each of which produced a different tone. The charcoal would be ground and then mixed with animal fat to make the pigment. Today it is made by grinding manganese oxide.

In western popular culture, black has long been associated with evil and darkness. A "black day" (or week or month) usually refers to a tragic date. Black is frequently used as a color of power, law and authority. In many countries judges and magistrates wear black robes. That custom began in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.



White is the lightest color and is achromatic (having no hue). Light is perceived by the human visual system as white when the incoming light to the eye stimulates all three types of color sensitive cone cells in the eye in roughly equal amounts. Materials that do not emit light themselves appear white if their surfaces reflect back most of the light that strikes them in a diffuse way.

Chalk is a kind of limestone, made of the mineral calcite, or calcium carbonate. It was originally deposited under the sea and as sea foam as the scales or plates of tiny micro-organisms called Coccolithophore. It was the first white pigment used by prehistoric artists in cave paintings. The chalk used on blackboards today is usually made of gypsum or calcium sulphate, a powder pressed into sticks.

During the Postclassical history, painters rarely ever mixed colors; but in the Renaissance, the influential humanist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti encouraged artists to add white to their colors to make them lighter, brighter, and to add hilaritas, or gaiety. Many painters followed his advice, and the palette of the Renaissance was considerably brighter.

Titanium white is the most popular white for artists today; it is the brightest available white pigment, and has twice the coverage of lead white. It first became commercially available in 1921. It is made out of titanium dioxide, from the minerals brookite, anatase, rutile, or ilmenite, currently the major source. Because of its brilliant whiteness, it is used as a colorant for most toothpaste and sunscreen.

According to surveys in Europe and the United States, white is the color most often associated with perfection, the good, honesty, cleanliness, the beginning, the new, neutrality, and exactitude.


Something Fun To Do:


Go on a scavenger hunt and assemble a color wheel with objects.

Mixing Primary Colors

If you mix two primaries, you create what is called a secondary color. Mixing blue and red creates purple, red and yellow make orange, and yellow and blue make green. The exact hue of the secondary color you've mixed depends on which red, blue, or yellow you use and the proportions in which you mix them. If you mix three primary colors, you get a tertiary color.

What About Black and White?

Black and white can also not be made by mixing other colors, but as they aren't used in color mixing to create colors, they get excluded from color mixing theory. If you add white to a color you lighten it and if you add black you darken it (though some painters don't use black at all).

Different Blues, Reds, and Yellows

Yes, you can buy various blues, reds, and yellows. For example, blues include cobalt blue, cerulean blue, ultramarine, monestial blue, and Prussian blue. Reds include alizarin crimson or cadmium red, and yellows have cadmium yellow medium, cadmium yellow light, or lemon yellow. These are all primary colors, just different versions.

Which Specific Primary Colors You Should Use

It's not a question of there being a right or wrong primary to use, but rather that each blue, red, and yellow is different and produces a different result when mixed. Each pair of primaries will produce something different, sometimes only subtly different.

Get Started with the Color Theory Triangle

Print out a color mixing triangle worksheet and paint it in. It's color mixing at its most basic, the first step on a journey with color.

Warm and Cool Colors

Every color has a certain bias toward what's called warm and cool. It's not something that's overwhelming; it's subtle. But it's an important element in color mixing as it influences the results.

As a group, reds and yellows are considered warm colors and blue a cool color. But if you compare different reds (or yellows or blues), you'll see that there are warm and cool versions of each of these colors (relative to each other only). For example, cadmium red is definitely warmer than alizarin crimson (though alizarin crimson will always be warmer than, say, a blue).

Importance of Warm and Cool Colors

It's important to recognize that individual colors have a bias toward cool or warm for color mixing. If you mix two warms together, you'll get a warm secondary color and, conversely, if you mix two cools together you'll get a cool secondary.

For example, mixing cadmium yellow and cadmium red light creates a warm orange. If you mix lemon yellow with alizarin crimson, you get a cooler, more gray orange. Mixing secondary colors is not only about the proportions in which you mix two primary colors, but also knowing what different reds, yellows, and blues produce.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors: red and yellow to get orange, yellow and blue to get green, or red and blue to get purple. The secondary color you get depends on the proportions in which you mix the two primaries. If you mix three primary colors, you get a tertiary color. Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors. Red and yellow make orange, red and blue make purple, and yellow and blue make green.

What Colors My Primaries Will Produce

Red and yellow always make some kind of orange, yellow and blue a green, and blue and red a purple. The actual color you get depends on which primary you're using (for example whether it's Prussian blue or ultramarine you're mixing with cadmium red) and the proportions in which you mix the two primaries. Paint a color chart where you record which two colors you mixed and the (approximate) proportions of each. This will provide you with a ready reference until you get to the stage when you instinctively know what you'll get.

Using Primary Colors

The proportions in which you mix the two primaries are important. If you add more of one than the other, the secondary color will reflect this. For example, if you add more red than yellow, you end up with a strong, reddish-orange; if you add more yellow than red, you produce a yellowish-orange. Experiment with all the colors you have—and keep a record of what you've done.

Mixing vs. Buying Ready-Made Colors

Color mixing gives you a range of colors with a minimum number of tubes of paint (very useful when painting outside your studio). If you're using a lot of a certain color, you'll probably decide it's easier to buy it in a tube rather than mix it up again and again.

But you'll find that there'll always be an instance when the color you want simply doesn't come ready-made, such as a particular green in a landscape. Your knowledge of color mixing will enable you to adapt a ready-made green to the shade you require.

The advantage of buying a premixed color is that you are assured of getting the identical hue each time. And some single-pigment secondary colors, such as cadmium orange, have an intensity that's hard to match from mixed colors.

Tertiary Colors

Browns and grays contain all three primary colors. They're created by mixing either all three primary colors or a primary and secondary color (secondary colors being made from two primaries). By varying the proportions of the colors you're mixing, you create the different tertiary colors.

Easiest Way to Mix a Brown

Mix a primary color with its complementary color. So add orange to blue, purple to yellow, or green to red. Each of these makes a different brown, so once again make up a color chart to give you a quick reference to refer to.

Easiest Way to Mix a Gray

Mix some orange (or yellow and red) with a blue then add some white. You'll always want more blue than orange but experiment with the amount of white you use. You can also mix blue with an earth color, such as raw umber or burnt sienna. With watercolor you don't have white paint; to lighten a gray you add more water instead of white, but remember the gray will be lighter when it dries.

Why Your Tertiary Colors Keep Turning out Muddy

If you mix too many colors, you'll get mud. If your gray or brown isn't coming out the way you want it to, rather start again than add more color in the hope it'll work.

Complementary Colors

The complementary color of a primary color (red, blue, or yellow) is the color you get by mixing the other two primary colors. So the complementary color of red is green, blue is orange, and yellow is purple.

Secondary Colors

The complementary of a secondary color is the primary color that wasn't used to make it. So the complementary color of green is red, orange is blue, and purple is yellow.

Complementary Colors and Color Theory

When placed next to each other, complementary colors make each other appear brighter, more intense. The shadow of an object will also contain its complementary color, for example, the shadow of a green apple will contain some red.

How to Remember This

The color triangle makes it easy to remember: the three primary colors are in the corners. The color you get by mixing two primaries is between them (red and yellow make orange, red and blue make purple, and yellow and blue make green). The complementary color of a primary color is the color opposite it (green is the complementary of red, orange for blue, and purple for yellow).

Print out a color mixing triangle worksheet and paint it in. It may seem like a simple exercise, hardly worth spending time on, but it's the first step in a fundamental painting skill—successful color mixing. Put it up on the wall where you can see it at a glance until you've internalized which colors are primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, and complementaries.

Mixing Complementary Colors

If you mix complementary colors, you get a tertiary color, particularly browns (rather than grays).

Color Theory Lesson: Using Black and White

While it may seem logical that to lighten a color you add white to it and that to darken it you add black, this is an oversimplification. White reduces brightness so although it makes a color lighter, it removes its vibrancy. Black doesn't so much add darkness as create murkiness (though there are instances in which black is uniquely useful, such as the range of greens it can produce when mixed with yellow).

Don't Add White to Lighten a Color

Adding white to a color produces a tint of that color, makes a transparent color (such as ultramarine) opaque and cools the color. This is most noticeable with red, which changes from a warm red into a cool pink when you use titanium white. You can add white to lighten a color, but because this removes the vibrancy of color you'll end up with a washed-out picture if you use white to lighten all your colors. Rather develop your color mixing skills to produce hues of varying intensity. For example, to lighten a red, add some yellow instead of white (or try zinc white). Watercolor paints are, of course, transparent, so to lighten you simply add more water to paint to let the white of the paper shine through.

Don't Add Black to Darken a Color

Black tends to dirty colors rather than simply darken them. Of the most common blacks, Mars black is the blackest and is very opaque, ivory black has a brown undertone, and lamp black a blue undertone.

Color Theory Lesson: Avoiding Black for Shadows

Think about how much is truly black. Shadows are not simply black nor a darker version of the color of the object. They contain the complementary color of the object.

Take, for example, the shadow on a yellow object. If you mix black and yellow, you get an unattractive olive green. Instead of using this for the shadow, use a deep purple. Purple being the complementary color of yellow, both will look more vibrant. If you can't figure out what colors are in the shadows, simplify what you're looking at by placing your hand or a piece of white paper next to the bit you're having trouble with, then look again.

Painters Using Black

At various times in their careers, the Impressionists didn't use black at all. Take Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral in the morning full sunlight, in dull weather, and in blue and gold to see what a genius can do with shadows (he did 20 paintings of the cathedral at different times of the day). It's not true to say the Impressionists never used black, but they certainly popularized the idea.

If you can't see yourself working without black, then consider mixing up a chromatic black rather than using a straight-from-the-tube black. It also has the advantage not 'killing' a color it's mixed with to the same extent.

How to Test If a Paint Color is Opaque or Transparent

Different pigments have different covering properties. Some are extremely transparent, barely showing on top of another color. Others are extremely opaque, hiding what's beneath. Considering this, and not just what the color is, can enhance a subject. For example, using a transparent blue in a sky gives a greater feeling of airiness than an opaque blue will. Compiling a chart of the colors you regularly use, such as the one above, shows at a glance how transparent or opaque color is.

You Will Need

  • All the colors you usually paint with
  • Medium-size brush
  • Cloth to wipe the brush on
  • Jar of clean water
  • Pen to record the color names
  • Piece of white paper. If you've got about a dozen colors, you want a sheet about A5 size.
  • Ruler (optional, straight lines aren't essential)
  • Hairdryer (optional, for acrylics or watercolors)

How to Make a Chart

  • Sort out your colors in an order that makes sense to you, such as the color spectrum (rainbow).
  • Mix up a little of each color. Paint a vertical stripe of each. Wait for them to dry.
  • Paint horizontal stripes for all the colors, in the same order.
  • If you're using a ruler, wipe the edge after each stripe so you don't contaminate the next one.
  • Record the names of the colors next to each stripe.

Check the Results

  • Opaque pigments are dense and tend to block out other colors. This makes them ideal for subjects that are solid and heavy, such as tree trunks.
  • Transparent pigments are light and airy, barely showing on top of other colors. This makes them ideal for atmospheric subjects such as a misty morning or diaphanous fabrics.
  • Semi-transparent are somewhere between the two.
  • With time, you won't have to refer to the chart, but will instinctively know the properties of a particular color. Until then, stick the chart up on the wall where you can see it while you're painting.

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