Beginner Oil: Color Theory, The Basics

We offer a color theory guide to assist novice painters.

by Bob Bahr

A painter can mix nearly every color with just three pigments. Exact hues vary from one manufacturer to the next, but an artist could go far with any company’s Indian yellow, naphthol red, and ultramarine blue.

Color Wheel
Complementary colors reside
directly opposite each other
on the color wheel.

Secondary colors, such as orange, green, and purple, are made by mixing primary colors. Tertiary colors are those made by mixing a secondary color with a primary color. Other colors are made by adding a bit of white pigment (a process called tinting) or adding a bit of black (a process called shading).

In the world of printing, inks in the colors of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are mixed to make all the hues you see in books, magazines, newspapers, posters, and the like. For printers, zero amounts of those four colors make white.

Complementary colors are pairs of colors that reside directly opposite each other on the color wheel. (Scientists usually examine color on a spectrum rather than a wheel, but a wheel allows artists to easily see the relationships between colors.) Examples of complementary colors are orange and blue, purple and yellow, and red and green. Mixing complements results in gray.

It helps to understand the vocabulary used in discussing color. Hue refers to the arbitrary name humans have given to certain colors on the color wheel, for example, red, orange, blue-green, mauve, etc. Value refers to the degree of lightness or darkness in a color. This can be adjusted by tinting or shading the hue. And chroma, or saturation, is how pure the color is compared to its corollary on the color wheel. If a color is close to how it appears on the color wheel, it is said to be “high chroma.” Colors have less saturation or chroma when they are created by mixing two colors. This is because we experience color as light that is reflected off a toned surface. When we see green paint, we are seeing pigment that absorbs all the other colors in light except green. (White light has all the colors of the spectrum in it.) When two pigments are mixed, each color absorbs its own share of light, so the resulting mix is duller than either of the two mixing colors would be alone. The more you mix, the less saturated a color will be. This is often a good thing–colors straight out of the tube usually make a painting look garish and unnatural.

Color values change depending
on adjacent colors. Courtesy

Especially since the mid-1800s, many artists have stressed color over other elements in painting. The Impressionists are notable examples. Monet, for instance, explored the heart of the matter by studying light and its effects on the colorful scenes he saw in his mind’s eye. Although many think of Monet as a painter of colors, he is perhaps more accurately described as the original and more rigorous “painter of light.”

But paintings fail much more often because of problems with accurate value rather than because of poor color choices or color mixing. The viewer “reads” a painting through its values and a composition relies on how light and dark values are arranged. The problem is that beginner artists often see a color’s hue and chroma instead of its value. Painting a grisaille (a composition in shades of gray) before applying colors will help in matching the correct values in a scene to a desired hue in the proper value. A few exercises juxtaposing values on a grayscale with various local colors would also help in training a beginner’s eye.

“The best way to understand color is to work with it,” says Laura Antonow, who teaches a class on color theory in the art department at The University of Mississippi. “Mixing paint, matching paints or fabrics, looking at colors in daylight and then under artificial light—all of these can help develop your color sensitivity.

Hue and Saturation
Here, we see two violet hues.

“In my class, students are assigned a variety of projects,” she continues, “ranging from analyzing a series of photographs illustrating the use of red, blue, and yellow [the primaries] to a color interaction composition illustrating the way our perception of color changes depending on the context in which it appears. One of the most commonly held misconceptions about color is that it exists in a vacuum. When considering a certain color, people forget to take into consideration the surrounding colors, the lighting conditions, and even the cultural context, all of which are extremely important to the way a color appears.”

Beyond encouraging trial-and-error color experimentation, Antonow also suggests reading about color theory from authors such as Josef Albers, Albert H. Munsell, Johannes Itten, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. She also recommends paying close attention to the work of artists known for their dynamic use of color, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. “My hope for my students,” she says, “is that they will learn to better see color and that this heightened sensitivity will enhance their overall visual experience.”

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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