Colors have great appeal to us and can exert powerful forces upon viewers. Artists use that power and appeal in many ways, so Color is a complex element.  Here are some basic concepts that will help you deal immediately with this important component.

Purest colors are found in white light.  White light, from the sun or artificial light sources, contains within it all colors in their unadulterated form. The pure colors from light are typified by the rainbow, sometimes referred to as the colors of the spectrum. They are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. You should be aware that these “prismatic” colors from white light are not the same as “pigmental” man-made colors, and some different properties and rules apply to their use.

People have not always been able to paint with light, so we have developed colors from nature’s materials, or pigments.  Pigmental colors can be arranged into the color wheel so we can see major color relationships useful in art.  Since almost all the colors you see in art are pigmental colors, it will help you to know their unique properties and relationships.

Colors are described in art by three characteristics:  hue, value and intensity.  Hue simply refers to a color’s name—red, blue, pink, mauve, etc.

Value, or tone, refers to the color’s lightness or darkness.  You can achieve a range of differing values from one color by lightening or darkening it with other colors or the neutrals, black and white. For example, a light value of red is pink; a dark value of red is maroon or burgundy.  (There is much more to say about Value in art.  This will be discussed in another section). 

Intensity refers to a color’s purity that is, how bright or dull it is. When colors are mixed, like in creating different values, they lose their intensity.

All pigmental colors can be mixed from three primary colors—red, yellow and blue. Green, orange and purple are “secondary colors,” and when used or mixed together with primaries, they create even more colors called the tertiary colors.  Placing the colors on a color wheel, you can easily see a variety of useful associations. For example, analogous colors (those colors next to each other on the color wheel), since they are “related,” by sharing a color, can create a restful, calm feeling in the viewer.

Colors at opposite points on the color wheel, termed “complementary” colors, arouse a very different reaction since they “contrast.” You can see how an artist could project the idea of tension, aggression, or agitation simply by manipulating the color choices in his or her work. To test this attitude from an illusory image, place a large piece of green paper next to a large piece of red and stare at them intently. Soon they will appear to vibrate, as the opposing colors compete within your eyes.
Other illusions colors produce are created by the viewer’s response to them, sometimes based upon his or her own experiences in nature or environmental circumstances.  Some colors “feel” warm and some “feel” cool, usually because we relate them to what we’ve experienced in living, like the heat of the yellow sun or red flames. Warm colors seem to advance toward our eyes and cool colors seem to recede. Red also seems active, vital and exciting, perhaps because it’s the color of blood, and reminds us of our early hunting ancestry. Consider the fact that when we view nature, the backdrop behind the scene is often a cool blue sky.

Our feelings about color even “color” our speech. We’ve all heard, “I was so mad I could see red!” But why are we “green with envy?” Why is truth “blue?” Artists know what strong emotions colors evoke and some artists use color as a powerful vehicle to express and release their own deep feelings. Whatever the rationales for our responses to colors, we’re touched psychologically, and artists through the ages have manipulated our emotions by their use of colors.

Now that you know the basics about Color, click here to practice what you know.


Click here to return to the Elements page

button link for about us page
button link to the art elements page
button link to looking at great art page
button link to the projects page
button link to the learning materials page
button link to the store page
button link to the art decoded blog
button link to the newsletter page