Colour theory is a tricky subject for artists. The problems arise as soon as we start putting paint on our palette. What about hues, tones, tertiaries or warm and cool colours? How many colours do we really need? And how can we use the expertise of scientists to inform our practice as artists?
Colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet
Colour theory is both the science and art of colour. It explains how humans perceive colour; how colours mix, match or clash; the subliminal (and often cultural) messages colours communicate; and the methods used to replicate colour. This encompasses a multitude of definitions, concepts and design applications – enough to fill several encyclopaedias!
So let’s take it step by step- this is not an exercise just for the primary school classroom! It is fundamental for any artist to truly understand the basic concepts….beyond naming the primary and secondary colours.
This task is to produce your own colour wheel. You can find many colour wheels online to copy from. This not only will help you with the basics of mixing the different hues, but also with seeing the relationships between different colours.
Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion about the validity of one format over another continue to provoke debate. In reality, any colour circle or colour wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.
Here is one example which you can copy for this task:
Primary Colours: Red, yellow and blue
In traditional colour theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colours are the 3 pigment colours that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours. All other colours are derived from these 3 hues.
Secondary Colours: Green, orange and purple
These are the colours formed by mixing the primary colours.
Tertiary Colours: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green
These are the colours formed by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. That’s why the hue is a two-word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange. The name always begins with the primary colour, followed by the secondary colour.
When choosing colour schemes for our artwork we can use a colour wheel to help us determine the effect we are wanting to achieve in our work.
Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts, whether it be music, poetry, colour, or even an ice cream sundae. In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it’s either boring or chaotic. Harmony can be found by looking at part of the colour wheel.
The human brain rejects what it cannot organise, what it cannot understand. The visual task requires that we present a logical structure. Colour harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.
In summary, extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium. Here are some examples of how to use colour theory…but there are many more to explore in this broad topic!
So maybe it is harmony you are wanting to create… this can be found by using the analogous colours of the colour wheel.
Analogous colours are any three colours which are side by side on a 12-part colour wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. Usually one of the three colours predominates. Sometimes these colours are also referred to as Harmonious Colours, which makes sense because they’re almost like tones or steps of colour, similar to musical notes in a single chord.
Designers and interior decorators use adjacent colours quite a bit; they’ll often combine them with one opposite, or complementary colour, for a little punch of intensity.
So that brings us to complementary colours.
Complementary colours are any two colours which are directly opposite each other in the colour wheel, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. There may be several variations of yellow-green in leaves and several variations of red-purple in a flower such as an orchid. These opposing colours create maximum contrast and maximum stability.
How does this apply to artists? Well, just because they’re called complementary doesn’t mean you should necessarily use them right next to each other at full strength. That can be rather garish. Or maybe that is what you want??
This is exactly what artists have done. Friedensreich Hundertwasser used bright, garish colours as it creates movement in his art. Our eyes do not sit comfortable when it is not a harmonious colour scheme, so we are constantly searching. His powerful messages in his art- he was a forerunner of environmental protection- link closely to the ideas behind his choice of colour- a fascinating artist to look further into 🙂
Irinaland Over The Balkans, 1969
Another, who you may know well, is Vincent van Gogh. He used complementary colours regularly to make an impact and draw a viewer’s attention to key elements of a painting. It is clear in one of his most famous paintings:
Starry Night, 1889.
So, if you DO want to add some extra punch to your colour scheme, think about including complementary colours somewhere in your artwork – it will help to draw emphasis to your subject. Also, some plein air painters will cover their canvas with red before painting a landscape so that the greens and blues they put on top of it will really jump out.
Here is a resource with even more information to support you with this task: Colour Wheel
So next time you start a painting, think about what colours will work best with your subject matter and use your colour wheel—because the proper use of colour will always enhance your final artwork.
Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment
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