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Painting Techniques Blog

Color Theory Will Make Your Artwork Stronger!

Color Theory Will Make Your Artwork Stronger!

Before I jump into all the fun and exciting painting techniques out there, I feel it’s best to start with some basic Color Theory 101. I remember back in art school how other students complained about color theory class; I kept my thoughts to myself, but I secretly loved color theory and still do! Once you learn the fundamentals, you will understand that color theory will make your work so much stronger and I guarantee that you will love it too.

Most of you know there are three Primary Colors; red, yellow, blue and three Secondary Colors; green, orange, violet (purple). These two sets of colors form triangles on the color wheel and can be used to create a Triadic Color Scheme!
You also might know that there are warm and cool colors. There are three main colors in each group and they all sit next to each other on the color wheel. Warm Colors include red, yellow, orange; where Cool Colors consist of blue, green, and violet (purple). The colors found in-between each of these main colors are Tertiary Colors [defined as a mixture of a Primary Color and an adjacent Secondary Color]; an example would be Yellow-Orange. 

On a similar note, any group of selection of colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel form an Analogous Color Scheme

Another important scheme of colors are Complementary Colors. These colors sit opposite of one another on the color wheel. It can be especially useful if you’ve been predominately working with one color and you want a focal element to really “POP.” The use of this color scheme is very bold, but when used in the right context it can be extremely powerful. 

Split Complements play off of Complementary colors. You get the same stark color contrast, but it doesn’t cause as much visual tension. To implement Split Complements, you pick a color on the color wheel and instead of using the color directly opposite of it, you would use the opposite color’s two neighbors. For example if you pick Red as your base color, it’s split complements would be Yellow-Green (Lime) and Blue-Green (Teal).

The color schemes I’ve listed so far all employ the color wheel, but you can boost color complexity by mixing any of those colors with White, Black, or Gray. Adding White to a color creates a Tint and adding Black makes a Shade. When you add Gray to a color, it’s called a Tone. Below is an illustration of a variety of Analogous Colors that include Tints and Shades of Blue, Blue-Violet, and Violet.

Personally, I tend to gravitate towards Tints, occasionally I use Shades, and rarely Tones. Sometimes instead of adding black to a color, I add Brown (usually Raw Umber). To achieve darker colors in my work, I feel that mixing brown works best for me because it’s less harsh and more inviting. My thoughts also come from a previous art teacher who thought it was sacrilegious to use black paint on your canvas. I say, use black if you want!There are a bit more complex color schemes out there. Square and Rectangular Color Schemes (Tetradic); where Square uses complimentary colors evenly spaced on the color wheel and Rectangular incorporates two split color complements. Monochromatic is a color scheme using only one hue with varying degrees of value intensity.

The two paintings below demonstrate various color combinations. On the left is an example of a complex Rectangular Color Scheme; Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Violet (Purple). On the right shows four different color schemes; Top Left: Primary, Top Right: Split Complementary, Bottom Left: Rectangular, and Bottom Right: Square.
 Here is great interactive color wheel tool I found online: Adobe Color Wheel

If you are more of a hands-on type of person like me, here is the color wheel tool I use.

My final thought about choosing dynamic colors in your painting would be that when you mix your own colors instead of using colors straight from the paint tube, your painting exponentially become more unique! 
I could go on and on about scientific explanation of colors and why they are what they are, however the purpose of this blog is to keep things simple for people to read and feasible for everyone to understand. If anyone has any additional questions about these color groups or alternatives, RGB vs CMYK, how lighting can affect color, etc. let me know and I will do my best to answer 🙂



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