December 27, 2015

How Artists Use Color

Color is often one of the most exciting components of a painting, but what exactly is it? Understanding the basic principles of color theory helps you to analyze how artists exploit and manipulate it in their work. They use color together with composition, perspective, and light and shade to strengthen the impact of the subject matter.

In nature and in art, color has a profound effect on the viewer. Artists can choose and use color naturalistically–to recreate the colors they have seen in a landscape, for example. By convention, grass is green and water is blue but on a closer look they may be made up of many different colors.

However, artists do not have to imitate the colors they see in the physical world. In both figurative and abstract painting, color can be used for its decorative beauty, to create a mood, or to express or arouse an emotion. It can also be used symbolically.

Creating Impact

Colors that are close together on the color wheel harmonize with each other when an artist places them side by side in a painting. For the opposite effect, to make colors demand attention, an artist can use complementaries. Impressionists and modern artists deliberately exploit the visual impact of opposite colors, but painters instinctively juxtaposed complementaries for centuries before the theory was known.



One of the ways an artist creates the illusion of space on a flat canvas is to use aerial (also called atmospheric) perspective. Distant objects appear progressively paler and bluer, because the shorter blue wavelengths travel through the atmosphere more easily than the longer wavelengths. Artists can apply this principle by using blues and grays to give depth in landscapes. It also works to imply distance in more confined spaces.

Expressing Emotion

Expressions such as “feeling blue” and “seeing red” have come about because color has an emotional effect independent of its subject matter. Wassily Kandinsky, one of the most significant figures in development of abstract art, thought artists should use form and color not to copy objects but to express emotion and to arouse feelings in the viewer. It is not just bright primaries and secondaries that create a mood. Intermediary or tertiary colors, such as brown, mixed from primary and secondary colors, also affect the viewer, but have a more subtle effect.

Content for this article was taken from Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary by DK Publishing. Copyright 2008.