July 8, 2014

Introduction to Color Theory

"I found I could say things with colors that I could not say in any other way, things for which I had no words." - Georgia O'Keeffe

A World of Color

Colors are all around us, from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive to the food we eat to the living world that surrounds us. Color is everywhere. Color has an effect on the way we feel, attracting our attention and helps us communicate with one another. These affects of color are particularly evident in art. Artists use color to invoke a feeling in their work, represent a place or a time, convey their ideas, or to simply make a statement. If you learn to use it properly, color can be an artist’s most powerful tool.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is the basic tool for understanding how colors work together and is one of your most important tools. This tool has been in use for generations, first designed by Isaac Newton in 1706. Newton arranged the colors yellow, orange, red, violet, indigo, blue, and green in natural progression on a rotating disk. As the disk spins, the colors blur together so rapidly that the human eye sees white. From there the organization of color has taken many forms, from tables and charts, to triangles and wheels. The most common version is the wheel of 12 colors based on the artistic color model.

Using the color wheel, we’ll understand how different colors will interact with one another, and what will happen once we combine them together. It is designed so that virtually any color you pick from it will look good together. The color wheel consists of three color families. These families are called Primary Colors, Secondary Colors, and Tertiary Colors.

Primary Colors are red, yellow and blue. These colors cannot be made by mixing any other colors. You can make all of the other colors by mixing different amounts of primary colors. 

Secondary Colors are orange, violet, and green. These colors are created by mixing two primary colors. 

Tertiary Colors are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green. Tertiary colors are created by mixing one primary color and one secondary color.

Warm and Cool Colors

Colors are sometimes described by their “temperature.” Warm colors are those in the red–orange–yellow range. Cool colors are on the opposite side of the color wheel–those in the blue–green–violet range. While warm colors appear to advance toward the viewer, cool colors racede. Red is hot and fiery and leaps out at the viewer; blue is more understated and drifts into the background.

Complimentary Colors

Each primary color is opposite a secondary on the color wheel. These pairs of colors are as different as can be in terms of tone or temperature and visually vibrate against each other. They make each other look brighter when they sit side by side. The complementary pairs are yellow and purple, blue and orange, and red and green. Yellow and purple are tonal opposites, while the other two pairs contrast in temperature alone.


Colors also have tone, which means how light or dark they are. Any color can be made paler or darker by adding white, the lightest tone, or black, the darkest tone. It can have shades, which are darker in tone than the color in its pure state, and tints, which are light tones. The black and white version of the color wheel shows colors in terms of black and white, which is called tone.


Pure pigment looks vivid and can be described as “saturated.” Its saturation can be weakened with water or another thinner, or by mixing in another color. Pure color is bright; when mixed it looks duller. Dull in this sense does not mean dreary–it is just the opposite of bright. Intensity also varies to the viewer according to how bright or dull the surrounding colors are. For example, red, like any color, can be made duller by diluting the saturation of the pigment (adding water) or adding another color. Pure red looks strong and is likely to make any colors next to it appear duller by contrast.


Some paints, for instance, watercolor, are translucent–you can see through them. Others are opaque, covering up colors beneath. Oil paints and acrylics may be translucent or opaque, depending on the particular paint and how it is used. If one color completely covers an underlying layer, it is opaque. Translucent paint allows underlaying layers to shine through and modify colors above.

The Science of Seeing Color

Science gets complicated and I don’t want to bore you. So instead, I present to you Dr. Colm Kelleher! Enjoy!

Color Wheel Project

Our assignment for this project was to color our own color wheel. Using the diagram I made below and a bunch of amazing colored pencils, we colored the 12 colors of the color wheel. We also discussed the different color families and how they work together, as well as the science of seeing color. Color Theory will be a reoccurring project in our classes and will be expanded on for grades 2 thru 5. Students may download the diagram below and practice coloring at home. Happy coloring!

colorwheeldownload-02Download PDF – Color Wheel

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