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An Introduction to Colour Theory

February 28, 2010

colour-wheelColour. It’s such a huge topic that I’m not even sure where to start!

So far we’ve focused on learning basic drawing skills, which are essential to most visual art forms. Look at any accomplished painter. Beneath the pigment is a solid understanding of shape, form, line, and values.

Learn to… Art! will continue to build on those drawing skills, but I am also going to expand the blog’s focus to include colour theory and painting.

The beauty of colour is that it adds another layer, another dimensin to your work. Colour can portray emotion, mood, atmosphere, and depth.

But colour can be mysterious and intimidating, especially for an artist who is used to black and white. The best thing you can do is to jump right in and start experimenting! Student sets of paints, pastels, and coloured pencils are a great way to get your feet wet and discover what you like.

Let’s look at a few basics to introduce you to colour theory.


Important Colour Terms

When talking about different kinds of colours, it can get a bit confusing. Here are a few of the most important terms.Visit Wetcanvas for a more complete art glossary.

chroma – The relative intensity or purity of a colour. A colour with low chroma is closer to gray; a colour with high chroma would be seen as luminous or intense. Saturation is a related term.

hue – The basic colour name – blue, green, red etc.

intensity – The brilliance of a color.

local color – The color of an object in daylight. The true color, without interpretation or embellishment.

neutral – Strictly, an achromatic color, a neutral gray, white or black. In common usage with painters, the term is used more loosely to describe any of a range of low-chroma colors, near-grays, including browns.

saturation – A similar term to chroma but not exactly synonymous. More correctly it means the amount of colour in relation to its brightness.

shade – A color mixed with black.

subdue – To make less intense. Often used in discussions of color, where a complementary color or gray might be added to lower the chroma.

tint – A color mixed with white. It can also refer to the shift in hue when one color is added to another, for example red tints yellow towards orange. See also shade.

value – The relative lightness or darkness of a color. High value is closer to white, low value is closer to black.


The Colour Wheel

Most of you are probably familiar with the colour wheel, but we’ll talk about it quickly. The colour wheel is a diagram that shows how colours relate to each other.Some colour wheels are quite simple while others are more complex. Knowing the colours and their respective place on the wheel can help us make decisions when it comes to choosing our palette. The three types of colours represented in the colour wheel are primaries, secondaries and tertiaries.


primary color – The three colors from which all other colors can theoretically be mixed. Red, yellow and blue.

binary (secondary) colors – A color made by mixing two of the primary colors. Examples include green, orange, and purple.

intermediate (tertiary) colors – Made by mixing unequal amounts of primary colors. Between the primary and secondary colors on a color wheel. Examples include red-orange and yellow-green.

 The colour wheel can also be useful when it comes to choosing colour combinations like which colours look good together and how colours can be mixed. Here are some colour combinations represented on the wheel.


analogous colors – Any two or more colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Can be considered families of colors e.g. the “warm” colors red, orange, yellow, and the “cool” colors green, blue, violet.

complementary colors – Visually, complements are the colours directly opposite one another on the colour wheel, e.g. magenta and green. In paints, the colour or colors that mix with another to form a neutral gray; these two colours are called a complementary pair

split complements – For a given color, the two others that are immediately adjacent to the opposite color on a color wheel. For example, the split complements of green are crimson and red-violet.

Warm vs. Cool Colours

warm-and-cool-coloursTo further complicate matters, colours are divided into two groups: warm and cool. Warm colours include the reds, oranges and yellows. Cool colours are the blues, greens and violets.

This is important to remember when it comes to mixing colours. For example, you can get two types of red paint: cadmium and alizarin. Cadmium red is a warm red, with more yellow in it while alizarin crimson is cool with more blue. If you want to mix a purple, you need to use the red that is already cool. If you tried to make purple using cadmium red, you would end up with a muddy version of purple.

Colour temperature is also useful when it comes to depth. Visually, warm colours come forward and cool colours fall back. To create depth in your work, the closer something is to a viewer, the warmer in temperature it should be.


If you’re interested in exploring colour, the best thing you can do is start messing around and see what happens. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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From → Colour Theory

  1. Love that color is the upcoming theme as I’m learning a lot now and really interested in learning more about color theory…thanks!

    • Hi Linda! I’m glad that the colour theme is timely for you. Let me know if you have any questions or if you come up against something particularly challenging. Thanks for the comment, it’s always great to hear from you!

  2. Tania permalink

    Miranda, this is such a great explanation on colour theory. And now I know why my purple came out looking very muddy, cadmium red was the culprit. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Tania, I’m glad you found this article helpful! Yes, cadmium red would make a muddy purple. I remember the difficulty I had mixing a nice green when I first started painting. It took me a long time to figure out that it was the wrong yellow!

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  1. Painting: Watercolour vs. Acrylic vs. Oil | Learn to... Art!
  2. Exploring Warm and Cool Colours | Learn to... Art!

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