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Colour Theory!

Colour theory: from colour wheels to colour schemes

(and all the confusion in between...)

a colour wheel in thick paint

Colour theory is a wide and multifaceted topic that can be covered by different aspects like art, science and psychology, in order to address it and understand it. A complete account of all things colour would stretch into a fairly large number of pages and quite a few books of information.

Yet colour seems to be a very important part of our everyday life from art and food, all the way to the most mundane applications. Choosing colour and perceiving it has been with us since the first evidence of human culture. It comes naturally but can also be confusing. We seem to know when a single colour or combinations of colours bring us harmony or discomfort. For most people though, it's hard to pin down how and why.

Furthermore, depending on the field and the art form, the types of knowledge and the focus points tend to differ too. However some basic stuff is the same for everyone, so if you are an aspiring artist and need an introduction into colour theory, read on!


Colour attributes

hue, saturation and value shown on a coloured image

First of all lets have a look at three basic colour attributes which apply for all colours.

Hue: Hues are the colours of the spectrum

Saturation: Saturation of a hue is the amount of colour a hue has from 100% pure colour to 0% which is grey.

Value: Value or luminosity is the intensity of a hue, and refers to lightness or darkness.


Colour temperature

Colour temperature greatly affects the viewer psychologically. However since human perception varies according to the differences that characterize people, so does the perception of temperature.

swatches of cold and warm tones

Warm colours are associated with daylight and are hues of red through yellow, which are thought to be passionate and energetic. While cold colours, associated with overcast light and are hues of greens, blues and purples are thought to convey tranquility.

But these are notions that can easily be reversed by the subject of the artwork, the use of colour schemes and the intention of the artist himself.

Browns, black and white are considered neutral colours. However brown hues are sometimes considered warm colours because the point where one temperature group starts and another ends, is sometimes debatable.


The Colour wheel

...but which one?

You have definitely come across the image of a colour wheel. Actually you have come across images of several colour wheels…and as you may have noticed, they are not exactly the same. A colour wheel shows the relationship a spectrum of hues have with each other. But what happens when the hues aren’t laid out the same in every wheel? Why is it that in one wheel you’ll find green across red, but in another you’ll find cyan?

That’s because theres 3 different colour models.

  • RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue) is the traditional model used by artists.

  • RGB (Red, Green, Blue) or additive colour model is the model used for depiction of colour in electronic media. It is called additive because the hues are created by combining the three primary colours of the visible light spectrum.

  • CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) or subtractive colour model is the colour model used in printing and its called subtractive because we see the light colour that wasn’t absorbed but reflected by the surface.

Confusing right? I know…but for better or for worse…I’m not going to further explain RGB and CMYK because the subject of the article is about the aspects of colour for art, and when it comes to choosing the right colour for an artwork the RYB model is what is traditionally used.

The RYB colour wheel

primary and secondary colours shown on a colour wheel
  • So according to the the RYB colour model, red, yellow and blue are the three primary colours. They are called primary because they can’t be created by other colours, while their combinations create all the rest. On the wheel, those three colours are spread into equal distance with each other.

  • The in between colours, green, orange and purple are called secondary colours. In other words, secondary are the colours created by two primaries.

  • Then there’s the intermediate colours, the combination of a primary and its subsequent secondary.


Color Harmony

In any kind of artwork choosing the right colour combination can sometimes be confusing and even frustrating. Some colour combinations are more pleasing to the eye and can make any image convey a certain style and emotional state. The right colour combination can make an image look powerful, contrasty, moody, confusing, exciting, soft, balanced, emotionally charged or anything you want it to be.

There are certain colour schemes that each serve a different purpose and can be used alone or in combination to achieve a visual goal.

depiction of colour scemes on colour wheels

  • Complementary colours are colours that sit across each other on the wheel and when combined create the strongest contrast. So red and green are complementary colours, as are purple and yellow and so on. The combination of blue and its complimentary orange are historically linked to the European impressionist movement with famous paintings by van Gogh and Monet. Just like in those paintings, a creative use of the colours that complement each other is for example to use one colour for the background and the other for the main subject, separating this way one from the other by contrast. Furthermore since one will be a cold and the other a warm colour the contrast also can be used in a way that can affect the viewer emotionally.

  • Split complementary colours consist of one colour and instead of its complimentary, the two analogous from each side of it. Here the combination is contrasty but a little bit softer and richer in hues.

  • Analogous colours are three subsequent colours on the wheel. Those lack contrast thus creating the opposite effect than that of the complementary ones. This is a scheme that can kill an image if not used well, but will create powerful and compelling images when done right.

  • The Triadic colour scheme is compiled by three colours separated by equal distance on the wheel. It offers a rich combination in which usually one dominates and the other two support to create balance and contrast.

  • A Tetradic colour scheme is the combination of two sets of complementary colours. They can form a square, meaning each colour is equally distanced from each other, or not, forming a rectangle. Just like in the triadic scheme, the Tetradic also has one colour dominating in order to avoid having an unbalance chaos where nothing and everything stands out at the same time.

colour intensity

A monochromatic colour scheme is a combination of a single hue plus its variants in luminosity and saturation. It looks beautiful when combined with white and/or black and just like the analogous scheme, it should be used creatively to avoid a dull outcome.

achromatic scemes combined with a bright colour

The achromatic is a scheme made up of shades of white, black and everything in between. Schemes of neutrals (browns and beiges) are also included, as are desaturated hues of warm and cold colours. Combining these with one bright hue in full saturation can create an interesting and eye catching image.

Consulting your colour wheel in order to choose the right colour combination for your artwork is a great way to explore possibilities you originally didn't think of and also to get out of a dead end if something just doesn't seem right.

Don't hesitate to explore the schemes and even combine some of them. The complimentary scheme may work with the analogous. Furthermore complimentary colours dont have to be used in their pure form, you can use variations in lightness and saturation. In other words choose two complementary colours and use their monochromatic schemes.

And what if what works for your artwork is a polychromatic scheme richer in hues than any of the above? Schemes are all about harmony but maybe your goal is to create chaos. Maybe you'll find a way to make a polychromatic harmony with a single dominating hue supported by every colour in the spectrum. Rules are there to help you understand a subject better, but once you do so, you may choose to break them. Maybe the subject of your artwork is about just that.

Then again, you can get your inspiration from nature. Nature provides with all the colour schemes already mentioned but its up to you to choose which hue dominates over the other to convey whatever you plan your artwork to convey. Or maybe not, maybe you don't plan and your art is based on your real-time reaction to your perception of the colours you use as you paint!

Knowledge is a two way street. Learning rules in the beginning may make you feel rigid and stuck. But as you absorb the more you can, it eventually starts to work innately, without consideration to any rule. It takes time and effort until it happens organically and at some point you just know,

I hope you fount this article helpful and gained some insight on the complex yet profoundly interesting subject of colour theory.

Thanks for reading and keep creating!




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