There has been increased interest in the methods I use with colored pencils. Since my colored pencil methods also apply to oil painting and other such mediums and since all of them hinge on the basics of color theory, I thought I’d take a break from the more involved how-to articles to talk a little bit about color theory.

The basics of color theory

The Basics of Color Theory

If you’re like me, the very thought of color theory evokes all kinds of complicated definitions, higher levels of learning, and intimidation. But it’s not really all that complicated.

In short, color theory is a fancy phrase that describes how colors relate to each other. It can get complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. All an artist really needs to know is which colors to mix to get the desired result and how colors react to each other when placed side by side.

If you want to explore beyond that, Color Matters is one website you should take a look at. I refreshed my understanding of color theory and, yes, learned a few things, there. It’s well worth your time.

If you’re more interested in practical information, this post will get you started.

Let’s begin with the color wheel.

The Color Wheel

Below is a color wheel. Every artist has seen these. Many have made them. This is one I made with colored pencils but you can make them with oils, acrylics, water colors, and any other similar medium.


A color wheel is a must-have tool if you want to work with complementary colors. Whether your complements are in the under drawing, in local color, or both, a color wheel can save you a lot of time and simplify the process of making color choices.

Get a free blank color wheel and instructions for completing it.

Color Categories

Colors can be categorized in several ways.

Analogous colors are those colors that are grouped together on the color wheel. Blue, green, and yellow are analogous.

Analogous Colors Blue Green Yellow

So are purple, red, and orange.

Analogous Colors Purple Red Orange

As a rule, analogous colors are either two primaries and the secondary they make (first example) or the two secondaries made from the same primary (second example).

Analogous color groups can be warm (reds, oranges, yellows, some violets, and some greens) or cool (blues, some greens, and some violets).

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. One color is always warm and one is always cool. The difference diminishes as you get away from primary (red, yellow, blue) colors and secondary colors (orange, purple, and green), but there will always be a difference.

Red and green are complementary colors.

Complementary Colors Green Red

Blue and orange are also complements.

Complementary Colors Blue Orange

Unless you break down the color wheel into more subtle gradations, most complementary colors include one primary color and one secondary color.

Warm colors are colors that are predominantly red. Here’s a sampling of warm colors. Reds, oranges, yellows, and earth tones are all usually considered warm colors. Some of the greens that tend toward yellow are also warm.

Warm Colors

Cool colors are colors that are predominantly blue or green. Here are a few cool colors. Any color that leans heavily toward blue is likely to be cool. Most greens and purples are also cool.

Cool Colors

Color Context

Some colors are fence sitters. That is, they could be either warm or cool. If you put one of these in a composition with predominantly cool colors, they become the warm accents. A yellow umbrella on the rainy day, for example.

Or a red car on a rainy day.

In this collection of pencils, six of the colors are cool. The green in the center is warm in comparison. A warm green.

Color Context Warm Accent

Use the very same color in a composition that’s predominantly warm colors and it becomes the cool color accent.

Here’s the same green pencil with warm colors. It’s still a warm green, but it’s cool in comparison to the colors around it.

Color Context Cool Accent

The context in which such colors appear is what determines whether they’re warm or cool in your drawing or painting.

The examples I just used are examples of color context: the way one color affects the color next to it. While some colors are more easily affected by contextual changes, all colors are subject to the context in which they appear.

Knowing how to combine these three aspects of color theory will help you create drawings or paintings that do more than just depict a scene. You’ll be able to capture the many moods of any subject through the colors you use and how you combine them.

Additional Reading

Basic Color Theory