Understanding the Basics of Color Theory

Understanding 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 every artist needs to understand the basics of color theory, and how it affects their art. Fortunately, it’s not really all that complicated.

In short, color theory is a fancy phrase that describes how colors relate to and influence one another. 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.

That’s what this post is all about.

The Color Wheel

This 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, watercolors, and many other mediums.


The color wheel divides the spectrum of color into categories. The three primary colors are the colors that cannot be mixed.

Every other color is a combination of two or three of these primary colors. Green is a mixture of blue and yellow. Purple is a mixture of blue and red, and orange is a mixture of red and yellow. Green, purple, and orange are secondary colors.

There are three primary colors and three secondary colors. Beyond that, the possible combinations increase rapidly. For example, the color wheel above includes primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Three primaries, three secondaries, six tertiaries.

You make a tertiary color by mixing one primary and one secondary color. Yellow-green, for example is a combination of yellow (primary) and green (secondary.)

Of course, you can break down a color wheel even further. There is no limit to the number of “slices” in a color wheel. But for artistic use, most color wheels go no further than tertiary colors.

A color wheel is a must-have tool, and can save you a lot of time making color choices.

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

Color Categories

Analogous colors are side-by-side 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.

Conversely, if one color is a tertiary color, it’s complement will also be a tertiary color.

Reds and yellows are warm colors, as are their secondaries and some of the tertiary colors. Here’s a sampling of warm colors. Reds, oranges, yellows, and earth tones are warm colors. Some of the greens that tend toward yellow are also warm.

Warm Colors

Cool colors 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

Colors can appear to “change sides” in some contexts. A naturally warm color such as yellow-green would appear to be a cool color if it appeared in a composition with predominantly warmer colors. A yellow-green umbrella on a sun-drenched day in the desert, for example.

In this collection of pencils, six of the colors are cool. The green in the center is warm in comparison to the blues and cooler greens around it.

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 now 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.

Using the Basics of Color Theory to Make Better Drawings

Knowing how to combine these three aspects of color theory helps 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.

For one thing, it will greatly simplify color selection. You’ll know which colors work best for depicting rainy days and what colors to use for accents.

If you want a drawing to create a sense of warmth, you now know to use warm colors.

Want More Than Just the Basics of Color Theory?

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. Their article, Basic Color Theory, is especially helpful in more fully understanding the basics of color theory.

Canva also has a very good primer on color theory. If you happen to use Canvas to create internet images (as I do), their Design Wiki on Colors teaches you everything you need to know about colors, their meanings and the color combinations that will hopefully give inspiration to your next design! Just type a color into the search box at the top of the page or click on a color to learn everything about it.

Remember I mentioned creating atmosphere in a drawing or painting? The design wiki at Canva help you do that by showing what each color means. Imagine that!

You can also learn more about color theory and it’s applications with two podcasts from The Sharpened Artist.


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