How Color Theory Influences Art

How Color Theory Influences Art

Last week, we talked a little bit about basic color theory. This week, we’ll take a look at how color theory influences art in general and how it can help you with your art in particular.

Let’s look at a few ways color theory influences art; yes, even your art!

Blending Two or More Colors to Make New Colors

You don’t need a lot of pencils and every color in the rainbow to make top notch colored pencil drawings. It is easier and faster if you have a lot of colors, but it’s not necessary.

In fact, if you have one or two shades of each of the primary colors, plus black, white, and maybe a few earth tones, you can blend any color you want by layering one color over another.

Remember that color wheel from the previous post? Here’s a possibly more practical illustration of the color wheel and color theory. I used only three colors on this: Red, blue, and yellow.

But I made two other colors in the process. Green resulted from layering blue over yellow and orange resulted from layering red over yellow.

You will notice that the orange is barely discernible from the red and you might wonder why. It’s because red is both darker in value and more dominant than yellow. Had I used lighter pressure with the red, but still burnished with the yellow (instead of burnishing both colors), there would have been a more distinct orange.


Some colors are more dominant than others. Even lightly applied, they appear bold. When combining them with less dominant or lighter value colors such as yellow, use light pressure with the dominant color and multiple layers of the less dominant color.

Changing the Brightness of Colors

One way color theory helps you create better art—especially if you do representational or realistic art—is in drawing more natural colors.

Lets say you want to draw a lush, spring landscape. Trees. Grass. Maybe a river or some flowers.

The natural inclination is to choose green pencils to draw green grass. I mean, that only makes sense, right? You don’t want the grass to be a solid block of a single shade of green, though, so you select a few shades of green from yellow-green to blue-green, and light to dark. That should do it. Right?

Except after you’ve layered all those lovely greens together, your grass looks fake. It’s, well, it’s simply too green. As though it was painted. It may even look like it might glow in the dark!

It really needs to be toned down, but how do you do that?

How Color Theory Influences Art - The Color Wheel

Cue the color wheel and color theory.

The complement of any color naturally tones down the color. In this color wheel, orange is opposite the color wheel from blue; it is the complementary color to blue. Shade a little blue over an orange object and the orange will be less vibrant, less bright.

Shade a little orange over blue and the blue becomes less vibrant.

Green has a complement, too. Red is the complementary color to green. So to tone down the bright greens in your landscape, lightly shade a little red over them.

In this illustration, I drew the grass with three different colors of green and two or three layers of each. Then I shaded Orange over the right half, followed by one more layer each of the two lightest greens.

How Color Theory Influences Art - Using Complementary Colors

Why did I use orange instead of red, which is the true complement? Because red is too dark a color. The values of the greens I drew are so light that red, even applied lightly, would have dominated the greens. Orange is a near complement and is also a lighter value, so it works just as well.


This technique works best if you incorporate the complementary color into normal layering process, rather than do a flat glaze like I did. Also use very light pressure. I used a flat glaze and a little heavier pressure so you could easily see the difference.

This method works with everything. Every color has a complement, and you can use complementary colors to alter the brightness or boldness of any color with any subject you might want to draw.

I have used red as a complementary under drawing for landscapes and it works perfectly for that. But for glazing greens after they’re on the paper, consider a lighter value, less dominant near complement.

Creating an Emotional Response

Sometimes, an artist wants to create a certain mood or emotional response. Maybe they want to convey a scene that’s lighthearted and happy. Or maybe they want to emphasize the gloom of a scene.

How Color Theory Influences Art - Using Cool Colors

In this drawing, my subject was the gray light of a rainy day more than the landscape itself. To depict that grayness and wetness, I chose colors that were visually cool. Even the greens, earth tones in the telephone poles, and the red in the stop sign are cool versions of those colors.

If I were to draw the same scene, and even the same gray day, with warm colors, it would have a different look and feel.

That’s How Color Theory Influences Art

Those are just three ways understanding color theory and help you use color to its full potential in your artwork. Master these tools, and your well on your way to producing artwork you can be proud to display.

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