Choosing Colors that Work Together

Several readers have wanted to know the best methods for choosing colors that work together. Experimenting is a good way to discover those happy color relationships, but it does get old fairly quickly. Isn’t there a better way?

Yes, there is, and I’d like to welcome fellow artist Sarah Renae Clark to tell us about those methods.

Basic Color Theory and Choosing Colors that Work Together

by Sarah Renae Clark

When we hear the words ‘color theory’, most people think back to their early school days and learning about mixing red with blue with yellow. But color theory is about so much more than just basic color mixing.

Let’s run through some basic color theory so that you can have a better understanding of which colors work well together and WHY.

Basic Color Theory

The Color Wheel

Most of us are familiar with the basic color wheel, made up of primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The color wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and has been used ever since.

The primary colors are the 3 main colors that make up every other color. These are red, blue and yellow.

When we mix any 2 of the primary colors together, we get the secondary colors. These are orange, green and purple.

When we mix a primary color with a secondary color, we get a tertiary color. These are the colors that sit between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. These are named after the colors that they are made from, such as red-orange, green-blue, red-purple, and so on.

Choosing Colors that Work Together - Color Wheels

Choosing colors that work together

This is where the color wheel gets interesting. Instead of just randomly choosing two colors and hoping they match, we can use the science behind the color wheel to quickly choose colors that will work well together.

When choosing more than two colors, try to focus on one main dominant color and use the other colors to support it.

Complementary colors – Two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and purple, or blue and orange.

Analogous colors – Three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as red, red-purple and purple or orange, orange-yellow and yellow.

Triadic colors – Three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel (like a triangle).

Choosing Colors that Work Together - Color Combinations

Split-complementary colors – Similar to complementary colors, but instead of choosing one color on the opposite side, choose the two colors adjacent to the complimentary color, such as blue with yellow and orange.

Tetradic colors (A.K.A. Double-complementary) – Four colors, made up from two sets of complementary colors that make a rectangle on the color wheel, such as orange, purple, blue and yellow.

Highlights and Shading

Once you understand the basics of the color wheel, you can create additional colors by adding white or black to create shades (adding black) and tints (adding white).

You can also use monochromatic colors together – Various shades or tints of a single color, such as a range of light and dark blues.

Finding color inspiration

The color wheel isn’t the only source of color inspiration. Nature provides us with some amazing color palettes that work extremely well together.

You can find existing color palettes on my website where I’ve taken pulled the colors from various photos to create different color palettes with warm colors, cool colors, different themes, different moods (bright and fun or dark and moody). Explore the range here.

Adobe also has a fantastic color wheel tool where you can set rules (such as analogous, complementary, or monochromatic) and drag the cursor around the color wheel, which automatically matches the other colors for you.

The opportunities are endless

The color wheel is a great place to start to find colors that work together, but it doesn’t have to create a limit. You can choose colors from everywhere – and sometimes the best color combinations come from experimenting! So get creative and see what you can come up with!

About the author

Sarah Renae Clark is a coloring book artist and blogger at www.sarahrenaeclark.com*. A designer and artist for over 10 years, she loves working with color and regularly creates new color palettes for others to be inspired by. She has a huge selection of color palettes and tutorials available on her website. She works closely with other artists and also has a range of teaching articles on her website to help other creative entrepreneurs to build their own businesses too.

You can follow Sarah at:
Facebook: Facebook.com/sarahrenaeclark
Instagram: Instagram.com/sarahrenaeclark and Instagram.com/dailycolorpalettes
Pinterest: Pinterest.com/sarahrenaeclark
Twitter: Twitter.com/sarahrenaeclark

*Affiliate Link

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Knowing how to draw vibrant shadows is key to realistic art. It doesn’t matter what medium you prefer, if your shadows are weak, contrast is weak.

Weak contrast makes for flat artwork, and we all know flat artwork doesn’t usually look very realistic.

So how to do you get strong contrast? Push those dark values as far as you can with strong, vibrant shadows!

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Value is the most important thing to get right in your art.  You need to have strong highlights and strong shadows.

But shadows can be so difficult to get right, as a recent reader question proved. There are so many different ways to draw shadows, the reader wanted to know the best way.

There really isn’t a “best way” that works with every drawing. You style of work, your subjects, and the colors you have available all play a role in how you draw shadows.

Five Ways to Draw Vibrant Shadows

There are as many different ways to draw shadows as there are artists. Sooner or later, every artist develops their own way of doing things.

Lets start with five red balls. I’ve drawn them all with the same color (Scarlet Lake) and to the same degree. There’s a decent range of values, but nothing stunning.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - 1

Use darker values of the same colors to draw shadows.

I “finished” the first ball with the same color simply by adding more layers of Scarlet Lake. The darker the values, the more layers.

The darkest values are burnished with Scarlet Lake to fill in the paper tooth and make the shadow darker.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Local Color

Use darker versions of the local colors to draw shadows.

From this point on, there are two important things to remember.

First, don’t add the new colors only to the shadows. Shade them over most of the middle values, too. Fade them out just like you fade the base (local) color, or you may end up with a shadow that looks “stuck on.”

Second, alternate layers of the new color and the local color. You should almost always finish with a layer of local color, too. That gives the shadow the look of being a darker version of the local color, rather than an entirely different color.

The shadow and darker middle values in the second ball are Crimson Lake. Crimson Lake is a darker red with a hint of blue. The resulting shadow is darker than the rest of the red, but still not very vibrant.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Darker Local Color

Add Black to dark versions of the local colors.

Black was layered over the shadow in the third ball. You might think this is the logical choice for darkening shadows, but as you can see, it didn’t really make the shadow very vibrant. Instead, the shadow looks more gray. That may work for some drawings.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Black

Add a complementary color to draw shadows.

I layered Grass Green into the shadow on the fourth ball. Green is the complement of red, so you could add red to the shadow of a green ball. Any complement naturally darkens and tones down the color it’s added to.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Complementary Color

Mix a dark brown and dark blue to draw shadows.

The best way to draw shadows is by mixing other colors. My favorite colors for shadows are dark brown and dark blue. Combined in alternating layers, they create lively dark values that rival black. That combination works with most medium to dark-colored objects and I’ve used them with great success on horses and landscapes.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Indigo and Dark Brown

For lighter colored objects, you’ll want to replace these colors with lighter shades.

Those are five ways to draw vibrant shadows.

There are other ways, too, so the best advice is to experiment. Do like I did with a series of balls or any other shape. The drawings don’t need to be polished pieces of fine art to help you find the best way to draw vibrant shadows in your own work.

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The Complementary Under Drawing Method

Today, I’d like to explain one of my favorite ways to draw: The complementary under drawing method. We’ll talk about what makes this drawing method unique, how you can use it to advantage, and few disadvantages to consider, as well.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained

The Complementary Under Painting Method Explained

The color wheel is what sets the complementary under drawing method apart from the other drawing methods I’ve used over the years. I don’t need to refer to a color wheel with the direct method or the umber under drawing method. The complementary under drawing method requires a color wheel.

In fact, the color wheel defines the method.

Read more about basic color theory.

When you use the complementary under drawing method, you create the under drawing with colors that are opposite the color wheel from the finished colors.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Color Wheel

For example, the complementary under drawing for an orange is blue, because blue is the complement to orange. Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Complex subjects as well as simple ones can be drawn effectively with this method. I’ve used it to draw horses and landscapes, and have seen excellent still life compositions rendered using this method. If you can dream it up, it can be drawn with the complementary under drawing method.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Sentinel

Advantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

That’s all well and good, but why should you try the complementary under drawing method? Here are a few of my reasons.

Deepens color depth and creates vibrant color

One way to create points of interest in artwork is to put complementary colors side by side. The contrast created by those two colors next to one and another adds a bit of sizzle to that part of the composition. That “sizzle” is a great way to emphasize the center of interest.

You would expect the same thing to happen when you layer complements one over another, wouldn’t you?

But it doesn’t.

A color layered over its complement produces a depth of color that’s difficult to get any other way.

Naturally tones down landscape greens

One of the biggest challenges facing me as a landscape artist is creating landscape greens that look natural. For years, that seemed like an insurmountable problem. The greens in my pencil box looked good in the box, but no matter how I mixed them on paper, they always ended up looking fake.

Way too bright.

Much too vibrant.

Practically glow-in-the-dark sometimes (at least that’s how it seemed to me!)

The first time I tried a complementary under drawing with a landscape, I didn’t expect much from it. How could it possibly work?

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Green Pastures

But it did!

I was convinced. When I started doing more landscapes, the complementary method was one of methods I used.

Disadvantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

I’ve made the complementary under drawing method sound like a magic bullet, haven’t I? A sure-fire cure for everything that can go wrong with a colored pencil drawing.

It’s not a magic bullet.

There are downsides, too.

Color selection can be confusing and  time consuming

Selecting the right colors for a complementary under drawing can get very complicated very quickly. If your subject is complex (colorful marbles or a still life,) choosing the right complement takes time and patience. For some that wouldn’t be a disadvantage. For others, it might be.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Marbles

The complementary under drawing method also presents the opportunity for a lot of nuance. Two trees side by side might both be green, but one is blue-green, and the other has more yellow.

You can use the same complement for both, but true complements would reflect those color shifts in the green.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Different Shades of Green

Or consider a group of horses, a flock of colorful birds or a bed of flowers..

For a lot of artists, that’s just more fussiness than they want to deal with.

Sometimes, that includes me!

It can take more time to finish a drawing

Any time you use a different set of colors to create the under drawing, you potentially extend the amount of time it takes to complete the drawing. Especially if your under drawings are very detailed.

It’s Easy to Create Mud

Remember I said one of the things I liked best about complementary under drawings for landscapes is that the complements naturally tone down the greens?

There is a dark side to that comment.

Complementary colors also tend to create muddy color if you’re not careful. Color that’s dull and lifeless results from carelessly choosing complementary color, or from using too much of the complement.

The landscape greens I love so much would go from just the right green to an ugly, dull green when I use too much red.

Or the wrong kind of red.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A brief explanation of the complementary under drawing method.

If you haven’t yet experimented with it, I urge you to take time to do so.

And if you’d like more information, I’ve selected a collection of articles on this blog and EmptyEasel.

On The Blog

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals shows you how I used this method to draw a horse.

Colored Pencil Blog Class – The Complementary Method

This two-part series also features a horse, but this time in a pastoral setting.

How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

Adding Color to a Complementary Under Drawing

On EmptyEasel

How to Draw a Landscape Using the Complementary Drawing Method

This three-part series takes you step-by-step from the first layers of complementary color to the final touches on the drawing, The Sentinel.

How to Draw a Complementary Under painting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Under painting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting.

Looking for More Personal Information?

If you have any questions, ask in the comment box below, or send me an email.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips

Today, I want to share four general colored pencil tips resulting from reader questions. Topics include tips for drawing water, drawing fur, drawing on colored paper, and a question about color theory.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips

Four General Colored Pencil Tips

1.  What Tips Do You Suggest for Drawing Water?

The best tip I can give for drawing water is to view it like an abstract. Look at the colors, edges, and shapes in the reference, then draw them as best you can.

Water is highly reflective; it picks up colors from the surroundings. So the colors you use to draw water depend entirely on the setting. Draw water in a marina using the colors of boats, bouys, sails, and docks. Draw water in a wooded setting with the colors of trees, rocks, grass, and sky.

There are also sharp edges between colors and values. The sharper the edges, the wetter the water will look.

Finally, observe the shapes that appear in the water. They may not make any sense while you’re drawing them, but if you draw them true to the reference, they will make sense when viewed all together.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips - Drawing Water

Don’t be discouraged if drawing water doesn’t work out the first time. Water is one of the most difficult things to draw accurately. It takes a lot of practice and skill, but you can do it.

Read Tips for Drawing Reflections on Water for more information.

2. What Tips Do You Suggest for Drawing Fur?

With hair and most textures like it (grass, for example), stroke in the direction of hair growth and match your strokes to the type of hair. Short, straight strokes for short, straight hair. Long strokes for long hair.

Don’t worry about drawing every hair, but concentrate on drawing the hair masses that occur naturally.

Mix colors to create color. If you’re drawing black, don’t use just a black pencil. When I draw a black horse, I use everything thing from dark green and dark blue to light violets and other colors.

The same rule of thumb applies to any color of hair. It’s always best to use at least three colors: one light value, one dark value, and one value in between.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips - Drawing Fur

Read Tips for Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil for more suggestions and examples.

3. What Tips Do You Suggest for Drawing on Toned Paper?

The color of the paper directly affects the way colors appear. A color that looks bright on white paper, will look duller on dark paper.

The darker the paper, the darker colors appear. Some of the darker colors will disappear altogether. Dark browns, dark blues, and dark greens will barely make a mark on dark paper.

If you use a medium value paper, you can draw highlights as well as shadows, and that can be a great time saver.

Colored paper sets the mood for the drawing. Yellow paper gives a drawing a bright, sunny feel, and gray paper creates a more subdued mood.

Do a few studies on the color of paper you want to try before starting a piece you hope to finish. Experiment with various color combinations. See what works and what doesn’t work.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips - Drawing Paper

Read Colored Drawing Papers for additional tips and suggestions for making the best use of colored paper.

4. How Does Color Theory Affect My Drawing?

Color theory affects every drawing just like gravity affects all of life. You don’t have to understand it in order for it to work. It just works.

But understanding how color theory works at even the most basic level helps you make better decisions about the colors you choose.

For example, complementary colors create “zing.” Cool colors generally recede into the distance, while warm colors generally move forward.

Adding accents in a warm color emphasizes an object that’s drawn in a setting filled with cool colors and vice versa.

I devoted one month to a discussion of color theory with articles that included the basics of color theory, how color theory affects art (including examples,) and a color theory drawing exercise.

4 General Colored Pencil Tips - Color Wheel

I also recommend a two-part podcast series on color theory for colored pencil by Sharpened Artist. Both episodes are excellent for a brief description of color theory and why it’s important to the artist, no matter the medium.

Listen to Color Theory Part 1, and Listen to Color Theory Part 2.

Color Theory Drawing Exercise

We’ve spent the month talking about color theory and how it affects your art. We have an extra (fifth) Saturday in this month, so I thought I’d share a color theory drawing exercise…. just for fun.

Well, and for learning, too.

Color Theory Drawing Exercise

So are you ready to get started with your color theory drawing exercise?

What You Need

An adult coloring page (or book if you have one). If you need a page, search the internet for free adult coloring pages, and you’ll have thousands of choices. Don’t want to spend all day searching? The site I found and from which I downloaded a couple of pages is www.easypeasyandfun.com. It’s a fairly easy site to navigate and features several collections based on subject and difficulty.

Pixabay is also a great place to get printable and free coloring pages, though their selection is much more limited.

Your favorite colored pencils. Any brand will do, though the better the quality, the more likely you’ll get good results.

That’s it!

How It Works

Choose the adult coloring page you want to use. It can be as simple or complex as you like, but should ideally be on the simple side, with enough shapes for blending colors, but not so many that it takes days to fill in.

Choose the colors you want to use. My suggestion is to start with the primaries—red, yellow, and blue, but you can also do analogous colors, warm colors, or cool colors. To get the most from the exercise, use no more than a dozen colors. Don’t worry! You can do the exercise as many times as you like and with as many color combinations as you can think of.

Color your page and see what happens.

For Best Results

  • Use only one color for some shapes
  • Layer two colors over some shapes
  • Layer three or more colors over some shapes
  • Fill in some areas with layers applied with light pressure and other areas with a single layer applied heavily

This isn’t “serious art”, so don’t worry how things turn out. You’ll learn faster by experimenting than by playing it safe, so be bold. Try things with this exercise that you’d never do while creating a piece of fine art.

Need a Little Inspiration?

Here’s my finished color theory drawing exercise. The page is from  www.easypeasyandfun.com and is one of the leaf coloring pages.

Color Theory Drawing Exercise Sample

I included complementary color combinations, a couple of different analogous color combinations, cool colors, warm colors, and a few complementary color pairings.

Some of the leaves were shaded with one or two burnished layers, and others with multiple layers applied with lighter pressure.

I even included some leaves that show varying value ranges.

So start there, and see what else you can come up with.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

Is color the most important thing to get right in your colored pencil drawings?

A lot of beginning artists believe color is the most important part of drawing. Or painting, for that matter. Just look at all those gorgeous Classical paintings or brightly colored contemporary art. The color is often enough to make your mouth water, isn’t it. It has to be important.

Color is important.

But it’s not the most important thing to get right.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right Is…

Values.

The range of lights and darks in your drawing will make or break it, no matter how accurate your colors. Especially if you draw in anything like a realistic style. Get the colors spot on, but do nothing with values, and your drawing is flat.

Get the values correct, however, and even if you don’t use any color at all, your drawing will look like what it’s supposed to look like.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

Let me show you with a simple illustration.

One Color Without Value

Here’s a ball. Drawn all with one color. I’ve layered the green as evenly as possible over the paper. It’s a nice shade of green, and pretty. But is it a ball?

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 01

No. It’s a circle, because every part of it is the same darkness of green. There are no shadows, and there are no highlights. In other words, it’s all the same value.

Maybe it’s just not dark enough. Let’s make it a little darker and see what happens.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 02

Hmmm.

It is darker. More of the paper holes are filled in and the green is richer, but…

…it’s still all the same value. It’s still a circle, not a ball.

Here it is as dark as I could make it. Now it has a nice dark value, doesn’t it? I’ve done as much with the color as I can.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 03

But it’s still all the same value. It’s just darker. And it’s still not a ball. Not even close.

One Color With Value

Okay, back to square (circle) one. Same color, same single value. Same result.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 01

This time, however, instead of darkening the whole thing, I’m going to darken just a part of it: The part that will be in shadow. A couple more layers and a little more pressure, and we’re getting somewhere! Finally!

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 05

Let’s make that shadow a little darker. Even better.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 06

But it’s not quite there yet. I’ve gone as dark as I can with the color I’m using. What am I missing? Back to the drawing board.

One Color With Full Value

For this illustration, I lifted a little bit of color to create a highlight on the opposite side of the shape from the shadows. You can also work around highlights to get brighter highlight areas.

I used the same green as for the other circles, but also added a slightly darker green to darken the shadow a little bit more.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 07

Now, finally, we have something that looks like a ball! All it needs is a cast shadow and it’s good.

But can it be made to look even more like a ball?

Two Colors and Value

Now I’ve added a shade of blue that’s a little darker still to the shadows on the ball. It’s not a big difference, but it is a difference.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 08

Good Even Without Color

Now to show you that it really is the value, not the color, that turned this circle into a ball, here’s the illustration above converted to gray scale. No color, just shades of gray.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right - Illustration 09

So the Most Important Thing to Get Right Really is Value

Adding value to the color is what makes a circle (or any other shape) look three dimensional. The color is like the skin. The value is the body.

Value is, beyond all doubt, the most important thing to get right in any form of drawing or painting if you’re doing realism. That’s why I often recommend to artists new to colored pencil that they start with just a few high-quality colored pencils and learn to use them well.

Learn to draw value with just a few colors, and you’ll be able to draw anything with as many–or as few—colors as you wish.

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.

How Color Theory Influences 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.

How Color Theory Influences Art - Blending Colors

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.

TIP: 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?

Cue the color wheel and color theory.

The complement of any color naturally tones down the color. In the color wheel below, 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.

How Color Theory Influences Art - The Color Wheel

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 it.

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.

The left third of the illustration has a glaze of red over it. Can you see the difference?

TIP: 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 complementary color, 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 in the people who see a particular drawing or painting. Maybe they want to convey a scene that’s lighthearted and happy. Or maybe they want to emphasize the gloom of a scene.

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.

How Color Theory Influences Art - Using Cool 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.

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.

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.

Understanding the Basics of Color Theory

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.

color-wheel

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.