The Importance of Contrast in Painting

There are many different ways we can depict Contrast in Painting, and because of this, this lesson will need to be split into different parts so we can go into each different type of contrast in depth. But first let’s get into exactly what contrast means.

The dictionary definition is as follows:

Contrast: The state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in
juxtaposition or close association.
Synonyms:  opposition - antithesis - opposite - contradistinction

So I think we all have a pretty good feel of what something is when it is in contrast with an opposing element. But how does this relate to painting and color? In what different ways can we show contrast simply by using different colors? Take a pad and paper and write down all the different ways we could create contrast with colors. You might not know the exact terms for them, but you’ll still be able to figure out some common ways this is done. When you’re finished writing your list you can continue with the lesson where I will go through all the different types of contrast.

Assignment: Write down all the different ways we can create or experience contrasts of color.


All done writing? Good. Now we can flip to the back of the book and see the right answers. Don’t feel bad if you only came up with three or four different types of contrast. These things are rarely taught at the college level let alone primary school art education classes.  It boggles my mind as to why; however,  it is one of the most concrete foundations of painting which you will ever learn.

You may be asking “why is contrast so important?” and the answer is simple. Our eyes love contrast and it is how we make sense of the world. If you want to highlight a certain area of a painting then this is the area which should have the highest amount of contrast. Our eyes are naturally drawn to these areas, and it is easy information for our brains to process. When making a two dimensional representation of the three dimensional world we need to take advantage of how we see, in order to translate this to a believable painting.

Let’s start with Contrast of Hue and what exactly this means.

Contrast of Hue:

This is the simplest of the different types of contrast that painters often use. You should remember that the term Hue just means a color which has not been diluted in any way. It is color in its “purest” form. When we put multiple different colors up against each other we will see a very strong contrast between them.  For starters lets look at this painting by Ellsworth Kelley which is a simple illustration of the strength of contrast of hue. He uses the three primary colors in their purest form and paints each individually.

All three of these primary colors are in strict opposition to each other. So much so that there doesn’t seem to be any relation to them at all. Each color stands alone as if it were its own entity altogether. This is what I mean by contrast of hue. So how can we take this out of the square minimalistic boxes and start applying it to more complex compositions? I believe the next painting by Mondrian takes a step in that direction and we can see that not only can we work with these elements as if they stood on their own, but we can also integrate them into a larger composition.

And now let’s take this idea a step further and apply to a composition which has some figural elements as well. In the following painting by Matisse we can see that he used only contrasts in hues, and black and white to create an entire composition that includes both a figure in an environment, but also a small landscape in the window. There are a few other types of contrast occurring in this painting but we’ll get to those later.

contrast matisse

When dealing with only Contrast of Hue we can see that many of the paintings take on a youthful or even joyous feeling to them. Which is one reason why many of the Fauvists decided to use these colors to enhance the meaning of their exuberant paintings. But these types of examples of Contrast of Hue aren’t only from the 20th century. Painters have used this rule of painting for hundreds of years to create an atmosphere of intensity. One can look at Raphael’s Adoration of the Magi for an older example of how Contrast of Hue was utilized hundreds of years ago.

adoration magi raphael painting

Assignment: So I hope I’ve given you a good indication of what Contrast of Hue means. For the following assignments you will be working with only Hues (undiluted). I want you to paint a 12 square checkerboard of all these different colors plus white and black (Mondrian is a good example of how to approach this). After that you will be working on an abstract painting which uses the same palette which was used in the checkerboard assignment. Be careful to keep every color as pure as possible (Don’t mix your colors! Use them straight out of the tube). We’ll get into differences in value and other color theory in subsequent assignments. If you need more help look at the example below which was done by a student working on the same assignment.


Contrast of Value:

This is another rule of color theory which is fairly easy to grasp but which is often ignored.  When speaking of the contrast of value we are talking about the lightness vs the darkness of certain colors. The easiest way to illustrate this is to first deal with only black and white as it is the easiest way to see a difference in value.  In the video below by EmptyEasel we see a very clear representation of how we can use simple dark and light contrasts to create certain effects which create a more believable depiction of the 3d world on a 2d surface.

In the following drawing by Seurat we can see how a contrast in value achieves similar effects as the video outlined above. Notice how each edge has a sharp contrast in value against the other edges. This pushes certain elements back in space and allows for other elements to come to the forefront. It should be noted however, as stated in the video above, that it isn’t bad to sometimes have your values “bleed” into each other as this causes a composition to have linkages which give it an overall feeling of unity.

Now lets look at another example but this time working with color and the different values that colors have as well. In the following painting by Rembrandt look at how he effectively uses Contrast of Value to bring our eye right to the most important feature of the painting.

Assignment: First start out by mixing a 5 step value scale in black and white acrylic paint. Once you have all of your colors mixed you will be creating a grid based solely on these five different values. The first thing I want you to do is create a graduated blend from dark to light going diagonally across your canvas. Once this is dry, use your 5 different values which you have mixed to create strips of squares going across the canvas. An example of this can be seen below. Notice how the surrounding value completely changes the way we perceive the value in the square.  Even though the values are the same across the entire strip of squares they appear to be of different lightness/darknesses in the end.

value contrast

Extra Credit: Do the same exercise by first mixing a value scale of a certain color, and then finish the assignment with that color as opposed to black and white.


Cold Warm Contrast:

In this type of contrast we are looking at the perceived temperature of a color. These should be pretty straightforward to everyone. In class when I ask about which colors are warm and which colors are cool I’ll generally get the following responses.

Red- Hot

Orange- Warm

Yellow- Warm

Green – Cool

Blue – Cold

Violet – Cool

So how can we use these differences in perceived temperature to our advantage? Well, the easiest way to begin to depict the differences in Cool/Warm Contrast can be seen in many landscape paintings. When one looks at a landscape we will notice that things in the far distance take on more of a cool bluish tone (this was first observed by Da Vinci who named this phenomena Atmospheric Perspective). So it is fair to say that cooler colors tend to recede into the distance, while warmer colors want to push to the front in space. In this painting by Corot we can see this in action. Notice how the cool colors near the horizon recede into the distance while the warm orange tones of the ground naturally seem closer to us. The same can also be seen in the Van Gogh painting as well.

But once again, this rule not only can apply to landscape paintings to achieve a sense of depth. It can also be used in figurative works much in the same way as Contrast of Value to direct the viewers eye to certain places. In the image below by Odd Nerdrum we can see how Contrast of Warm and Cool colors makes the figures stand out against their background, but also if we look really closely at the flesh we can also see a lot of warm vs cold happening in shadows vs light areas of value as well.

Assignment: Mix up six different colors both of which are examining the ideas of cold and warm colors. For instance Orange, Red, and Yellow for warm, and Green, Blue, and Violet for Cool. Then create an inverted city landscape where the cool colors are in the foreground, and the warm colors are in the background. This will create an immediate sense of tension (something we convered in Gestalt Principles of Design) and create an interesting dynamic. If this sounds too hard for you to grasp you can take a look at how a third grader interpreted this assignment. If a third grader can do it, so can you.


Complimentary Contrast:

In this case we are looking at how complimentary colors (colors opposite one another on the color wheel) activate elements in a composition and create a contrast. If you recall during the Color Wheel for Painting lesson we extensively went into exactly what complimentary colors are and how they work.  Complimentary contrast is often also used to create a sense of contrast and highlight certain objects. It is also many times used to give a painting an overall feeling of harmony as our eyes naturally see the compliment to every color which we perceive (see Properties of Color for further reference).

In the painting below by Monet we see how complimentary contrast can bring life to a painting and can be used effectively to convey harmony across the entire composition.

Notice the interplay between all the complimentary colors in this painting. The blues happily reside right next to the oranges, and the shadows are filled with both violets as well as yellows. But it is important to note that there are numerous shades of each color, and that much experimentation had to be done to get the colors to harmonize. When working with complimentary contrast it is important to understand that one must also manipulate the value of a color when laid beside another in order for the painting to be read correctly. Simply put, this means that the painting should still work as a drawing if a black and white photo were taken of it.

Assignment:Using some source material (either a photo or a sketch) make a portrait painting of a person in which the subject is the complimentary color to the background. Remember as always, the places you want to highlight the most should have the most intense complimentary contrast in the whole composition. You can take a look at this self portrait (after he cut off his ear) by Van Gogh for inspiration.


Simultaneous Contrast:

Now things start to get a bit trickier as we delve into types of contrast which aren’t as clearly defined as the previous ones. Simultaneous contrast identified by Michel Eugène Chevreul refers to the manner in which the colors of two different objects affect each other. The effect is more noticeable when shared between objects of complementary color.

In the image here, the two inner rectangles are exactly the same shade of grey, but the upper one appears to be a lighter grey than the lower one due to the background provided by the outer rectangles.

Simultaneous Contrast

This is a different concept from contrast, which by itself refers to one object’s difference in color and luminance compared to its surroundings or background. Basically it is important to always remember that whatever color surrounds the color you wish to depict will change how we perceive that color. For this reason you’ll see that many artist palettes are grey which gives the least amount of interference with the color which is being mixed.

Assignment: Using Simultaneous Contrast create an abstract composition where the same color is used in different places throughout the composition but appears to be a different color when viewed overall. This can be achieived by first working on a large “background” of your painting first, and then painting in small sections of the same color in different selected small sections of the work. You can look at the painting below and examine how the same color has vastly different qualities based upon the colors surrounding it.


Contrast of Saturation:

This refers to the contrast present when more than one instance of a saturated color are present. We previously covered saturation and intensity, and by using Contrast by Saturation we can achieve an effect which gives us contrast based solely on the saturation (brightness) of a color. In the image below we can see how different colors change when their saturation is changed. Generally this can be easily achieved by adding more white, black, or a colors compliment to the color which is being mixed.

In the following painting by Matisse we can see how he used different saturations of the same color to achieve contrast. The pipe is the most saturated color in the painting, and also the place where our eye goes first. By doing so he has led our eye in the right direction by using a more intense/saturated color up against less saturated colors.

Assignment: Start with a very saturated color and make it less saturated by adding black in successive amounts, then do the same with white and make five different variations of tints. Then mix it with it’s compliment and make five different variations of the color. Using this single color as a base make a painting based upon a sketch or photo while thinking about which area should be the most important (saturated) and which areas should be the least.


Contrast by Extension:

Think of this as seeing the overall color theme for an entire work first. Looking at the painting by Breugel below we can see that the painting has an overall feeling of being very blue and cold. While the animals as well as the people are contrasted against the larger environment. Essentially you are contrasting a large amount of canvas against a very small portion. In order to achieve this effect you must also use other types of contrast which we have already covered such as Warm/Cool Contrast , Or Complimentary Contrast. The idea being that large areas will effect smaller areas, and if these smaller areas are in high contrast against the larger whole a balance can be achieved and the smaller subjects can be seen as more important.

Assignment: For this assignment you will first create a landscape which has an overall color theme to it (cool colors work best such as green and blue) and then you will create a figure to put into this environment which is out of tune with the larger color theme.  You will notice immediately that the figure stands out in a very extreme fashion to the point where it may not seem like it should fit. If this is the case you can lower the intensity of the figure by lowering the saturation of the color.

Color Wheel for Painting

What is the correct color wheel for painting? It has been hotly debated for over a century, and everyone seems to have an opinion about what the “real” primary colors are. In the following post I hope to educate you about some of the theories about just which primary colors are the best to be used for painting, and why. Of course I also offer some of my own personal opinion based upon my own studies of color as well as my experience as someone who loves painting in oils.

tertiary colors

The first problem we run into when looking at the various color wheels which can be used for painting involves something called Tertiary Colors. Tertiary colors are created when one mixes a primary color (Red, Yellow, Blue) with one secondary color (orange, violet, green). Generally these are the colors located next to them on the color wheel.

They often have specific names which can get quite exotic such as Sea Green, or Azure. This is because often designers want to come up with a cool name for a color so they can market it better. For various reasons painters have been taught and told to use the RYB color wheel. A few reasons include the fact that artist materials which are available now used to have toxic compounds in them. Now with the advent of dyes it is easier to synthesize a color such as cyan. The one thing to remember however when using these colors is that dyes will fade with age, while real pigments (such as cadmium) have already stood the test of time for centuries. 

First we will be focusing on the Red/Yellow/Blue color wheel which is most often used by painters. In the color wheel above the Tertiary Colors shown are Yellow Green, Blue Green, Yellow Orange, Red Orange, Red Violet, Blue Violet, and Blue Green. This was widely believed to be standard colors to use for quite some time, and is still often used in Art Education up to this day.

old color wheel

An RYB color chart from George Field’s 1841 Chromatography; or, A treatise on colours and pigments: and of their powers in painting

Back in the 18th century the theories surrounding color theory were cemented in the idea that the RYB (Red/Yellow/Blue) was the way to go. These theories have since changed over the years, however the RYB color model is still often used in teaching painting, and color theory up to this day.

These theories were enhanced by 18th-century investigations of a variety of purely psychological color effects, in particular the contrast between “complementary” or opposing hues that are produced by color afterimages and in the contrasting shadows in colored light.

During the 18th century the theory of the RYB model was furthered by two great thinkers. They were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Michel Eugene Chevreul. They were both transfixed by what is called the Psychological effects of color, and obsessed with how our eyes perceive color. One of the main things they observed was how complementary colors (that means they are opposite each other on the color wheel) created afterimages in our brains when they were “burned” into our eyes. They were also interested in why shadows in colored light would create contrasting shadows. You can download Goethe’s The Theory of Colors here as I’ve uploaded it to this site. It is in the creative commons so there it has no copyright and is in the Public Domain.

After Goethe and his treatise on color, scientists moved away from the RYB color wheel and shifted towards a color wheel which most everyone sees every day. This is the Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) model which still dominates a lot of media to this day (Hint: It’s how your TV works). To understand how this color wheel operates we need to go back to the previous lesson, and further examine how different lights makes different colors as opposed to how pigments (or physical mixtures of color) differ.

In the previous lessons we have talked about Additive and Subtractive colors. Forgive me if I wasn’t clear enough before, but these lessons are meant to be sequential, and therefore sometimes I will withhold information so you can absorb it at different rates.

To put it simply, Additive Color is created by adding color. How do we add color? Well, by using light. That’s why if you get up close to a TV set you will see tiny little bars of Red, Green, and Blue. Learning about additive color is particularly important for those who use a computer to create their imagery, as they are dealing with a medium that is essentially based upon the glow of a computer screen.  Now, what happens when that person decides he wants to print out the image on his screen? The answer is that he will need to deal with another color wheel when the image is printed from a computer screen onto a piece of paper! This is because a piece of paper doesn’t glow, it’s reflecting light from a light bulb or the sun.  As we discussed previously, an object doesn’t hold a certain color because it reflects it, it is a certain color because it absorbs all the other colors in the spectrum. Hence the term, subtractive color.

So we, as painters, aren’t painting with light, we’re painting with paint. Hence, we need to use a color wheel which is specific to our needs. Let’s take a look at the two different types of color wheels. Check out the first one below. This is a classical color wheel which utilizes Red, Yellow, and Blue as the primaries.

There’s some nice oranges and violets in there right? Oh? What’s that, you want them to be brighter and more vibrant? Well, then you can use the Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow color wheel below.  CMYK is the color wheel which is utilized in printing, and has generally been regarded as the “true” set of primaries.

Subtractive Color Wheel

But there’s a few problems with this color wheel. Mainly, it doesn’t exist in nature (as in, natural pigments) as readily available as the colors which have been used for thousands of years. However if you want to oil paint with Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow then you can. But if you believe that oil paints will mix similarly to  a printing machine then you’re fooling yourself. As you have probably already learned, different colors and different pigments have different strengths and weaknesses.

By this I mean every color has different properties. In the printing process CMYK(K stands for black) are often used in transparent glazes. For instance, in order to make red in in CMYK printing you first print a tiny little magenta dot, and then on top of that dot is a yellow which is semi transparent. That’s how you make red. Now with oil paint let’s say that you want to paint a giant red object. If you were painting by utilizing the CMYK printing model you’d have to first paint an entire layer magenta, wait three days, and then on top of that you would glaze a bit of yellow on top of it to get your red. So yes, it is possible to paint with CMYK, but the simple answer is that it would simply take FOREVER to finish a painting, because we’re not machines, and paint takes a long time to dry.

So what do we do as painters? Which color wheel should we use? I would suggest that you (that’s right, you) find a palette that you enjoy working with. Limit it to no more than 10 colors, and get used to it. It takes a long time to learn how to properly mix and see color so find a palette that you feel comfortable manipulating. I know for me I like to use Cadmium Red Medium, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Pthalo Blue, Pthalo Green, Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Ultramarine Blue, Raw Umber, Permanent Violet Medium, and Titanium White. And that’s what I’ve used for numerous painting tutorials that I’ve done. It’s a hybrid of both CMYK as well as the Old RYB models. With RYB it can be difficult to make a nice brilliant violet as well as green. So what do you do? You buy them 🙂 And if you want to try to paint with Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow then you can. These colors are generally referred to as Process Blue, Process Red, and Process Yellow. They’re dyes so they won’t last as long (meaning they’ll fade faster) as the classical pigments  but they could be interesting to experiment with. For me? I’ll stick to Cadmiums, Ultramarine, Titanium, and Cobalt. There’s a reason why they’ve been around for thousands of years.

Properties of Color

Properties of Color

The three main properties of color are Hue, Intensity, and Value.

Hue refers to the color of something, meaning that when we speak of green (for instance) and it’s greeness we are referring to the Hue.

Intensity refers to the saturation or “vibrancy” of a color. In the graph below you can see how Intensity can differ in a color. Intensity of a color can be changed in a few different ways.

1: Adding white to a color will lighten it and also diminish it’s intensity. Adding white to a color is commonly referred to as tinting the color.

2: Adding black to a color will also diminish it’s intensity. This is commonly reffered to as a Shade.

3: Adding a mixture of grey to a color will dimish its intensity. Grey is often employed instead of using white and black (independently) as it can  allow the value of the color to stay close to the original and avoid making a color too dark, or too light.

4: Adding a compimentary color will diminish the intensity. If you don’t know about complimentary color then please check out Color Theory Basics.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. This was also covered in Color Theory Basics, as well as Creating Value Scales in Color.

Now that we know the three basic properties of color we can move on to some principles of color. Think of the properties of color as the skeleton of what makes a color what it is. But there’s a lot more to color than just it’s measurable attributes! Colors talk to each other and operate as a community. It is nearly impossible to experience a single color all by its self. So that’s the first hurdle you need to get over in beginning to understand color theory. Every color is effected by the colors around it.

But that’s not all! As we discussed in the introductory lesson (Intro to Color Theory) color is also based on subjective considerations as well. For instance, some color is used symbolically such as a bride wearing white at a wedding. This was originally done to show purity. On the other hand Black is generally symbolically worn at funerals. Green is worn for St Patricks day. Red and Green are the colors of Christmas. Orange the color for Halloween. But again, it is important to reiterate that these colors are just common for the culture I come from. Perhaps someone is reading this in Tehran or New Delhi. They will notice that they too have their own ceremonial colors that differ from mine (please comment any ceremonial colors distinct to your culture below!).  So remember that colors can also be used symbolically.

Another consideration is that there are real measurable frequencies and wavelengths for color. These are measured in Terahertz and Nanometres. In this graph you can see the measurable frequencies and wavelengths in the primary and secondary colors.

A very creative artist who had a strong proclivity towards scientific inquiry could surely make some interesting paintings based solely of the physical attributes of color and this measuring system. However, the vast majority of artists will be looking at different properties and principles of color in order to craft their works and the realism (or lack thereof) and mood they wish to transmit to the viewer.

There’s one element of color I’ve been hiding from you thus far. And that is that color exists in two different ways. Color exists as pure sunlight which can be broken up by using a prism and these colors have their own properties, and through artificial means such as pigments, dyes, chemical concoctions, nature, and paint. Now the tricky part we need to reconcile is that without light we obviously can’t see colors. So in the full scheme of things we need sunlight (which holds its own spectrum of color) to shine down from the sky, hit an object on earth, bounce off the object, and into our eyes, where it’s sensed by light sensitive cells, at which point it is transmitted and processed by our brain, and then in our brain it relays the relevant information and associates it with words, feelings, or emotions. “Yes, the ocean is blue. Beautiful”

But it doesn’t stop there. Our brains also have a propensity to try and make sense of the world, and as painters we must walk the line of dealing with illusion. After all, a canvas is a flat two dimensional object and we want to create an illusion of depth, form, and emotion, on a flat surface.  So we must be aware of the properties of color if we want to have a full set of tools to create the illusions we want to on the canvas.

In the following frames we will be looking at some of the properties of color in sunlight. And some of the properties of color as they pertain to how the brain tries to make sense of them.

In 1676 Sir Isaac Newton used a prism to separate and analyze a spectrum of colors. He could see that by analyzing sunlight one could see all of the hues besides purple. We have the same group of colors  in the first image above. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, Violet. Now, if we take these colors,  and mix them, we will get white. Remember we’re talking about sunlight here! Obviously these colors react differently when they are in a physical form such as paint.

So why do we get white when we mix colors of light, and get brown when we mix paints? Well, the answer isn’t as simple as it may seem. Light works in a strange way so take a second to absorb what I’m about to tell you. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, and Violet all make up the full spectrum of colors in sunlight. Now, lets say we take one of these colors out, for instance Yellow. So we are left with Red, Orange, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, Violet. What color do we end up with? The answer is that we get the compliment of the color which we removed from the spectrum, so in this case of removing yellow from the spectrum we get violet. Since you all know your color wheels and complimentary colors by now it is quite easy to answer this question time and time again. If we isolate blue we get orange. Isolate Red and we get Green. Think of it like this, by taking out red we are still dealing with Yellow and Blue. Mix yellow and Blue, and surprise! It’s green. The compliment of red.

Properties of color

Now that you’re probably ready to start pulling your hair out let me try to explain why this is.  Our eyes can’t see the  individual hues when combined in the full spectrum . So what you probably were thinking is that things that are red are red because they are absorbing the red part of the spectrum of colors right? Wrong! 😀 A red apple is red because it can absorb every color but red! So when we see a red apple it is absorbing  Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, and Violet. It’s reflecting the red color of the spectrum because all of the other colors are absorbed! So what happens when we shine a green light on a red apple? The apple will appear black since there is no red present to be reflected and all the colors are absorbed.

Take a look at the image below. Here I have illuminated this strange furry green ball with a red lamp.  The result is obvious. The ball absorbs most all of the red light and doesn’t have any green light to reflect the “greeness” of the ball. This causes the ball to look black and not green.

So far we’ve spoke a lot about the different properties of color. We have physical properties of color (which are measurable), we have symbolic properties of color, we understand how the properties of color are different for light and paint. In the next lesson  I will speak about the elephant in the room. Our brains, and how they process colors. No, this won’t be another section about emotion or symbolism. In this section it is more scientific as well as a trip into an area of science which still hasn’t concluded just why our brains process color the way that they do.

Color Emotions

Color Emotions.

Before we get into what different emotions can be transmitted to a viewer/participant who is experiencing different colors, it is first important to understand that there is an entire field devoted to studying how color effects our emotions. By studying color psychology we can begin to understand the complex and mysterious world of Color Emotions.

Color Psychology is a relatively new branch of Psychology which deals with how color relates to human behavior and emotions. In the advertising world this is well known, and debated. Why are the golden arches of McDonalds yellow-orange? Why are prescription pills brightly colored? Why do we paint rooms green to calm people?

According to color psychologists these colors elicit certain responses in individuals that can effect their behavior as well as their mood. As a painter working with color one could use the common reactions to certain colors to one’s benefit, and employ similar methods to evoke similar moods in the viewers of our work. Blue tends to have a very calming effect, and in Glasgow blue lights were installed in traditionally violent neighborhoods, which then saw a reduction in the amount of assaults occurring in the area. In Japan blue lights were installed at metro stations where a lot of people had committed suicide. When it comes to red (a color associated with passion) we see the red light districts who are trying to create an atmosphere of sex and intensity. And nowhere is the effects of color psychology at play more than at  theater and music performances where light operators dim and change colors to fit the mood of the play or song being performed.

It is apparent that the stage which was set up above was most likely prepared for a band that plays soothing and relaxing music. This doesn’t take special equipment to measure the physical attributes of color and how it effects us. For whatever reasons we as humans regard blues, dark reds, and violets as soothing or relaxing colors.

At this point you should have a basic understanding of what color psychology is and most likely you also understand what colors are commonly used to evoke certain feelings, behaviors, and moods. The same is true with painting. Let’s take a look at a few famous paintings by Paul Klee and see how he used color in different ways to generate different ideas.

In this painting Klee used childlike colors to further accentuate his ideas about his subject matter. It makes one think of the circus, cotton candy, or a box of crayons. The primitive drawing style furthers Klee’s concept which often was inspired by children’s art.

color emotions

In this painting (also by Klee) we see simple blocks of color which are painted very loosely and minimalistically. But lets think about what the overall effect of using the colors that Klee chose to use. The deep browns and violets evoke a more serious tone to the work and produce a feeling of relaxation and contemplation. Very different than the colors Klee chose to use in his childlike portrait. A lot of this may seem like a no brainer. You may be thinking “of course Blue is calming, and red is enegetic! Why bother blathering on about it forever?” Well, the reason why it is important to discuss the pasychology of color is because often beginning painters will get caught up in just trying to represent a scene, or image, without taking into consideration the overall impact certain color decisions will have on the piece as a whole.  A shadow can be blue, red, or green. So what you need to ask yourself is what shadow color will best help depict the subject matter, as well as the mood you are trying to create.

As stated previously there is not a set list of how everyone will respond to color. While personal experience and memory can be closely tied to certain colors; overall there is some agreement as to what emotions can be triggered by using certain colors. Below I have made a list of some of the most common associations that my past students have made with certain colors.  While it is by no means an authoratative list on the topic, it is nonetheless obvious that many people make the same associations with certain colors.


Energy, Vitality, Hot, Machismo, Sex, Anger, Rage, Attention,


Warmth (sun), Cheery, Happy, Loud, Fun, Sickness,


Calming,Contemplation, Trustworthiness, Relaxing, Freezing, Sadness,


Ritualistic, Religious, Plush, Luxurious, Insanity, Strange,


Life, Energy, Relaxation, Soothing, Natural, Boring, Depression,


Warmth, Cozy, Fun, Young, Natural,


Beauty, Femininity, Love, Sex, Playful, Weak,


Natural, Secure, Dirty, Comfort, Raw, Thoughtful,


Purity, Clean, Holy, Simple, Cold, Elite,


Seriousness, Death, Depression, Anxiety, Fear, The Unknown, Intellectual, Modern,


Boring, Dull, Depression, Apathetic, Cold, Lifeless, Neutral, Listless,


Make two paintings describing two different moods which you want to evoke. Use Klee’s square painting as a guide as to how to layout the work. Use only squares of color (which should fill up a small canvas) and try to paint a mood, or atmosphere. If you wish you can choose a mood from the list below.



























































































Not Specified






Pissed off



























Introduction to Color Theory

Introduction to Color Theory

Before we get into exactly what color theory is, and how it works, we need to first look at a broader concern as it pertains to how people experience works of art. This is the correct place to begin an Introduction to Color Theory as we will have plenty of time to delve into all of the principles and physical properties of color later. So, what exactly happens when we look at a piece of art and experience it with our senses?  This experience can be called an Aesthetic Experience. Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics or esthetics) is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.”

Introduction to color theory

So what does this mean exactly as it relates to an Aesthetic Experience, and what does this have to do with painting? Well, believe it or not, you most likely encounter and experience many Aesthetic Experiences every day. These could range from looking at a flower and admiring its beauty, to sitting on the couch and watching a commercial. Both of these actions are sensory ones. Since you are a passive observer who is experiencing the world through sensation, and perception. As with any Philosophy there has been much disagreement throughout the years as to what exactly is happening in our brains when we have an Aesthetic Experience.

Kant said that aesthetic experience of beauty is a judgment of a subjective but similar human truth, since all people should agree that “this rose is beautiful” if it in fact is.

Shopenhauer believed that aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the most free that the pure intellect can be from the dictates of will; here we contemplate perfection of form without any kind of worldly agenda, and thus any intrusion of utility or politics would ruin the point of the beauty. It is thus for Schopenhauer one way to fight the suffering.

Oscar Wilde stated that the contemplation of beauty for beauty’s sake was not only the foundation for much of his literary career but was quoted as saying “Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”

So before we get into the nuts and bolts of what makes color theory work it is important to first understand that Aesthetics do exist, and the merits and qualities of what makes up an Aesthetic Experience have been debated for quite some time.

A common question regarding Aesthetics is whether or not they are universal, cultural, or personal. For instance someone may have a different reaction to looking at a painting of a rose who has a strong personal memory of the flower. Perhaps seeing roses reminds them of their childhood and cutting them in the garden with their grandmother. In this case it is important to note that Aesthetics aren’t necessarily a rigid set of rules by which one must abide. Rather that our Aesthetic Experiences are also guided by cultural as well as personal experiences. They are more fluid rather than concrete. With this being said it is also important to understand that there are a certain set of rules which have been successful throughout the years in creating a desired response from the viewer. To put it simply, how do we as humans create works of art that elicit certain internal responses in those who view our artwork? And this is where we come to color theory.

As many students on this site have probably already noticed I make a lot of correlations to music as this is an easy comparison I’ve found that many people can grasp. In the case of color theory it is no different. Simply put color theory investigates what elements work in creating a desired effect, much of which is the same as music (listening to music is also an aesthetic experience as it is an experience where someone is experiencing something with their senses that is beyond words).

First take a listen to Mozart’s Requiem while looking at Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi.

Notice how all the notes create harmonies that our ears latch on to? See how the tempo and intensity of the music changes throughout the piece to evoke a certain feeling inside of us? Pay attention to the lack of dissonance, and what type of emotions are stirred up while listening to this piece. Mozart’s Requiem is regarded as a masterpiece not only because of how it makes us feel, but also because of how Mozart interpreted music and utilized his own creative vision to use the tools of music (which had been around hundreds of years before him) to craft something new which struck a nerve with the listener. In painting, one of our tools is color, and how we place our colors on a canvas could be compared to how Mozart arrange his notes on paper.

Now lets listen to another composer who used these same tools of music to create a feeling of dissonance and anxiety. His name was Alfred Schnittke. Take a look at the painting by Jean Michel Basquiat below while listening to Schnittke’s piece and examine what type of emotions begin to well up inside of you.

Now, Schnittke used dissonance, a feeling of chaos, and strange time signatures in his work. Does that makes the work more difficult to listen to?  If so, does this make the work bad? Or is there really such a thing as bad music? And the most important question, could Schnittke have created these compositions without a firm understanding of the rules of music and how to take them apart? Sure, Schnitkke’s pieces aren’t for everybody, just as paintings by Jean Michel Basquiat aren’t for everyone. But what we’re really examining here is just how the use of the mechanics of sound and color are used in order to make us feel a certain way. As we look at the piece by Basquiat we may experience a similar feeling, but here we are experiencing things visually.

Hopefully you have gained an insight into just what Aesthetics as well as Color Theory are, and how to identify the different ways different artists can use the conventions of sight and sound to ellicit certain feelings, and sensations in those who view them.  As we continue on we will be looking at just what are the mechanics of color, and how to use what painters and scientists have studied for hundreds of years and apply them to our own works. It is important to remember however when embarking on this journey that these rules alone will not make “good” paintings. They are just tools, which when combined with finding your own personal inspiration can be manipulated to be used for your own desires in how you want to depict an object with paint, and more importantly, what Aesthetic Experience you wish to invoke in someone else.

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Local Color

Local Color

Painters often refer to something known as Local Color. So what is it exactly? Well, there is a very simple explanation. Local Color refers to the color of an object if it is unhindered by shadows and highlights. Still don’t get it? Basically it is what the actual color of an object is. Take for instance a Tomato, now most people would agree that tomatoes are red, however that’s just part of the story and the way that our eye perceives colors. In reality if we really examine a tomato we will see all sorts of different tones and highlights. Take a look at the image below and you will notice the myriad of colors which are created just by one tomato. There’s pinks, violets, browns, and reds. Simply put, when painting any object we must consider all the colors and many times it isn’t intuitive to see the light violet colors because of our preconceived ideas about the local color of the object, which is red.

local color

When it comes to painting it is very important to be aware of what the local color of the object is, however it is also vital that we delve further into the more nuanced colors that appear as well. This is even more important when we have multiple objects of different colors placed closely together. The light bouncing off of one surface can create a reflection and influence the surrounding areas. Therefore, if we look at the top of the tomato we can begin to see that the green vine above it is effecting the colors of the shadows as well. For this reason it is very common for painting instructors to say that students need to start examining what colors make up the shadows in the objects they paint. There’s a whole rainbow of color hiding in the shadows. This was most evident in the Impressionists’ works as they would commonly use blues, and even reds in their shadows.

It is the goal of this lesson to get beyond local color and we are going to make sure that there’s no chance it will seep into this exercise. You will be painting a portrait without the use of local color. It is up to you to use your skills in seeing the value (darkness) of a color and by doing so you can still create a believable space which is totally divorced from your preconceived notions about what the local color of the object is. For the first part of the assignment you will copy the painting below and this will give you a feel for how Color as Value works. I’ve included the drawing, as well as the original image (gridded out), and a picture of my palette so you can get a clear look at what these colors look like. Once you are finished with the first painting you will find an image of your choosing and will have to complete a second painting. In your second painting you will once again be looking beyond local color. Really push how intense you can make your colors, and you’ll also start to notice that the temperature (basically how warm or cool a color looks) also influences the way we perceive reality.

1. Source Image from which the painting will be made. Feel free to change the unit of measurement if you wish. One box could easily equal an inch or whatever fits the size of the canvas you are working on.

2. After gridding out your painting surface you will sketch in the big value shapes present in the photo.

3. You will then paint in the value shapes using the value of the color to create an illusion of depth. Disregard what you know about color intensity and local color. Be bold.

4. Remember that your palette should be a representation of all the colors you will use.

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5. If possible take a photo of your painting and change it to black and white. This will be an indicator of how good your eye is. The painting should stand up as a black and white image as well as a color one. This is an extremely important aspect of painting. Seeing color as value.

Upon finishing this copy you will be creating another painting on your own in the same manner. Remember to choose an image that has a wide range of values from light to dark.

Color Matching Values

In this painting tutorial I go through how to set up a very basic palette, and how to use a palette knife to create value scales with various colors. By setting up these simple piles of color before you start a painting you can be assured that all of your colors stay within the desired range of values.

Color Matching Values

Matching colors to values (the darkness or lightness of a color) is the most important skill to learn when learning to oil paint.  For further information on the topic of color values I would suggest checking out the lesson on Color Theory Basics.

In the painting tutorial video above I go into how to mix different values of color on a palette.  I have chosen to use a painting knife however the same colors could be mixed using a brush.  The palette is glass which has been spray painted grey on the back. I have chosen to paint it grey because this is a very neutral color, and I don’t want the color of the palette to interfere with how I see the colors I’m trying to mix. It is important to remember that colors will interact with each other. For instance a white square painted on a yellow background will appear to  be darker, since the surrounding color is also light. However, a white square painted on a blue background will appear to be brighter since the background is darker.

Once you’ve got a palette with a neutral background you can begin to start making different value scales in different colors. You should already know about value scales as we have covered them extensively in the drawing section of this website. To make a value scale you must first have a guide to go from. So I would suggest making your first value scale in black, white, and greys. Then you can compare the darkness or lightness of your subsequent mixes of color against a black and white scale (this can be achieved by squinting).

If you came here thinking about trying to find what colors match (ie. which colors go together) I’m sorry to tell you that this isn’t something which can be summed up in a succinct manner. There are many factors which determine what colors will traditionally “match”. If you peruse my section here on Color Theory you can begin to examine all of the reasons why there isn’t any general consensus of what colors actually match, and which ones clash.

For this assignment you will have to create your own value scales in 6 colors and Black and White. Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange, Green, Violet. So there’s a total of 7 value scales which you will be creating. Once your palette is full of these colors you will then take a picture of it and post it to your student blogs.

Warm and Cool Colors


Warm and Cool Colors

Lesson 14

Warm and cool colors are important in painting for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that warm colors tend to move forward in space, while cooler colors tend to retreat. This is mainly because of how we experience the world and is pure science. Within the atmosphere there are zillions of little water molecules floating around. The largest of which form clouds and eventually dump rain on us. But the air itself also contains water.  So when we are looking faw away to the horizon we are actually looking through a lot of air, which in turn means we are looking at more and more water molecules, and the hills in the distance start looking blue and purple. This is called atmospheric perspective. And it was first labeled and widely used by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. The second feature of atmospheric perspective is that objects also tend to lose their contrast and take on the color of their background (ie. sky)


Mona Lisa (Leonardo Da Vinci) Classic example of how cool colors recede and warmer colors come to the forefront.

The second thing to remember about warm and cool colors is how they create balance and a sense of fullness within a piece. This is easier to do when painting a landscape where there could be a cool blue sky, and this could be contrasted against the warm orange color of some leaves. But take a close look at an object, and you should be able to see a multitude of other shades and colors within that object itself.  The cooler colors can be tints, shades, or tones.  But be careful because you can also find warmth in certain shadows as well. However, generally cooler colors are used as shadows, and warmer colors as mid tones, and highlights.


In this painting by Lucien Freud we can see very cool colors dominating many of the shadow tones. This may be because Freud often lit his models with fluorescent lights. Nonetheless look at the nice interplay between warm colors and cool colors in this piece. I’ve made a small scale of colors taken directly from this painting as an example to further study.


Extra Credit:  Create a small painting using these same warm and cool colors for all of your values.

Analagous Color Scheme

Analagous Color Scheme

Lesson 13

The next most important part of color theory is harmony.  Color harmony is essentially the art of putting colors together that look good. That’s pretty much it la notice de viagra. I’ll keep using the musical metaphors because in music we also have harmony. So think about color harmony in the same way, except visually. When you here a song you can tell if the musicians are all singing in harmony or not, if there’s one person who is out of key then it also throws the others off as well. Think of color harmony in the same way.  When placing colors on a canvas you are creating visual vibrations which can either work, or fight each other.  Your goal may be to create intensity and a feeling of unease, and if that is the case then by all means use the opposite of what would be a comforting and harmonious color scheme.

Analogous Color Schemes

Analogous color schemes make use of colors that are directly next to each other on the color wheel.These colors are reminiscent of nature and can be calming to the eye. When using an analagous color scheme it pays to have a very high contrast between your colors. Take a look at the examples below and take note of how they make you feel as you look at them. With painting it is important to remember that you are creating an overall feel to a painting. You’re not just illustrating an event. Things likes analogous color schemes are simply tools which can be utilized to create a certain mood.


Example 1: In this image of various analogous color schemes we can feel a kind of  groovy style. Very reminiscent of the 1960s because these types of natural analagous schemes were used very frequently in interior design.  What I want you as a painting student to start to see is how this particular color scheme evokes a certain feeling within you.


Example 2:  Here’s a great example of analogous color schemes in space.  Notice that all these colors are also virtually the same value. The blue end of analogous color schemes can also seem serene and mystical.


Example 3: Here we can see how these color schemes are present in small sections of nature all around us.  When looking for this particular color scheme it is sometimes better to look very closely at a small section of nature. In the example above we see yellows, oranges, and some light greens mingling together nicely.

Extra Credit!: If you have access to a digital camera. Go out and take 20 photos of various analogous color schemes which you can find in nature.

Color Theory Basics

Color Theory Basics

In this Lesson you will learn:

1) What type of paint to buy (Materials)

2) How to control color intensity  (Intensity)

3) How to see the value (shade) of color. (Color Value)


First things first! It is important that you know how to buy the right paint for what you want to do.

There’s two types of paint. Transparent and Opaque. When you start painting it is HIGHLY recommended that you start by using only opaque colors. This will reduce the possibility of your paintings becoming streaky and dull. Transparent colors can be used later when we get into glazing. For now you need some strong opaque colors in order to learn how to mix your colors and get them to stick to a surface. So how do you identify which colors are opaque, and which are transparent? Many tubes of paint will have a small box graphic usually on the front underneath the brand name. If the box is black, then it’s opaque. If the box is half full then it’s semi-transparent. And if the box is white, then it’s transparent.   Stick to the basics.

The ideal starter palette of Opaque colors would include

Cadmium Red Medium

Cadmium Yellow Medium

Cobalt Blue

Titanium White

That’s it. You can mix all the colors you’ll need from these three. It should be noted that Cadmiums are toxic, as is Titanium white. So don’t eat them. They’re the best available and have been used for centuries. If you’re scared of them then ask the person at the store for help finding other opaque primary colors. I don’t know of any.

Second thing you need is a brush. For brushes there are a few different types. For now just buy a simple mid sized Flat, or Philbert. Around a 6 to an 8 (that’s the size as indicated by a number stamped on the brush). You don’t need any little brushes for details. Not yet. Just get some flat synthetics like the one below, and you’ll be fine.


Find an old cup you don’t want to use anymore to hold some water. And for a palette you can use a piece of cardboard.

The Color Wheel

At this point in the course you will be concentrating on a few basic elements of color theory.  This will be expanded upon later but currently you need to grasp the essentials so you can begin painting.

The color wheel


The three primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. Primary colors are called “primaries” because they aren’t a mixture of two other colors.  When you mix two primary colors together you get a secondary color.  The secondary colors are???…..You guessed it. Orange, violet, and green. Easy isn’t it?  So, for those who don’t know, in order to make violet you mix blue and red. To make orange you mix red and yellow. And to make green you mix blue and yellow. Pretty straight forward.

Now, we’ve got some colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. yellow is opposite violet, orange opposite blue, and green opposite to red. These colors which are on the opposite side of the color wheel are called complimentary colors. It is important to memorise all the colors compliments because you use a color’s compliment in order to control color intensity.

Color Intensity

Color intensity is, well, the intensity of a color. Think about it as “brightness” or “radiance”. Color straight out of the tube is generally high intensity. In order to lower the intensity of a color (aka make it less bright) you are going to add a small amount of it’s complimentary color. For example: for red, you add a small amount of green to lower the intensity of the red.  Just a dab of green and the intensity of that red will come down. Yes they do get darker.


Now,  Take a look at the image below. We’ve got a red which is super intense at the top, then by adding green to that red we take down the intensity (as indicated by the second strip down). I know what you’re thinking. It looks brown!! That is where you have to be careful. Take a look at the second image. That is the “brown” (or more correctly a lower intensity red) surrounded by a black box.  That brownish red in the context of another color will be red.  For the purposes of this course you will be taking down the intensity of all of your colors by adding their respective secondary colors. This is because our eyes rarely see super intense colors in the real world.
Color Theory Basics


Assignment #21 Playing with color intensity.

For this assignment you will start with an intense color, and then slowly add it’s complimentary color in gradual amounts to create a color intensity scale.  As you can see in the examples below you can start with a Red, then add a bit of green to get the second gradation, and then more green to that mix to get the third gradation etc. When it comes to dark colors (Blue, and Violet) you can add a bit of white to these in order to see the color intensity manipulated. color-intensity-1


The Value Of Color

The darkness or lightness of a color is its value. Just as we can make grey scales from pitch black to white, we can also do the same with colors. Take a look at the image below. We’ve got our happy little primary and secondary colors cascading from light to dark.


This is the one you will be copying.


And here we can see all of their values (darkness)


Now lets look at how we can use the value of color in painting.  Check out this painting by Rolling Stone illustrator Philip Burke. Notice how the shadows of the face are done in green, and bright dark reds,  but the painting still flows and makes sense. This is because the green/red is the correct value which corresponds to the shadow. You can throw any color in there and it will makes sense as long as the darkness of the color correctly matches. Think of whatever you are painting as a black and white photocopy, and you are simply mixing your colors to match the various greys on the photocopy. Also beware of red, it seems lighter than it really is. A medium red is actually very dark.



Now compare the high value contrast of Philip Burke with the low level color contrast of Edouard Vuillard. In Vuillard’s painting  he broke the rules of what color value meant by keeping all of his colors this medium grey.  The gradations in value are extremely subtle, but they are still there nonetheless. In the black and white copy of you can still make out how Vuillard finely manipulated the value of his colors to create shadows and depth.



Assignment #22  Color Value Scale.

For this assignment you will be copying the color value scale above.  The important thing to remember is that you’ll start with the color out of the tube

Important NOTES!:

Many claim that the real color wheel contains Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and K (which stands for key, not black) . This is true for printing processes and was largely taught to graphic design students in the 1990s. However using cmyk as a color wheel for painting doesn’t make much sense because it ignores a few important factors.

For instance. In printing, in order to make red, one must mix magenta with yellow optically. This means that in order to get a true red (following the cmyk model) you would need to mix a magenta, and then put a thin glaze of yellow on top of it.  But in painting there are many more variables at play. For instance there is no “red” as we all know when we go to buy paints. There’s cadmium red,  vermilion, and permanent rose and so forth and so on. But the point is that the red that we choose to start with can vary greatly from the get go.  When you create any palette of colors you are immediately limiting yourself  in some way.And if you limited your palette to cyan, magenta, yellow (not even specified), and key  (which isn’t a color, but a tone) then you would be given a different set of limitations.

There is one other commonly held idea about the “real” color wheel. It is a 12 color system based on a rainbow and the proponents believe that this gives an artist the largest possibilities for mixing .  If you want to try it the colors are

Titanium White

Cadmium Yellow Pale
Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Scarlet
Cadmium Red
Quinacridone Rose
Dioxazine Violet
French Ultramarine
Thalo Blue
Thalo Green
Cadmium Green Pale


This set of colors could easily cost more than two hundred dollars. So that’s one major downfall. The second is that you shouldn’t think about one palette as your savior. It won’t be, in fact in the beginning your palette should be limited because the more tube colors you introduce, the harder it will be to create any type of color harmony. Also you should remember that artists personal decisions as to what colors to use on their palettes is as varied as art itself. There is no absolute answer one way or the other. Giving a beginning student this 12 color rainbow mix would be like buying a 7 year a drum set the size of a living room.

The palette I have given above is a very powerful starter palette. As you may have noticed the weakest colors created by this palette were the greens, and the violet.  If you are looking to make a stronger green then I’d suggest buying a Pthalo Green, and in order to push your violet I would suggest Dioxazine Violet. Remember though that it is important to master the basics before moving on to a more extended palette!

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