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.

Writing Artist Statement of Intent

As I have stressed multiple times throughout this course we are not only building upon technical strengths but also your ability to synthesize and create concepts. We’ve gone into history a bit, and examined some of the more formal aspects of painting and drawing.  Now’s the time where we will delve into an area which often is ignored by many art schools, as well as working artists. The skill you will be working on here doesn’t involve paint or a pencil, but instead your mind and your ability to focus on your interests to the fullest extent. Remember that mastering artistic techniques with paint, pencil, or a computer is one thing, and this will improve the more you practice, but having a unique idea and a viewpoint you wish to share with the world is what will make you an artist.

It is important not to confuse a Statement of Intent with an Artist Statement. A Statement of Intent (SOI) is a declaration of your plans and your ideas for a specific project, while an Artist Statement is a statement which is written by an artist (many times after the work is finished) in order to give a viewer more information about the process by which the work was created as well as the conceptual ideas which were being implemented. They go in completely different directions. An SOI goes from conception to fruition/realization, and an AS goes from conception to fruition/realization and back to the conception but now with reflection. For this post we will first be examining on how to write a Statement of Intent, and the next lesson we will be looking at examples at Artist Statements and see how other artists have used words to enhance the experience someone has with a piece of art.


What I want you to do is set up a schedule for your artistic working schedule (yes, artists also have schedules unfortunately). There is often a romantic notion that artists get to sit and dream all day, only to be interrupted by manic artistic outbursts. But this is generally not the case. All of the artists I know work a lot on their work, and by a lot I mean they often have a full time job, and still manage to work on their own work for at least 20 hours a week. This may sound crazy to you, but please keep in mind that this website is structured as a typical college level course, and students in physical colleges generally spend at least 15 hours a week in school. This is how you should approach your work schedule. As something physically which you “go to” and work for an allotted amount of time.

While it is great to shoot for the stars the first most important thing is to have realistic goals in place. If you can afford to only work 8 hours a week on your artistic work, then allot that amount of time to it. The following Statement of Intent sample below is merely a sample which is geared towards an average student. You can choose to try and work as much as possible, or you can also take it slower. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you should have a physical schedule which you are held to. Put it up in a prominent space in your room and then check off all the days where you completed the task.  You can download a monthly calendar template here and print it out, or buy a nice planner if you wish to write about and update your tasks for each day of work.

The theory of 10,000 hours of work as a measure of genius.

I do not wish to scare you with the amount of work that is needed to achieve genius, but would like to offer the following theory as a guideline as to how much the “Masters of Art” generally worked before achieving their status. In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers in which he postulated the theory that geniuses almost always worked harder, and longer at what they did as compared to others. And generally an expert level status was achieved when that artist had worked for 10,000 hours in their discipline

“The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” (Gladwell, 2008)

Understanding this idea is very important if you want to progress as an artist. There is a common misunderstanding that artists are born, not made. But if we look throughout history we find thousands of examples of just the opposite. For instance, Mozart is often considered to be the definition of a “child prodigy” with natural talent. But did you know that Mozart was taught by his father who was a music teacher and pianist? He later became friends with one of the most powerful composers of the era (Haydn) by the age of 8, and had already toured the world, and played more concerts than artists 4 times his age. Of course there is also an element of luck and timing in all of this as well, however this isn’t an isolated example. Look at  Picasso, Raphael, Titian, Andy Warhol, etc. etc. for further examples. And you’ll find the same thing time, and time again. All of them spent a tremendous amount of time working on their art and many became apprentices at very young ages to older and more experienced artists.  So no, artists are not born (if anything they are born into the perfect era), they are made through hard work (which most artists enjoy doing, so you don’t have to call it “work”)

For those of you who wish to achieve master status you should be aware that it takes years, and years of work. If you managed to work 8 hours a day, every day, it would take four years to complete (Ironically the same time it would take to complete a Undergraduate degree). However, if you wish to set your goals a bit lower than there is nothing wrong with that. You should work at your own pace, and this course is designed for you to do it whenever you have time. I have set forth the following weekly work schedule as a good starting point for those who wish to dramatically increase their drawing and painting skills. I’ve seen a simple schedule such as the one below work many times over the years. If you don’t give up, or lose patience I assure you that you can reach your goal if you are willing to persevere.

Sunday: 5 Hours (Painting)
Monday: 2 Hours (Drawing from Observation)
Tuesday: 2 Hours (Artist Research/History)
Wednesday: 1 Hour (Drawing from imagination)
Thursday: 3 Hours (Life Drawing)
Friday: Free!
Saturday: 5 Hours (Painting)

Find a Life Drawing class in your community and start going. Take a sketchbook to a coffee shop and sketch the people there. Go to a park and draw trees. Make weird collages in photoshop and make drawings from them. Sketch when you’re on the metro. Sketch in the margins of your notebooks in class. Sketch on napkins at restaurants. Play Exquisite Corpse and other drawing games with friends. Draw your cat, your coffee mug, your boots, people on TV, your hand, your foot, or a corner of your room. There is never an excuse not to draw when we are all surrounded by objects that all have unique traits which, upon examination, are complicated and can increase your abilities. Trust me, if you draw every day, you’ll see huge improvements in your drawings over time. If you’re looking for tricks you won’t find them, you can only work them out yourself by practicing your craft daily.

One movement which I was a part of about 5 years ago was the Painting A Day project where many different artists created a painting every day and posted it to their blogs. For those of you who have blogs I highly recommend getting into the habit of updating them as much as possible. Not just with my assignments which are given but with your own creative visions and sketches. One of the most popular of these artists in the Painting a Day movement was Duane Keiser who since has stopped posting every day but still posts quite regularly small paintings of objects in his house. You can see one of his stop motion videos below, and visit his blog here.

So what else should go into your Artist Statement of Intent? Along with a schedule of how much time you can put aside for painting and drawing every day I’ve compiled a list of common questions which can help determine the path you wish to take and focus your true ambitions. These are questions which you should think about and write about in your blogs as you form your Statement of Intent. It is quite common for these questions to be asked during Foundation Year studies at many art universities throughout the world, and by thinking about them, and answering them, you can begin to reveal exactly what it is you wish to achieve.

What types of techniques do you wish to incorporate into your work, and what type of processes are required to achieve the desired effect that you wish to crate?

What do you want a viewer of your piece to take away upon “reading” your work? What ideas/feeling do you wish to transmit to your audience?

What is it that you wish to draw and paint? Are there themes which reoccur in your ideas and work?

Social/Cultural Concerns:
Are you interested in political or cultural concerns in your work? Can your work make a comment about society that can only be transmitted by a drawing or painting? What do you feel is the role of the artist, and do artists have a responsibility to make specific work for a specific audience?

Are there any ethical rules which you wish to consider in your work? Do ethical or moral concerns prevent you from creating a specific work? If so, should they be ignored in order for you to realize your creative vision?

What is the ultimate function of your work, and why is paint the right medium to transmit your message?

Should you limit the accessibility of your work because you find that self expression is more important? Or is it more valuable to create a painting which can be widely understood by a large portion of the population?

To make it even more clear just exactly what it is I’m asking from you. I’ve included the two following Statements of Intent as examples from which you can draw from. The names of the students are imaginary, and the statements are of my own imagination. I’ve used the common required amount of independent work at the Foundation level which is 20 hours a week for three months. Which is a total of 240 hours. At the BA level this would be increased to 40 hours a week.

Student Name: Leonardo Cattawampus
Class: Painting-Course.Com
Teacher: Jer
Title: Creating Modern Day Americana paintings in the style of Norman Rockwell

First 6 Weeks
Work Schedule: – 20 hours a week.
Sunday: 5 Hours (Painting exercises)
Monday: 2 Hours (Drawing from Observation at a Cafe)
Tuesday: 2 Hours (Artist Research/History)
Wednesday: 2 Hours (Drawing from imagination/Composition) 1 Hour (Editing photos/sketches)
Thursday: 3 Hours (Life Drawing)
Friday: Free!
Saturday: 5 Hours (Painting exercises)

For the next three months I wish to explore the paintings of Norman Rockwell, how they were received by the general public, and what techniques, as well as ideas he used in the creation of his paintings. I plan on making one final painting in which I will integrate both the research I’ve accumulated as well as the techniques I’ve learned about. I also know that Rockwell was a great draughtsman and I must increase my drawing and painting abilities which is why I’ve devoted a large section of my weekly schedule to painting and drawing.

I plan on making preliminary sketches, and also look for modern day American scenes which would be suitable for a painting. Because of this much of my time will be spent outside of the studio in the public where I can both photograph and sketch from real life. After collecting a wide range of both photos as well as on site sketches I plan on incorporating them into a final painting which I plan on executing during the last month and a half.

Work Schedule for Week 7:
Sunday: 5 Hours (Painting exercises)
Monday: 2 Hours (incorporating sketches into composition)
Tuesday: 2 Hours (Drawing from composition)
Wednesday: 2 Hours (Drawing from composition) 1 Hour (reflection upon past successes and failures)
Thursday: 3 Hours (Life Drawing)
Friday: Free!
Saturday: 5 Hours (Painting exercises)

Work Schedule for Week 8
Sunday: 5 Hours (Begin transfer of sketches/drawings/photos to canvas)
Monday: 2 Hours (finish transfer of drawing to canvas)
Tuesday: 2 Hours (Begin Value Study on Canvas in black and white)
Wednesday: 2 Hours (Finish Value Study on Canvas in Black and White) 1 Hour (reflection upon past successes and failures)
Thursday: 3 Hours (Life Drawing)
Friday: Free!
Saturday: 5 Hours (Begin to match colors to value scale)

During these weeks I plan on finishing the composition as well as creating a finished drawing with a value study to use for painting. I wish to continue increasing my abilities as a draughtsman which is why I’ve kept the 3 hours of Life Drawing every Thursday. By the end of the second week the value scale drawing will have been successfully transferred to the canvas. I will then begin experimenting with color values which match those that have been laid out in the value study.

Work Schedule for week 9 – 12
Sunday: 5 Hours (Painting)
Monday: 2 Hours (Painting)
Tuesday: 2 Hours (Painting)
Wednesday: 2 Hours (Painting) 1 Hour (reflection upon past successes and failures)
Thursday: 3 Hours (Life Drawing)
Friday: Free!
Saturday: 5 Hours (Painting)

During this last month I wish to finalize the painting and work out the smaller details. I also plan on looking at my work and comparing it to Rockwell’s and examine how successful I was in recreating a modern day Rockwell. I’m hoping that the research I did on the artist and his time period will be helpful in making these realizations, and be apparent in the final work.

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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Gestalt Principles of Art and Design

Gestalt Principles of Art and Design

These theories of painting come from a German form of psychology called Gestalt which simply states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is often used in both art as well as design to achieve the desired effect. The main points of Gestalt are summarized below the image.

1. Figure/Ground

This is the idea that speaks to the human mind’s tendency to separate figures from their backgrounds. These differences can be furthered by utilizing a number of different techniques which can include contrast, color, intensity, and size.

In the Matisse painting below we can see a clear differentiation between figure and ground. It is also helpful to think of the ground as the negative space around the figures present. Also notice how Matisse utilized contrast, as well as color to make the figures come to the front of the painting, and push the background back in space. In general it is a good rule of thumb to think that warm colors will come forward in space while cool colors recede.

In contrast to how Matisse used Gestalt principles to make his figures stand out in space we can look at the French artist Vuillard who played around with blending the background and the figures present in the image below. Notice how the woman who is closest to us seems to almost dissapear into the background while the man at the door has a sharp contrast against the pattern. Vuillard was playing with the principles of Gestalt here to highlight how our eyes generally view paintings. By making the man at the door seem to pop to the front this creates a tension in the painting that some find desirable.

2. Similarity

This is the Gestalt theory that states that the viewer tends to group together objects which share the same characteristics such as shape, size, color, texture, and value. In the Degas painting below we can see how he employed many different circle shapes (in the form of the hats) in order to create a sense of unity throughout the painting. The hats also have similar textures which help us group them together. Notice how powerful color intensity is and how the hats which are brighter are easily grouped together while the other hats which are darker are a different group altogether.

The principle of similarity can be more easily understood in the following graphic below. Notice how even though all of the shapes are the same color that by changing the shape of the objects we also change how our minds group them together.

3. Proximity

Think of proximity as how close certain elements are in a composition. Proximity can also be referred to as grouping which is similar to similarity. However, there is a difference between similarity and proximity as we can see that the objects don’t need to all be the same size in order to be grouped by the brain. In the Chardin painting below we can see how the apples are grouped together even though they are different sizes. Grouping can be achieved by shape, color, tone, and space.

In the painting below by Degas we can see how parts of a composition can be grouped together by their value. Even though there are figures both in the foreground as well as the background we can see how we group together the darker elements as abstract shapes. In the case of Degas’ painting of The Office this is present in the dark shapes which make up the suit jackets of the subjects present .

4. Closure

As we discussed earlier closure is the idea that the brain will fill in any extraneous information which is not present in the image. This is a common tactic employed by both painters as well as designers.In the image below we can see how a square is created by the negative space.

5. Continuity

Continuity is the idea that the eye will continue to look in a direction in which it is pushed by the forms and shapes present. In the painting below by Tiepolo we can see how our eyes are first drawn to the main subject present which is the man riding a horse holding a large weapon. The weapon is pointing down at a figure which lie dead on the ground. By utilizing the Gestalt principle of continuity Tiepolo pushes the eyes of the viewer to move around the canvas.

6. Symmetry and Order

Symmetry and Order refers to the idea of how balance, and symmetry give the composition an overall feeling of solidity and structure. In Raphael’s painting below we can see how by having a clear sense of symmetry adds to the structure of the entire composition. Notice how the figures aren’t perfectly symmetrical on both sides of the work, however they are still balanced and neither side seems too “heavy”.The larger idea at play here is that viewers want to “read” a painting in a systematic and organized manner. Some viewers who find a painting which is too difficult to read may spend less time trying to comprehend it. While clearly balanced compositions will be more accesible. This is not to say that every composition needs to be perfectly balanced and symmetrical, there are many examples of artists who play with the idea of symmetry and balance and still are quite sucessful. Remember that these principles are not set in stone, and it is ok to break them. The point being that the better you understand these principles the more sucessful you can be at breaking them.

Oil Painting Step by Step

Oil Painting Step by Step

In this painting tutorial I go through a common step by step procedure on how to paint with oils. From the drawing, to the underpainting,  glazing, and final details.

Step 1: Find your source imagery and prepare it for painting. This could include photoshopping various elements in photoshop, collaging images from magazines, taking your own photos to paint from, etc.Then create a grid on your source imagery. This can be done in photoshop, or you can print the photo out and grid it out with a ruler and pen.

Step 2: Create a grid on your canvas which matches the size of your prepared imagery (ratios are ok, so for instance an image which is 5 x 10 could be scaled to a canvas which is 20 x 40 etc.) Mark each line on the grid with a series of numbers and letters so it is easy to find which square you are looking at and how it relates to the image you are painting from.

Step 3: Draw your imagery onto the canvas using a pencil using your grid lines as a guide to help you. If you are wondering why we use a grid, the answer is that it is much easier to manage smaller squares as opposed to larger ones. It also forces you to abide by the predetermined composition you initially created, so basically, it helps you make sure you can fit everything you want to on the canvas.

Step 4: Find large value shapes. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. For this step it is helpful to have a black and white version of the source material from which you are painting. If you have photoshop just take out all of the saturation of the color, if you don’t, then make a black and white photocopy of the image.

Step 5: Paint the large value shapes with the values they correspond to in black and white.(You can use Acrylic paint for this as it dries faster).

Step 6: Once you’ve completed your value study of the painting you are ready for color. Mix the colors you wish to apply to the canvas on your palette (Never mix on your canvas). You can use either opaque colors which will totally cover the value study, or you can use transparent colors and use the value study to help make your shadows.

Step 7:  Paint in the colors you wish to use, and use the value study to see how closely the value of the color relates to the value of the value study. If this is hard for you to see, then just squint you eyes until the color turns into a black or white shade.

Step 8: Make final adjustments and put in details.