The Element of Color

In this article, you will discover color theory, which is used to guide the composition and combination of the colors in art.

Color is the most complex artistic element because of the combinations and variations inherent in its use. Humans respond to color combinations differently, and artists study and use color in part to give desired direction to their work.

Color is fundamental to many forms of art. Its relevance, use and function in a given work depend on the medium of that work. While some concepts dealing with color are broadly applicable across media, others are not.

The full spectrum of colors is contained in white light. Humans perceive colors from the light reflected off objects. A red object, for example, looks red because it reflects the red part of the spectrum. It would be a different color under a different light. Color theory first appeared in the 17th century when English mathematician and scientist Sir Isaac Newton discovered that white light could be divided into a spectrum by passing it through a prism.

The Visible Light Spectrum 1

The Visible Light Spectrum 2

The visible light spectrum

The study of color in art and design often starts with color theory. Color theory splits up colors into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

The basic tool used is a color wheel, developed by Isaac Newton in 1666. A more complex model known as the color tree, created by Albert Munsell, shows the spectrum made up of sets of tints and shades on connected planes.

There are a number of approaches to organizing colors into meaningful relationships. Most systems differ in structure only.

Traditional Model

Traditional color theory is a qualitative attempt to organize colors and their relationships. It is based on Newton's color wheel, and continues to be the most common system used by artists.

The color wheel

The Color Wheel

Traditional color theory uses the same principles as subtractive color mixing (see below) but prefers different primary colors.

  • The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. You find them equidistant from each other on the color wheel. These are the "elemental" colors; not produced by mixing any other colors, and all other colors are derived from some combination of these three.
  • The secondary colors are orange (mix of red and yellow), green (mix of blue and yellow), and violet (mix of blue and red).
  • The tertiary colors are obtained by mixing one primary color and one secondary color. Depending on amount of color used, different hues can be obtained such as red-orange or yellow-green. Neutral colors (browns and grays) can be mixed using the three primary colors together.
  • White and black lie outside of these categories. They are used to lighten or darken a color. A lighter color (made by adding white to it) is called a tint, while a darker color (made by adding black) is called a shade.
Color Mixing

A more quantifiable approach to color theory is to think about color as the result of light reflecting off a surface. Understood in this way, color can be represented as a ratio of amounts of primary color mixed together.

Additive Color Theory is used when different colored lights are being projected on top of each other. Projected media produce color by projecting light onto a reflective surface. Where subtractive mixing creates the impression of color by selectively absorbing part of the spectrum, additive mixing produces color by selective projection of part of the spectrum. Common applications of additive color theory are theater lighting and television screens. RGB color is based on additive color theory.

  • The primary colors are red, blue, and green.
  • The secondary colors are yellow (mix of red and green), cyan (mix of blue and green), and magenta (mix of blue and red).
  • The tertiary colors are obtained by mixing the above colors at different intensities.
  • White is created by the confluence of the three primary colors, while black represents the absence of all color. The lightness or darkness of a color is determined by the intensity/density of its various parts. For instance: a middle-toned gray could be produced by projecting a red, a blue and a green light at the same point with 50% intensity.

Additive Color

Additive Color

The primaries are red, green and blue. White is the confluence of all the primary colors; black is the absence of color.

Subtractive color theory ("process color") is used when a single light source is being reflected by different colors laid one on top of the other. Color is produced when parts of the external light source's spectrum are absorbed by the material and not reflected back to the viewer's eye. For example, a painter brushes blue paint onto a canvas. The chemical composition of the paint allows all of the colors in the spectrum to be absorbed except blue, which is reflected from the paint's surface. Subtractive color works as the reverse of additive color theory. Common applications of subtractive color theory are used in the visual arts, color printing and processing photographic positives and negatives. The primary colors are yellow, cyan, and magenta (yellow, blue and red).

  • The secondary colors are red (mix of magenta and yellow), blue (mix of cyan and magenta), and green (mix of cyan and yellow).
  • The tertiary colors are obtained by mixing the above colors at different intensities.
  • Black is mixed using the three primary colors, while white represents the absence of all colors. Note: because of impurities in subtractive color, a true black is impossible to create through the mixture of primaries. Because of this the result is closer to brown. Similar to additive color theory, lightness and darkness of a color is determined by its intensity and density.

Subtractive Color

Subtractive Color

There are many attributes to color. Each one has an effect on how we perceive it.

Hue refers to color itself, but also to the variations of a color.

Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of one color next to another. The value of a color can make a difference in how it is perceived. A color on a dark background will appear lighter, while that same color on a light background will appear darker.

Hue and Value

Above is a color/value relationship with the same central color against a dark and light background. The work of Josef Albers is a protracted study in color relationships.

There are a few color schemes that collectively offer the same color illusion.

Tone refers to the gradation or subtle changes made to a color when it's mixed with a gray created by adding two complements (see Complementary Color below). You can see various color tones by looking at the color tree mentioned in the paragraph above.

Below is a color model showing hue, chroma (the specific intensity of a color) and value.


Saturation refers to the purity and intensity of a color. The primaries are the most intense and pure, but diminish as they are mixed to form other colors. The creation of tints and shades also diminish a color's saturation. Two colors work strongest together when they share the same intensity. This is called equiluminance.

Color Interactions

Beyond creating a mixing hierarchy, color theory also provides tools for understanding how colors work together.


The simplest color interaction is monochrome. This is the use of variations of a single hue. The advantage of using a monochromatic color scheme is that you get a high level of unity throughout the artwork because all the tones relate to one another. See this in Mark Tansey's Derrida Queries de Man from 1990.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are similar to one another. As their name implies, analogous colors can be found next to one another on any 12-part color wheel. Here are some examples:

  • purple/blue-purple
  • green/yellow-green
  • orange/red-orange

Analogous colors

Analogous colors

Analogous color schemes are used when a subtle color change is needed. You can see this effect in Paul Cezanne's oil painting Auvers, Panoromic View.

Color Temperature

Colors are perceived to have temperatures associated with them. The color wheel is divided into warm and cool colors. Warm colors range from yellow to red, while cool colors range from yellow-green to violet. You can achieve complex results using just a few colors when you pair them in warm and cool sets.

Sets of Warm/Cool Colors

Sets of warm/cool pairs

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are found directly opposite one another on a color wheel. Here are some examples:

  • purple and yellow
  • green and red
  • orange and blue

Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors

Blue and orange are complements. When placed near each other, complements create a visual tension. This color scheme is desirable when a dramatic effect is needed using only two colors. The painting Untitled by Keith Haring is an example. You can click the painting to create a larger image.

A split complementary color scheme uses one color plus the two colors on each side of the first color's complement on the color wheel. Like the use of complements, a split complement creates visual tension but includes the variety of a third color.

Split complement color scheme: yellow, violet blue and violet red

Split complement color scheme: yellow, violet blue and violet red

Color Subtraction

Color subtraction refers to a visual phenomenon where the appearance of one color will lessen its presence in a nearby color. For instance, orange (red + yellow) on a red background will appear more like yellow.

Don't confuse color subtraction with the subtractive color system mentioned earlier in this module. Color subtraction uses specific hues within a color scheme for a certain visual effect.

A color subtraction example where the same orange hue appears more yellow against a red background

A color subtraction example where the same orange hue appears more yellow against a red background

Simultaneous Contrast

Neutrals on a colored background will appear tinted toward that color's complement, because the eye attempts to create a balance. (Grey on a red background will appear more greenish, for example.) In other words, the color will shift away from the surrounding color.

Simultaneous Contrast and Color Shift example

Simultaneous Contrast

Also, non-dominant colors will appear tinted towards the complement of the dominant color.

Color interaction affects value as well. Colors appear darker on or near lighter colors, and lighter on or near darker colors. Complementary colors will look more intense on or near each other than they will on or near grays (refer back to the Keith Haring example above to see this effect).

Source: Christopher Gildow, Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2021, 9:40 AM