Color Theory

I hope the title doesn't sound too intimidating, but I'd like to explain a bit about color while demonstrating some of the color experiments I've done. As Paul Klee told his Bauhaus students 'Exactitude winged by intuition.' My experiments involve mixing colors to establish color gradations (or transitions) from one color to another as well as exploring color relationships. This is the exactitude. The paintings themselves are the intuition.

For the great artists of the past, color was a subject that occupied them throughout their careers. The complexity of color and color relationships is such that most instructors consider it "un teachable." An exaggeration to be sure, but clearly an indication of the challenges and opportunities awaiting the artist wishing to explore the world of color.

The Theory of Color
What is Color?
The Color Circle
White and Black are Colors
All Colors are Yellow-Red-Blue
All Colors are Yellow-Red-Blue-Green

Practice Meets Theory
Color Experiments
Practical Twelve Color Circle
Modifying Color

The Theory of Color

What is Color?

Asking 'what is color?' may seem like a child's question but it is one that has occupied the minds of great thinkers since antiquity. Prior to Newton the belief was that objects have a color which is intrinsic to that object. An apple is red, the leaves are green, the sky is blue, the car is yellow. In everyday conservation we talk about objects we see in the world in just this way. It is no different when we talk about paints or the colors in a painting.

Newton's demonstrations with light and the prism indicated otherwise. It was the colorless light that contained all the colors, of which he considered there to be seven primaries. Unfortunately, you won't produce the same colors with light that you do with paints. They just work totally different. So as far as the painting of colors, Newton's system doesn't really help us. It is his organization of colors that is useful in that he made the first color circle from red — orange — yellow — green — cerulean (turquoise or cyan) — indigo — violet.

The Color Circle

In 1810 two major works appeared concerning color. One was Goethe's Theory of Colors and the other was Phillip Otto Runge's Color Sphere. From this point forward the world of the painter and that of the scientist (especially physics) diverges.

With these systems there are the three primary colors — Yellow, Red, and Blue. The three secondary colors — Orange, Violet, Green — obtained by mixing the primaries, are placed between them. Orange is obtained by the mixture of yellow and red, violet by the mixture of red and blue, and green by the mixture of blue and yellow.

Runge's sphere added six additional color steps between each of the others. These colors are often referred to as the tertiaries. They are given names based on their derivation, for example, yellow-orange for the mixture between yellow and orange. Note that the tertiaries are always a mixture of a primary with an adjacent secondary. Thus we have the twelve color circle, shown below with approximate colors.

The 12 part color circle

Later in 1839 the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul published his researches in Theory of the Harmony and Contrast of Colors. It was a breakthrough in that it explained many of the effects of color interaction that artists had observed since Leonardo da Vinci. Such as the fact that red looks different on blue than it does on green. The Impressionists used these color contrasts especially those of the complementary colors to create vibrant and stunning effects in their paintings. Combined with their painting style and subject matter, when compared with the traditional acedemic paintings they appeared to mad.

Of course, newer modern paints such as the cadmiums helped in the ability of the artist to represent the bright colors of nature. Advances in chemistry led to the introduction of many new colors and paints, not all of them as reliable as the traditional earth and mineral colors. Today, there are great numbers of pigments used in the production of artist grade paints. They are of a durability and brilliance that would be the envy of any great master from the past. With this riot of color the artist must be ever more aware of the organization of color. That is the topic of the next section.


Practice Meets Theory

Johannes Itten uses the term quality to refer to the specific attributes of a color. These qualities describe the position of the color within the color circle or color sphere. There are four qualities of a color; these are hue, value, intensity, and temperature.

We use the term hue to identify the general category from the color circle to which a color belongs; for example whether a color is red or green. However, this is insufficient to describe the quality of that red or green. Does the red smolder like an ember or blaze like the setting sun? Both will be called red, yet each with a different quality.

The term intensity (also saturation or chroma) describes the relative purity of a hue. Pure colors are said to have high intensity. Modification of a pure color always reduces it's intensity, though there are a few instances where the intensity remains very high. A pure color can never be made more intense, though some of our dark pure colors appear more intense when applied thinly.

The term value describes a colors relationship to white and black. Colors that are light in value approach white, while colors that are dark in value approach black. High and low are the adjectives often used in relation to value, with high value referring to light colors. Conversely low values refer to the dark colors. Middle values are those somewhere between these two extremes.

Temperature divides the colors in a psychological way, more about how we respond to colors, either visually or physiologically. Yellow through red to red-violet are considered the warm colors, while yellow-green through green, blue and violet are called the cool colors. Paintings having a dominance of warm colors have a different feel that those where cool colors dominate.

Hue, value, and intensity are combined to describe the quality of a particular color. Temperature is an inherent quality of a color's hue, but can be modified somewhat through value and intensity changes. In spite of this, there is still quite a bit of room for imprecision as we'll discuss later.

White and Black are Colors

To the ancients, White and Black (or more properly light and dark) were the substances out of which the colors were formed. While Newton may have smote this idea with his prisms, every color has a value, a relationship to the poles of white-black. And in spite of what science may say, we still see colors in our mind and attach those colors to objects. Furthermore, in painting we still have the opportunity of the substance of light and dark values, white and black paint, and every range of gray in between. In the psychology of color and the language of color, the words representing black and white occur before all others. Thus in painting, the age old struggle between light and dark still commands the greatest importance.

All Colors are Yellow-Red-Blue

One way of thinking about the colors in paints is whether they are predominately yellow, red, or blue. This is a very useful way of thinking, in spite of its apparent limitations. While a gross simplification the artist can choose hues from these broad categories as a basis for a triadic harmony while avoiding the childlike simplicity of 'standard' yellow, red, and blue. How about orange as the yellow, red-violet as the red, and blue-violet as the blue? There will still be a sense of the harmonies being yellow-red-blue.

The problem is with green. People see green as different from red, yellow and blue. Unlike orange, which can be seen as a yellow or a red. Unlike violet, which can be seen as either red or blue depending on its bias. But green is green. It is neither like yellow nor like blue even though these colors can be mixed to yield greens.

But if one chooses to use only the three broad hue categories, green is best assigned to blue. The reason is that green is predominately cool similar to blue. Even the warmer greens not quite suitable for grouping with the yellow-greens will feel more appropriate treated as a flavor of blue. Though you shouldn't expect anyone to call it a blue, because they won't. They'll call it a green.

All Colors are Yellow-Red-Blue-Green

Psychologists have known for a long time that people really perceive green as quite separate from the primaries of YRB. One can modify the above scheme to therefore include green. Now we have a nice, neat grouping of the colors in simple categories. And most people will be able to associate the appropriate category for most colors.

This color system with four primaries is the basis for the Ostwald color system which was derived from the discoveries of the German physiologist Ewald Hering. Ostwald was even invited by the Bauhaus to give lectures there on his theories.

These four colors, yellow — blue and red — green, also form the visual complements. Yellow looks really great with blue. Likewise with red and green. However, mixing yellow and blue still produces green and therefore the mixing complement for yellow is still violet as in the three color primary system of Yellow-Red-Blue.

Color Experiments

Color is not a precise science and there is lots of room for imprecision. Our language for naming colors is quite limited, even among artists. For our purposes we shall limit ourselves to the twelve color names we've assigned to the slices of the twelve color circle. Now it becomes necessary to be precise — as best we can — about what we really mean by 'red,' 'blue' and 'blue-green.' In other words we must be able to match a color from the paint box to one of the twelve colors of our theory. I don't recommend purchasing every color, unless someone else is willing to buy them for you. But many others have already gone to this expense and effort so why should you?

Practical Twelve Color Circle

The following sections demonstrate the mixing of various specific paints with one another. They show how the colors on the color wheel can be represented by more than one paint from our paint box. There really isn't one specific orange, for example, though for our color circle we will decide upon one. This is merely a convenience.

Yellow Schmincke Cadmium Yellow Light (PY35)
Yellow-orange Schmincke Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35)
Orange Schmincke Cadmium Orange Deep (PO20)
Red-orange Schmincke Cadmium Red Light (PO20)
Red Schmincke Cadmium Red Middle (PR108)
Red-violet Schmincke Quinacridone Violet (PV19b)
Violet Winsor-Newton Dioxazine Violet (PV23)
Blue-violet Schmincke Ultramarine Finest (PB29)
Blue Schmincke Cobalt Blue Light (PB28)
Blue-green Winsor-Newton Cobalt Turquoise (PB36)
Green Schmincke Helio Green (PG36)
Yellow-green Schmincke May Green (PY151+PG7)


Modification of Color

How colors can be modified.

  1. Adding white (creating tints)
  2. Adding black (creating shades)
  3. Adding gray (creating tones)
  4. Adding complement (creating tones)
  5. Adding color of a complementary temperature (creating tones)
  6. Adding color of a different value and/or intensity (creating tones, usually)


Blue-green and blue-violet are the split-complements of orange. In other words, they are the two colors in the twelve color circle on either side of blue, the complement of orange.

It must be remembered that for practical mixing there is no one color that is exactly orange. Likewise for blue-green and blue-violet. Depending on the color in the color circle there may be more or less actual paints falling under that specific color category.

Orange Mixing Charts

The Oranges
The Blue Greens
The Blue Violets
The Neutrals
Old Holland Indian Yellow Orange Lake Extra (PY153+PR260) Sennelier Cobalt Green (mixture) Winsor Newton French Ultramarine (PB29) Schmincke Sepia Brown (PB15:1+PBk9+2xPBr7)

Schmincke Cadmium Orange Light (PO20)

Winsor Newton Cobalt Green (PG50) Winsor Newton Indanthrone Blue (PB60) Sennelier Lamp Black (PBk9+PY42)
Schmincke Cadmium Orange Deep (PO20) Schmincke Cobalt Turquoise (PG50) Winsor Newton Ultramarine Violet (PV15) Schmincke Titanium White (Opaque) (PW6)
Schmincke Chrome Orange (PO62) Winsor Newton Cobalt Turquoise (PB36) Schmincke Ultramarine Violet (PV15) Schmincke Neutral Grey (PR251+PB60+PG7)
Schmincke Translucent Orange (PO71) Winsor Newton Cerulean Blue (PB35)    
  Schmincke Helio Turquoise (PB16)    
  Daler Rowney Transparent Turquoise (PG7+PB15:3)    

As a blue color, Schmincke's Phthalo Blue (PB15:1) was used as a middle hue between the blue-greens and the blue-violets. Note the number of blue-greens and the paucity of blue-violets.



If we want to get a broad experience of the mixing possibilities, the colors to either side of orange — yellow-orange and red-orange — can be mixed with the blue-greens and blue-violets.

Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange Mixing Charts


The Yellow-Oranges
The Red-Oranges
Schmincke Indian Yellow (PY110+PY154) Schmincke Cadmium Red Orange (PO20)
Sennelier Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35) Sennelier French Vermilion (PR242)
Schmincke Chrome Yellow Deep (PY65) Schmincke Vermilion (PR255)
Schmincke Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35) Old Holland Scheveningen Red Light (PR188)
Winsor Newton Naples Yellow Deep (PBr24) Maimeri Avignon Orange (PR206)
Winsor Newton Gold Ochre (PY42) Schmincke Gold Brown (PY65+PBr41)



Yellow-Violet #1
Yellow-Violet #2