If you’re looking to improve your artwork, learning about Color Theory (also known as Colour Theory) as an artist is a great way to do so. In fact, it’s a very useful and fundamental skill to master for beginner artists!
Using color correctly is an Art Skill that can be very hard to get the hang of. You need to set the mood and the atmosphere right, it can change your art completely depending on what colors you pick. Even just choosing colors that go well together can be a tough challenge.
Learning about Color Theory is a fundamental skill for artists, that improves their artwork very quickly! You just need to break the information down and learn with each step.
How often have you spent looking at your colorless work, trying to think which colors work the best? Or using the whole spectrum and never deciding on one set of colors?
I sure have, especially when my painting isn’t properly planned with a thumbnail.
In this color theory tutorial, I will help you learn EVERYTHING you need to know so that you can use color to your advantage on your artwork every time.
A lot of times, color palettes can help. There’s a lot of places, with nice combos of colors that you can use.
Still, having a better understanding of color and terms like Hue, Saturation, Value, Temperature and many others will help you immensely!
Having only the palettes for you to use isn’t enough at times.
You must understand the colors and how to use them to create the perfect balance in your painting.
This applies to traditional artists, digital painters, 3d artists, designers and every type of artist!
NEW! I’ve just released a new Video Course on Color Theory for Artists, so if you’d like to watch all this information instead and with even more and higher resolution examples, this is the place to be! Grab a discount with the code CORGICOLOR (limited quantity of coupons!)
Table Of Contents
- 1 The Importance Of Color + Understanding Color Theory
- 2 The Color Wheel
- 3 RGB And CMYK Colors (With Differences)
- 4 Hue, Saturation, and Value In Color Theory
- 5 Color Temperature
- 6 Using Color Schemes In Color Theory
- 7 Color Harmonies In Color Theory
- 8 Color Theory Books For Artists
- 9 Summing It Up
The Importance Of Color + Understanding Color Theory
When painting your drawing, you’re not just adding color to it. You’re using color theory as an artist to send a message and to make it visually appealing.
You’re telling something with your choices of color. This is why choosing your colors carefully is important and trying to follow certain schemes or palettes.
You can’t just choose colors at random.
Surely, sometimes it will work.
But others, most of those times really, it won’t. This can be extremely frustrating and it’s hard to figure out why aren’t the colors working.
To put it simply, colors will guide the viewer.
This is something that you need to understand about color theory.
You can use color to tell a story, create balance in your picture or even a mood. Depending on the colors you chose, the viewer can understand better what feeling the painting is trying to convey, without having to ask you.
You can also make the viewer look at a certain point in the painting.
You’re guiding the viewer into what you want them to look at.
Let’s say you have a painting, full of snowy mountains!
In this case, white, some greys and even light blues would occupy a great part of the painting, especially the white. But then, your eyes are moved to another place, a small red flag in one of the mountains.
By adding this tiny bit of red, your guiding the viewer into that vibrancy, capturing their attention to it.
You could add this flag for two reasons:
- Create a story: By pulling this bit of red out of the whole, seemly abandoned place, you’re giving the idea of a story. You’re not telling the whole story, just the idea of it. From then on, it’s the viewer’s job to imagine the rest of the story.
- To break the homogeneity: If this imaginary painting that I’m talking about had only those whites and greys, it would probably look very boring and confusing. You wouldn’t know where to look at. The colors would just murky together and become something shapeless.
However, by adding the red, you created balance to it.
You gave something to guide the viewer’s eyes and made it less hurtful to look at, somewhere to rest their eyes upon.
When planning your drawings, while drawing some thumbnails, think about the colors you want to use.
Test them out if needed.
Think about if you want to convey any kind of mood and atmosphere in your drawing or simply, what color scheme would work more harmonious in your drawing.
The Color Wheel
The basic color wheel is a visual representation of the color hues.
This is something essential that you need to know about color theory as an artist!
It’s a circle, where you can see and pick up any color you’d want.
In digital software, this is where you’d usually choose your colors.
You go around the circle, picking this or that color, darker or brighter and testing them at will.
This circle also shows, very clearly, primary, secondary and tertiary colors and their relationships.
“But what are those big groups you just mentioned?”, worry not, we’ll cover them right now and very simply.
Let’s start with the primary and secondary colours.
Primary colors are colors that cannot be mixed or formed by mixing other colors.
They exist as it is and all other colors are derived from these. There are 3 primary colors that you are more than familiar with: Red, Yellow, and Blue.
It’s not easy to use these 3 basic colors together in a painting, making it look balanced.
But it’s possible.
If you do wish to use them, the trick here is to not use them equally. Use more of one color than the others, making it the most important subject and color of your painting.
This way, the viewer has somewhere where they can rest their eyes.
Secondary colors are colors that appear by mixing primary colors.
The secondary colors are Green, Orange, and Purple!
By mixing the blue with yellow, we get the green, yellow and red, orange and blue and red, result in purple.
This is a very common exercise done at school when we are children.
First, we learn the primary colors, and we paint them in a sheet of paper. Now we are told that if we mix one with the other, we get a new color.
This is done by experimenting with mixing the primary colors and seeing the results (the secondary colors).
Lastly, we get one more exercise, one more experiment.
If we mix the primary colors with each other, we get secondary colors. What if we mix primary and secondary colors? What do we get?
You guessed it, the tertiary colors (also known as the tertiary colours)!
There are six tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-green, yellow-green, blue-violet and red-violet.
Uff, what a list, am I right?
Don’t worry, you won’t need to memorize all these colors to understand color theory as an artist.
This might sound very confusing, but think of it this way: when naming these colors, we place the primary color first.
So, the color we get by mixing the primary color yellow with the secondary color orange would be called yellow-orange.
I know these names still sound very weird and confusing but don’t worry, really. You’ll barely need to know these names.
What matters is that you understand how the color wheel works and how it’s organized.
RGB And CMYK Colors (With Differences)
Some more specific terms about color theory for artists, especially ones that are working digitally, is RGB and CMYK.
Depending on where or how your final painting is being displayed, you use different color modes: RGB or CMYK.
For a product that is going to be displayed digitally, you want to use RGB.
On the other hand, if you want to print your work, you need to use the CMYK mode while painting on your computer.
This is a very important aspect of color theory for designers and artists.
But let’s talk a bit more about this subject, to understand it better.
RGB stands for red, green and blue and it’s used in anything to be displayed on a monitor/screen, like websites, videos, games, etc.
Screens are made up of millions of pixels.
Each of them is made up of 3 sub-pixels, these have the colors mentioned above: one red, one green and the other blue.
By mixing these colors, you’d get others, such as, if you mix the red with green, you’d get yellow.
On the other hand, mixing the blue with green, you’d have a cyan color.
Mixing different quantities of these 3 colors gives you a full array of new colors and tones.
A mix and match of them, multiplied by thousands of pixels, will form your image.
Combining the 3 colors together, overlapping them completely, you get white. This is why RGB is known as an additive color model.
On the opposite hand, CMYK is known as a subtractive color mode.
This means that by taking each color out, you get the white, but by joining them all together, you have black.
CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key, which is black.
If you intend on printing the work you’re painting on your computer, this is the color mode you should have active on your software.
RGB and CMYK colors behave differently.
This means, that if you’re using RGB while painting, the colors will look well on your screen, but when printing, they’ll look wrong and completely different from what you saw on your computer.
Be sure to pay attention to which mode you have active when drawing digitally!
When printing, each color is layered together until it produces the final image you ordered to print.
Basically, the printed image is made up of thousands of dots either cyan, magenta, yellow or black, that overlap each other. The bigger the dot, the more that color is represented, but the more colors it overlaps, the darker the color will be.
Hue, Saturation, and Value In Color Theory
Hue, Saturation, and Value, are very important to understand because it’s with these elements in color theory that you create balance in your picture.
It’s also a very important aspect of the psychology of colors in color theory. In fact, you can read more about how businesses and artists use color in marketing and much more in this color psychology article.
Or consult this handy color psychology infographic by webfx.
We talked about colors in color theory, but surely you noticed on the color wheel, something else than what we just talked about.
Usually, a color wheel on your drawing software, goes from white, in the center, expanding to the edge of the circle, into a darker color.
So you have a color, let’s say red, going from white, passing through different variants of red and, finally, black.
If you want to paint with red, you don’t need to use a high saturated red.
That can be way too vibrant and strong on the eyes.
The Hue refers to which pure color resembles the one you just picked.
Picking up the red again, all tones and shades of red, have the same hue.
Value determines how light or dark the color is and Saturation its intensity.
Meaning that if a color is said to be very saturated, then it’s a very bright and vivid color.
You can learn everything you need to know about value right here.
Low saturation, means less pigment on the color until it’s non-existent, and only grey remains.
Knowing these and using them well is very important because it’s the difference between having a very well balanced and pleasing to the eye painting, from a very confusing and even hurtful one.
For example, when using saturation, try not to use the same levels of it, with every color.
This way there are no variations, the viewer won’t know where to look at and it’s going to be overall too vibrant and too loud.
Use it for contrast, to tell a story, draw attention to something in particular or even for composition.
Composing your drawing is not all about the shapes, it’s also done through color.
Let’s say I have a painting that depicts a very big plaza, some buildings, and people here and there.
Most of the colors have the same lightness to them, except the horizon!
The setting sun, in a bright orange hue, turning the clouds also into different tones of orange and yellow.
This brings balance to your painting and also organizes it.
A line of color more vibrant than the rest.
Many religious paintings would often show the degree of importance of a subject, through saturation and value as well.
We often see Jesus Christ wearing blue and red robes, while the rest of the subjects have more somber tones.
This way, we are giving this subject more importance than the rest, the viewer knows that it’s to him that they should look at.
On another note, saturation is often used to create a mood.
This is of utmost importance when thinking about color theory psychology.
When portraying a happy and joyous scene, we tend to use a higher saturation, more vibrant tones.
While in a sad scene, there are usually very dark, almost absent of color.
This is very noticeable in cartoon movies!
From the top of my head, the Lion King 2 and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame have a few scenes where this is very obvious.
Color temperature is how you can transmit different emotion and settings in color theory. Different light sources produce different colored light.
For example, the flame of a candle emits an orange color, the sun warms us and emits a yellowish tone, sometimes orange, red or even pink.
By association, we consider these colors, warm.
It is as simple as that, the temperature is the warmth or coolness of a color.
Another example: we associate water and rain with cold and often paint these with blue or greyish tones.
These are considered cooler colors than yellow and red for example.
Let’s look at the color wheel again.
As you can see, half of our wheel as warmer tones, while the other half is the opposite.
By this, we can conclude that yellow or any color with yellow, predominantly, is considered warm. While blue or any color coming from blue is cold. Red here, is the middle of our scale!
If you’re not sure if the color you’re using is warm or cold, you can just ask yourself: does this color has more yellow or blue in it?
Digitally you can even figure this out better by moving the color bars around.
This is a fairly easy matter to see.
By intuition, when looking at certain colors, they immediately give you a feeling of warmth or cold. This is a very important aspect of color theory psychology. It’s always good to have the temperature of the color in account when applying it to your painting.
Using temperature, you can change the mood in your drawing.
Just like I mentioned before when speaking about saturation and values.
Darker, somber and colder tones are used when portraying a sad scene, while warmer colors are used more frequently in more happier scenes.
Of course, using temperature can also convey just that. By looking at the piece, if warmer or colder colors were used, the viewer can easily understand and feel that temperature.
Use this knowledge to your advantage!
Using Color Schemes In Color Theory
As we mentioned already, you can set a specific mood, attract attention, make a statement and even tell a story with colors.
You can use them to give more energy to a painting or to give the exact opposite feeling.
By using the right color scheme, you can create a warm and peaceful atmosphere but also something playful and vibrant.
If you learn to use it well, color is a very powerful element of art.
Now, this isn’t easy though.
Today I can still struggle with color, especially if my planning didn’t really go beyond drawing the character! I finished my lineart and… now what??
Fret not! There are actually color schemes that you can use to make your life easier.
There are also many places online where you can find either palette or color schemes for you to try out.
For palettes, I recommend Coolors.
Simply enter it into your browser and generate thousands of different palettes. If you’re interested in one, simply copy their codes onto your drawing software and start painting.
You can also adjust each tone to something you might prefer!
Using palettes can be hard, especially if we can’t yet grasp this whole color balance business.
But it can be a very good exercise to understand it better.
There’s a lot of palette prompts, where you have a certain number of palettes, choose a theme, style, a character, place or creature and you have to do your drawing using only the colors given by the palette you choose.
I really like doing this kind of practice, it’s very fun and I always like to both see what I can come up with and how can I use the colors to my advantage, so my painting looks balanced.
But also see what other solutions other artists came up with. So do give it a try some time!
On the other hand, there are color harmonies (more about them below).
These are basic techniques to combine colors, specific schemes that you can use and most of them might be easier to tackle than others.
I highly recommend studying these as well, since they might be easier to work than palettes at the beginning.
I really like using Paletton for this!
You can get color schemes from the most common color harmony combinations. By changing one color, Paletton will show you the color that will compliment the one you chose.
If you can’t easily figure out which color compliments which, this is a very helpful tool! There are so many different color combinations you can do.
Remember that this isn’t cheating at all!
These are tools for you to use and learn. Most professional artists use color schemes and other helpful software to check the colors and help them choose their colour palette for their works.
This is something you should always do, to make sure you’re creating the best painting you can.
Another nice feature from Paletton is that for each color you chose, it will give different tones of it and depending on the ones you choose, it will change the scheme accordingly.
You can change whatever you want and when you’re finished, you just need to copy the color codes.
Color Harmonies In Color Theory
I already gave you a hint or two about color harmonies, but very simply put, these are techniques for combinations of colors in color theory. There are many color wheel combinations available to use.
Knowing these can help you a lot as an artist, so let’s go through a few of them:
It might seem pretty simple, but this is something that can be very hard to pull off!
You only use one color.
But, like we already talked about, inside a color, you have quite a lot of tones. So you pick one color: red, yellow, green or purple.
Anything you like, but you’re only allowed to use that color or tones inside of it.
This makes very interesting results and once again always a good practice exercise, limiting yourself with one color and finding solutions with it.
Here’s an example of monochromatic colors.
A scheme like this also works better when painting a single subject, but you can often see this being used to create an atmosphere, either in games or movies!
For example, games like Fallout or Call of Duty tend to have this single greenish hue in the whole scenery.
These are games about war and using color this way, gives it a heavier atmosphere to it.
This color harmony can be very visually appealing.
A very interesting color harmony!
Here in analogous harmonies, you work with colors that are adjacent to each other on the wheel.
For example, pink + purple + blue or yellow + orange + red. Usually, it’s a set of 3 colors and you use them and tones of them on your painting.
This kind of scheme works very well together and the colors blend perfectly to create peaceful and harmonious pieces.
This is one of my favorite techniques to use and they look very easy on the eyes. You can never go wrong with it!
Here’s an example of analogous colors.
You can see in the example, the artist used pastel colors in an analogous harmony to create that painting.
This one can be quite hard to pull off well.
It uses colors that are evenly distant from each other on the color wheel.
A few examples: green + purple + orange, or red + blue + yellow.
Triadic color harmonies are usually very vibrant, even if you take some saturation from some of them, but compliment each other well.
Here’s an example of triadic colors.
It is very commonly used for cartoons or other kinds of products targeted for children, like books or games.
It should be carefully balanced and by this, I mean, that you shouldn’t use each color in the same quantity.
One color should dominate the piece, while the other two are less used and to highlight different important subjects in the painting.
A very common and popular color harmony is complementary colors.
Here you choose colors that are opposed to each other on the wheel, for example, green + red, blue + yellow or violet + green.
They look naturally good and balanced together.
Be careful though, like the one above, don’t use both colors equally.
One of the colors should be used more predominantly, so it isn’t as tiresome or confusing for the eyes.
Below is art with complementary colors.
Otherwise, this is a scheme very pleasing to the eyes!
Focusing on warm/cold colors work wonders and you can easily see this contrast but balanced scheme happening in nature all the time!
Just look at a beach, the yellow sand, blending with the vibrant blue sky. These are very contrasting colours.
You wouldn’t think such an ordinary view to be complementary, but now that you think about it, it makes perfect sense and look how good it looks!
Learn from the color wheel, but also from the nature around you.
Similar to the one we just talked about, but here, there’s one extra color.
You chose one color, look at the complementary, but instead of picking it, split it and use the two colors adjacent to it.
This scheme as the same strong visual contrast as the one before, but with less tension to it.
It is more lively and cheerful and you also have more freedom with your colors, so a very good scheme for beginners!
Below is a painting by Samwise Didier, with split complementary colors.
Tetradic (also known as Double Complementary)
In the Tetradic or Double Complementary color harmony, we use 2 pairs of opposing colors.
This can be harder to use correctly and it works better for backgrounds or foregrounds.
Once again, you shouldn’t use all colors equally, give more space to one of the colors and use the others to complement it and give importance to minor details.
This scheme works very well to work the composition of the painting, to give balance and guide the viewer to where you want it to go.
There are two ways you can go about this:
- Rectangle Tetradic: uses four colors into two complementary pairs. Very simply put chose one color and then draw a rectangle on the color wheel, starting from the color you chose. Now you have your color scheme, ready to be used.
- Square Tetradic: It’s similar to the rectangle, but here all four colors are spaced evenly on the wheel. Once again, just chose a color and find the ones that are spaced equally, forming a square.
You don’t need to forcibly use the technique like this, but it makes it easier to know which colors work better and are harmonious together.
If you’re unsure what combinations of colors to use, do the rectangle or square to help you!
Another artist that you might want to check out is Claude Monet.
Claude Monet had several different color harmonies in their paintings, and it’s a great source of inspiration with it’s visual art!
There are many color combinations you can get with all these colour harmonies, so be sure to try them out and mix colors to get new results.
Color Theory Books For Artists
Do you want to know even more about color theory and like to read? Here are some color theory books for artists that I recommend.
Color by Betty Edwards: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors (on Amazon)
This color theory book by Betty Edwards (the author of Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain) is an amazing read if you want to dive deeper or freshen up on some of the basics.
It’s written very intelligently and clearly. You can learn how colors work next to each other and how the human mind perceives them.
It’s also a very handy color theory tool to keep around and reference from time to time!
Color Theory: An essential guide to color-from basic principles to practical applications (Artist’s Library) (on Amazon)
If you want an even deeper look at the psychology of colors in color theory and how to establish mood, use temperatures, warm and cool colors, and light and shadow, then this is the book for you.
It also includes tips to create specific colors like flesh tones, vibrant mixes, and blacks, which is mostly done with traditional paint. This doesn’t’ take a huge part of the book though so there’s a lot of information to take from here even if you’re working strictly digitally.
Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition (on Amazon)
A color theory book by Josef Albers, this was created as a teaching aid to art teachers and instructors, but also as a handbook for artists.
Even though it was originally printed in 1963, this book has received many reprints and revised editions, making it a great tool to have at your side even today! At the time of writing, the newest revision was in 2013.
There’s a lot to read in this color theory book on how we perceive the colors around us and the best part is that it includes several colour palettes with useful examples and exercises!
This book is also a very good purchase for photographers and other artists that want to learn more about color theory and have a handy reference at hand.
Summing It Up
As you can see color and its uses have way more to it than it seems. It’s important to know color theory for artists, its features, and how to use them, especially as a beginner artist!
There are lots of names, but it’s not too hard to understand or memorize them. Let’s go through all of them very quickly:
- The Color Wheel. Where all colors are represented, starting with basic colors, the secondary that comes from them and all the other colors you get from mixing both of these groups. This is what you use to pick up colors for your works and you can easily find this wheel in any drawing software.
- Hue, Saturation, Value. Within each color, you have many tones that you can use. Using saturation and value will make your colors more or less vibrant or lighter/darker. Always use this to your advantage in your paintings. Create balance and a pleasing to the eyes piece, by giving different values to your colors.
- RGB and CMYK. Depending on what you’re working for, you need to change the color mode you’re using. If your work is to be displayed on a screen, you’ll always want to use the RGB mode, but for printing, CMYK.
- Color Temperature. Colors can be warmer or colder. Colors that are yellow or have more yellow in them, are warm colors. On the other hand, blue and colors that come from it, are cold, or cooler colors. Use this to create an atmosphere and mood in your paintings!
- Color Schemes and Harmonies. Combinations of colors that you use to create your painting. Choosing a good color scheme is the difference between a well balanced and pleasing painting, from something that will tire the viewer’s eyes. Use palettes or color scheme software to help you choose your colors or simply follow the color harmonies examples I talked about. You can’t go wrong with them.
As always, have fun experimenting and practicing with color!
NEW! I’ve just released a new Video Course on Color Theory for Artists, so you can get an advanced knowledge on all of this, with more examples and with higher resolution shown! Grab a discount with the code CORGICOLOR (limited quantity of coupons!)
Patricia Caldeira is the main writer here at Don Corgi. She's an art teacher with over 20.000 happy students across many platforms and courses!
Enjoy your stay and as always:
Keep on drawing!