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Dec 072010

Color theory has a ton of definitions! A ton.

There is so much that can be said about Color Theory that it could fill the Library of Alexandria.  It can be overwhelming, so for the Man vs. Art  Intro to Color Theory, I’m going to give you the underwhelming Cliff’s notes version. Here are a few basic concepts.

The Color Wheel

A painter’s best friend! Thank you Sir Isaac Newton!

In 1666 the genius Sir Isaac Newton put together the first circular diagram of colors. Ever since then, artists and even scientists have studied and created numerous variations of this concept.  Over the years much debate has been provoked due to the differences of opinion about the validity of one format over another.  In my opinion, any  color wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues is valid.

First a couple of terms you should familiarize yourself with about color.

Hue: is the name of a distinct color of the spectrum—red, green, yellow, orange, blue, and so on.
Tint: is the mixture of a color with white
Shade: is a mixture of a color and black


The color wheel is based on red, yellow and blue.

In traditional Color Theory, these are the 3  colors that cannot be mixed by any combination of other colors.  All other colors are derived from these 3 hues. The holy trifecta or triumvirate of color is what I like to call it.


Green, orange and purple are the secondary colors.

These are the colors formed by mixing two of the primary colors in equal parts. Thus red with yellow gives you orange, blue with yellow gives green, and red and blue give purple.


Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green.

These are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color. That’s why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.
The primary colors are arranged on the color wheel at 3 points opposite each-other and the secondary colors in between the two primaries. The tertiary colors are between the primary and secondary colors.

Color Schemes

The color wheel is your homie!

Color Schemes are rules for combining color that gives  a harmonious result.

Complementary color Scheme:

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are  known as complementary colors.  Red and green for example. Using opposing colors create maximum contrast and maximum stability.

The high contrast of complementary colors creates a vibrant look especially when used at full saturation. You need to be careful using this scheme  so it is not disturbing.

Complementary colors are tricky to use in large doses, but work well when you want something to stand out.  A Complementary color scheme is definitely not recommended for text.  If you don’t believe me just check out some people’s crappy ass  MySpace pages.

Analogous Color Scheme:

IMHO Analogous is the funniest named color scheme. LOL!

For the Analogous scheme, you use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They go well together and create placid designs. Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye.

Be  sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous color scheme.
One color should dominate, a second to support. The third  is used (along with black, white or gray) as an accent.

Split Complementary Color Scheme:

Split Complementary Color Scheme  is a variation of the complementary  scheme. You choose a  base color and use the two colors adjacent to its complement.

This has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme, but has less strain.

The split-complimentary color scheme is  a good choice for rookie artists because it is hard to screw up.

Triadic Color Scheme:

A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.

Triadic color harmonies tend to be  vivid, even if you use pale  versions of your hues.

To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colors should be carefully balanced – let one color dominate and use the two others for accent.


Harmony can be defined as a pleasing arrangement of parts, whether it be music, poetry, or even a gorgeous platter of tacos!

Harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order and balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it’s  boring or chaotic. The first extreme is a visual experience that is so ordinary, so dull and lackluster, that the viewer is not engaged. Our brains always reject under-stimulating information. I know mine does.

At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone and chaotic that the viewer can’t stand to look at it. Our brains reject what they cannot organize or understand.  We need to present a logical structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order which we find comforting and pleasant.

What I’m saying is, extreme unity leads to boredom, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic balance between the two. Like when balance is brought to the force.

Here are a couple of paintings that I believe achieve perfect color harmony.

Waterlilies by Claude Monet

Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Chop Suey By Edward Hopper

Portrait of Natasha by Diego Rivera



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 Posted by at 7:18 pm

  6 Responses to “Man vs. Art Episode 38! Color Theory and Painting.”

  1. I just listened to this episode! It made me think of a project that I worked on in one of my high-school art classes. We had to create a drawing using only 5 or 6 colored pencils. This really forced us to experiment with mixing to produce a larger range of colors. For most of my art I use 6 colors w/ no mixing and black and white. For my current project I’m using a secondary cholor scheme.

    Also I loved Che’s movie review of Colors.

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  4. thank you for being there for my students for the color theory part of my interior design drawing class. Their assignment was to listen to your podcast. great job!

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