Lesson 2:   Color Theory

Lesson 1
Ritual Geometry


Lesson 2
Group Elements

Color Theory

Lesson 3
Groups and Groups Acting on Sets

Block printing

Lesson 4
Klimt and the Computer

Color and symmetry in modern art I

Lesson 5

Islamic art

Lesson 6
Penrose and Rice

Color and symmetry in modern art II

Lesson 7
Escher 1

Escher 2

Lesson 8
Hundertwasser & Griffeath

Pattern and Modern Painting

Brian P. Hoke: Cellular Automata and Art

Student's Work


Bring finished triangles to critique

color wheels: mixing, secondary colors from primaries

1. Squeeze out yellow, red, ultramarine, turquoise and magenta onto your palette.

Mix two color wheels with secondary colors from each of the following sets of primaries:

yellow, red, ultramarine
yellow, magenta, turquoise.

2. Using a ruler, copy the large triangle onto a sheet of drawing paper. Choose a formula from any of the small triangles on the bottom of your handout. Mix colors according to the chosen formula and paint your triangle. When completed, paint two more triangles with new formulas.

Triangles: mixing a range of colors from three hues

  • 1) "Color begins with and is derived from Light.
    Where there is a little light, there is little color
    . . . where there is strong light, there will be strong color."
    (From: "Art Fundamentals")

  • 2) Rays of light from the sun are composed of waves vibrating at different speeds.

  • 3) The sensation of color is aroused in the human mind by the way our sense of vision responds to these different wavelengths.

  • 4) Spectrum
    A beam of light passes through a prism and reflects from a sheet of white paper. The light rays are bent or refracted as they pass through. Our sense of vision interprets these as individual stripes in a narrow band called a spectrum: red orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. They are pure. These are the hues which are the most intense form of color. Our eyes divide about 150 hues.

  • 5) Subtractive and Additive color
    When white light hits the surface of an object the surface will, according to the particular molecular structure, absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The color of this reflected light is what we see. If all of the light is absorbed, it will be black or white to an equal degree. If all the white light in the spectrum is reflected, the surface will be white. Mixing with reflecting light (as in theater lighting) is called additive color. Mixing with light that is absorbed (as with pigment) is called subtractive color.

Unless we are working with light itself as a medium, our medium is not color, it has color. Pigments/paint have color or absorb wavelengths of color.

In this class we'll be working with pigments and subtractive color mixing. In subtractive color when all the colors are mixed, we obtain a neutral or black. Black is the absence of color. It absorbs all light equally.

Subtractive color theory: a way of organizing color and mixing pigments: Hue, Value, Intensity


In order to visualize relationships clearly, we arrange the hues in a circular a design. We can mix around or across the color wheel.

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block: "Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 186, Figure A


Primaries are the three principle hues. They have specific positions on the color wheel. Red, yellow and blue are the primary triad. They are spaced equally apart on the color wheel with yellow at the top, and red on the left and blue on the right in this example. The primaries are said to produce all of the colors. But in reality, along with the primaries red, blue and yellow, we also need turquoise and magenta to mix a wide range of colors. Theoretically, the primaries, themselves, cannot be mixed from any other colors.

The three primaries neutralize each other when mixed together.
Mixing any two primaries produces a neighboring secondary color

Secondary colors

On the color wheel secondary colors are placed between the two primaries from which they are mixed. Orange between red and yellow, green between yellow and blue, and purple between red and blue.
Intermediate or tertiary colors come between each primary and secondary: orange red, blue green, etc.

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. A group of analogous colors contain at most two primaries. Analogous colors have a very harmonious influence on a work of art.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Blue/Orange, Yellow/Purple, Red/Green. When mixed together they produce neutrals. Placed beside each other in a composition, they create contrast, and often, vibration.

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block:
"Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 195, Figure C


From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block: "Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 188, Figure A, B

There are a wide range of color tones that can be achieved by modifying one hue with the addition of neutrals, black and/or white. The property of value distinguishes between the lightness and darkness of a hue. We can mix a hue with black, white, gray (neutral), or with a darker or lighter hue.

All colors reflect a different quantity of light as well as a different wavelength.
Each hue has a normal value that indicates the amount of light it reflects.
It can be made lighter or darker than normal by the addition of white and /or black.
It is important to recognize the normal value of a hue.


From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block: "Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 190, Figure A B C

Value is the quantity of light of a color, while intensity is the quality of light of a color. We also refer to intensity as the degree of saturation in a color.

Spectrum hues have the highest intensity.

There are four ways to change the intensity of a color:

1. Add white. This will make the value higher (lighter) and change the intensity.
2. Add black. This will make the value lower (darker) and change the intensity.
3. Add gray. If the gray is the same value as the original hue, the intensity will change, but not the value.
4. Add complementary hue.

The mixture of two hues exactly opposite each other on the color wheel such as red green, blue orange, or yellow and violet result in neutral gray or brown. Complementaries present an equal balance of three primaries, a different result than adding neutrals.

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block:
"Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"

p. 191, Figure D
Geraldine Millham, Chairback Tapestry (detail). 1984.

p. 191, Figure E
Michael Vanderbyl, "Six by Six." (Vanderbyl Design, San Francisco)

In these examples we can see how one color beside another changes the character of other colors. In the first image closely related, low intensity colors are used to create a soothing atmosphere. In the second image, high intensity shapes create a contrast against a soft background with low saturation of color.

Color relationships

Closely related colors
Complement colors or extreme value contrast
Split complement = a color and two color on either side of its complement blue/orange red/orange yellow
Transparency affects the intensity of a color


Warm colors are said to be on the red/yellow side of the color wheel. Cool colors are on the blue/green side of the color wheel.

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block:
"Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 192, FIGURE A

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block:
"Visual Forces An Introduction to Design"
p. 219, Figure B
Paul Cezanne, "Houses in Provence." c.1880.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington; Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon)

From Benjamin Martinez and Jacqueline Block:
"Visual Forces   An Introduction to Design"
p. 219, Figure C.

Howard Hodgkin, "Goodbye to the Bay of Naples." 1980-1982.
(Private Collection)

Blues tend to recede into the picture plane, while warmer hues come forward. These effects are dependent upon each individual work of art. In the painting below by Cezanne, the warms come forward and the cool colors recede. However, in the abstract painting by Howard Hodgkins, the sharp blue shape in the center of the composition moves forward because of the scale and power of that color. (#1 Martinez)

 (Color part)

These color exercises will give you experience in:

  • 1. Mixing the value changes of a color by adding black and white.
  • 2. Recognizing the value of a pure hue by matching it to a gray scale.
  • 3. Lowering the intensity of two complementary colors by mixing them together in gradually increasing degrees.
  • 4. Designing with color gradations which are step by step shifts in color from dark to light, warm to cool, green to red, yellow to orange, etc.
  • 5. Perceptual mixing and painting

The first 3 assignments can be grouped together or arranged on small, separate pieces of paper. You will need to put the first two, Value Change and Normal value of Pure Hues, on one sheet of paper, or make separate, identical, gray scales for each one. Make a simple but attractive presentation.

    Paint a gray scale bar with nine segments, 1.5 inches by 9 inches as in the middle vertical column of sample a. You may, if you prefer, cut and paste from your original 9 bar gray scale. In the left column place any hue from the color wheel matching it to its nearest corresponding value in the gray scale. Mix white with this color to match the lighter values, and black to match the darker values.

    sample a

    Remember that pure hues have there own "normal" value. This is most obvious when the colors of the wheel are placed in relationship to a scale of neutral values from black to white. Yellow is the highest, because a large amount of light is reflected, and blue-violet is the lowest, because a small amount of light is reflected.
    Choose and mix 9 pure hues from the color wheel. There are 12 altogether:

    See sample b.

    In the right column, match these colors to the values of your gray scale. This might not be a vertical progression. Leave room to put two hues beside each other rather than below if they both seem to have the same value. This exercise is meant to develop your eye, not to prove you right or wrong. Note: without turquoise you will mix darker, often muddy purples.

    Use any pair of complementary colors to create the intensity scale. See the horizontal bar in sample a. Make your scale 1.5 inches by 9 inches. At either end the colors should be at spectrum intensity. Gradually, mix a little of the complement with each color until a neutral gray is produced, which is placed in the middle rectangle.

    Make 6" by 6" to 8" by 8" square on a piece of white paper. With a light pencil create a simple abstract composition by making 3 or 4 lines across the page, or invent your own shapes.

    See sample c. Segments can have different widths. There can be solid areas in the compositions.

    You will be breaking these large shapes down into areas of gradated colors. For each shape there should be at least nine gradations. Your design should cover the whole page, and there should be no paper showing. Use white paint for white areas. Choose one color scheme for the whole design based on a gradation from any of the following: monochromatic value change (a hue mixed with various amounts of black and white); analogous (gradations between two analogous primary colors); intensity (gradations between two complementary hues or two split complementary hues). Part 3 and 4 can be combined into one exercise by using complementary colors to create the gradations in part 4.

    Create a 6 inch by 6 inch grid on a piece of white paper. The squares will be one inch.

    See Sample d.

    Choose a fruit or vegetable, with colors that you would love to paint. If possible paint during daylight and place your vegetable in a place where the light will illuminate part of its surface. Artificial light is fine too. You will still need an underlying structure of shapes for your painting. Draw a simple shape in light pencil representing the still life. Be sensitive to the way you place the subject within the square. The negative shapes you create between the figure and the edges of your paper are critical to your composition.

    Squeeze out a sample of each color onto the palette. Observe the subtle color shifts and the contrasts reflecting off the surface of your subject. Begin to mix colors by looking at the subject and locating them approximately on the grid. Include colors from the shadows and light of the background to inspire your mixing as well. Each spot represented by a square on the grid will have a variation of color. Use your knowledge from the previous color exercises to help you mix. Is it pure hue? How much black, complementary color or white is needed to arrive at a pale, subtle color, or a rich, dark color? How do the colors interact? Does a bright color suddenly look dull beside a new color square? You may vary thick and thin paint with water. Gouache has transparent watercolor properties as well as an opaque look, and its different densities convey a variety of light and color. Be interpretive in your color mixing, but continue to use perception as the inspiration of your color choices. Even the realism of photography organizes the color of a subject within its own system. Fill in each square completely. It's okay to lose the precise image of the subject to a grid that conveys the just the movement of color.

Materials for next week

bring ink and paper
transfer paper
plexiglas plate
measuring tools
carving tools
safety kut
printing ink

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© Copyright 1996, Pippa Drew and Dorothy Wallace, Dartmouth College