Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

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tube of oil paint

Color is the element of art that involves light. It is produced when light waves strike an object and are reflected into our eyes. It consists of three properties: hue, intensity, and value.

  • Hue — This is simply the name that is given to a color, such as red, yellow, blue, purple, green, orange, etc.
  • Intensity (or saturation) — This refers to the purity or dullness of a color. Purity is determined by whether or not a color has been mixed with another color and if so, to what degree. Colors straight from the tube are considered the most intense. Those mixed with other colors are considered less intense.  There are two methods that can be used to dull the intensity of a color:
    1) Mix the color with gray
    2) Mix the color with its complement
  • Value — This is the lightness or darkness of a color. A color’s value changes when white or black is added. Adding white creates a “tint” of that color and adding black creates a “shade”.

Using color effectively in the creation of art involves understanding three basic areas: the color wheel, color value, and color schemes or as it is also referred to, color harmony.

The Color Wheel

basic color wheelThe color wheel (sometimes called a color circle) is a handy tool often used by artists and interior decorators as a visual aid in understanding the relationship between colors. It was developed in 1666 by Sir Isaac Newton when he took the color spectrum and bent it into a circle. The color wheel is a circular chart divided into 12 sections with each sector showing a different color. It is made up of three different types of colors – primary, secondary, and tertiary. The term “tertiary” means third, by the way.

  • primary colors on the color wheelPrimary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These colors are equally distanced apart on the color wheel. There only three primary colors and they are the most basic colors on the wheel. They cannot be created by mixing any other colors together and can only be derived through natural pigments. All other colors found on the color wheel can be mixed from these three basic colors.
  • secondary colors on the color wheelSecondary colors are orange, green and purple (or violet). These colors are created from mixing equal parts of any two primary colors together.
    • Red + yellow = orange
    • Yellow + blue = green
    • Blue + red = violet (purple)
  • Tertiary colors are red-purple, red-orange, blue-green, blue-purple, yellow-green, and yellow-orange. There are six tertiary colors and they are the result from mixing equal parts of a primary color with a secondary color. The proper way to refer to tertiary colors is by listing the primary color first and then the secondary color. That’s why tertiary colors are referred to by a two word name.
    • tertiary colors on the color wheelRed + violet (purple) = red-violet (red-purple)
    • Red + orange = red-orange
    • Blue + green = blue-green
    • Blue + violet (purple) = blue-violet (blue-purple)
    • Yellow + orange = yellow-orange
    • Yellow + green = yellow-green

Color Values

Color also has a value. Value is a measurement to describe the lightness or darkness of a color. It is determined based on how close the color is to white. For instance, lighter colors such as yellow will have lighter values than darker colors like navy blue.

A good way to see the difference in the values of colors is to look at the greyscale. White is the lightest value, while black is the darkest. Middle gray is the value halfway between these two extremes.

basic art element value

The value of a color value can be affected simply by adding white or black to it. By adding white to a hue, a lighter value is the result. Lighter values are called “tints”. When is black added to a hue, the value becomes darker, creating a “shade” of that color. See example below.


Color Temperature

The temperature of color is how we perceive a particular color, either warm or cool. Warm colors range from red to yellow on the color wheel, whereas cool colors range from blue to green and to violet. Each temperature takes-up one-half of the color wheel (see images below). Somewhere in the green and violet spectrums the temperature changes between warm and cool.

The characteristics of warm and cool colors include:

Warm Colors

    • Warm colorsare made with red, orange, or yellow and combinations of them
    • tend to feel warm reminding us of heat and sunshine
    • tend to advance into the foreground, i.e. come toward the viewer
    • may feel more energetic, attention-grabbing and aggressive

Cool Colors

    • Cool colorsare made with blue, green, or violet and combinations of them
    • tend to feel cool reminding us of water and sky
    • tend to recede into the background, i.e. move away from the viewer
    • are more calming and soothing

Neutral Colors

Neutral colors do not appear on the color chart and are neither warm nor cool. They are called neutral because they lack color and are derived by mixing equal parts of color opposites together (i.e. red + green, blue + orange, or yellow + purple) resulting in drab looking grays.

Black and white are also consider neutral because they are neither warm or cool and do not change color.

This lesson on color continues in part 2 where color harmony is discussed.

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Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

The Basic Elements of Art (Introduction)

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

More Art Lessons

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

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UPDATED: 26 October 2020

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