Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

What is Color?

Basic Art Element — Color, Pt 1Color is a basic element of art that involves light. It is produced when light waves (wavelength) strike an object and are reflected into our eyes. Each light wave has a distinct color. Objects appear to be different colors because some wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected or transmitted. The wavelengths that are reflected back to our eyes give us the colors we see.

Color consists of three properties:

  • Hue — The name given to a color, such as red, yellow, blue, purple, green, orange, etc.
  • Intensity (or saturation) — The purity or dullness of a color. A color’s purity is determined by whether it has been mixed with another hue and, if so, to what extent. The most vibrant colors are those right from the tube. Colors that have been combined with various hues are thought to be less intense. To reduce the intensity of a color, there are two options:
    1) Mix the color with gray.
    2) Mix the color with its complement.
  • Value — The lightness or darkness of a color. Adding white or black to a hue changes its value. A “tint” is created when white is added, while a “shade” is made when black is added.

Using color effectively in creating art involves understanding three basic areas: the color wheel, color value, and color schemes (or color harmony.)

The Color Wheel

Basic Art Element — ColorThe color wheel is a useful visual aid used by artists and interior designers to understand the relationship between colors. Sir Isaac Newton developed the color wheel in 1666 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 distinct color. There are three categories of colors in it: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The term “tertiary” means third.

  • basic art element colorThe primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These hues are equally spaced apart on the color wheel. There are only three primary colors, and they are the most basic colors on the wheel. They can only be made from natural pigments and cannot be made by mixing other hues. These three primary colors can be blended to create any other color on the color wheel.
  • secondary colors on the color wheelSecondary colors are orange, green, and purple (or violet). These colors are created by mixing equal parts of any two primary colors.
    • 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 of 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. Tertiary colors are called by their 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 value. A color’s value is a measurement that describes how light or dark it is. It is defined by the color’s proximity 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

A color’s value can be changed by simply adding white or black to it. When you add white to a hue, you get a lighter value. “Tints” are the lighter values. When you add black to a color, the value darkens, creating a “shade” of that color. See the 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 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 (i.e., red + green, blue + orange, or yellow + purple), resulting in drab-looking grays.

Black and white are also considered neutral because they are neither warm nor cool and do not change color.

This lesson on “Basic Art Element — Color” continues in part 2, where color harmony is discussed.

Take The Quiz

Test your knowledge of color theory by taking this simple online test.

Your Next Art Lesson

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

Basic Elements of Art, The(An Introduction)

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1 — You are here.

Basic Art Element, — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Want More Art Lessons?

When you are finished with the Basic Art Elements lessons, why not move on to the Good Design Principles? To get started click on  The Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

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UPDATED: 13 March 2023

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