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Elements of Art 4: Color

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

This is our last stop on the journey through the elements of art, but it is one of my favorite topics. Last week, we went through how artists use shape and form in different techniques for drawing. This week, we'll be talking about a very complex topic: Color! Color and color theory can be difficult to master, but with plenty of practice I'm sure you'll all be able to use it in your own way.


In art, we use color in many different ways. They can be used emotionally, to create depth, or to draw attention to something. For now, let's try and understand the basics of what makes a "color."

Most probably know the image of the color wheel from kindergarten or primary school. But the wheel is put together in a very specific way. Color, as most know it, follows the visual spectrum of light. The basic colors in this spectrum are know to some as the acronym: Roy G. Biv. Or, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Although, to keep it simple, I like to include purple in the family of both indigo and violet. These are the basic names of common colors that most people know. Of course there are really a seemingly infinite number of colors between these.

Color Types

Colors can vary in how they are classified. Of course, some can belong to more than one group. I'll go over some of the basic classifications below.

First, we have the primary colors. These include red, yellow, and blue. They are called the primary colors because we cannot combine other colors to make them. They just are as they are.

From the primary colors, we can combine them to make the secondary colors which include orange, green, and purple. All these together make up the common colors that most people can name. However, if we push it further, we can create between these, tertiary colors. This layer includes colors like red-orange, blue-green, and others. When making a color wheel, the deeper you go as far as combining colors, the more complete it will feel.

Another way we can classify colors is by being either "warm" or "cool." In this classification, we are getting more into the feeling that certain colors give is when we look at them. The psychology of certain colors is a complex topic of itself, but for now, we can just focus on the basics of warm vs cool colors. Warm and cool colors come from the different sides of the color wheel. Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow. These colors are know as "warm" colors because they give us the feeling of warmth. They are associated with warm things such as the sun, light, or fire. On the other hand, cool colors get their name because they are associated more with cool or cold things like water, ice, or darkness. One thing of note with using warm and cool colors in your art, is the fact that warm colors tend to be pushed toward the viewer in the plain, while cool colors seem to be pushed back.

General Color Theory

Color theory is how artists use colors within their art to create a certain emotion or give a specific effect. The basics of color theory we'll be discussing concern ideas like hue, shade, tint, and tone. Also included in this are color relations to each other with ideas like complimentary colors, analogous colors, and triadic colors.

In general, when we think of the idea of a specific color comes from it's hue. The hue of a color is the purest form of this color on the visible light spectrum. From there we can change a color to better suit our own needs in art. We can add black to a color and it becomes a shade of that color. If we add white, it becomes a tint. And adding gray turns it into a tone. These all help make up the different types of colors in the color wheel.

The way colors relate to each other can be useful when creating art pieces as well. These general rules can help you when you're just getting started. In general, complimentary colors are colors that look good when placed next to each other. Our eye tends to search out a colors opposite, so when they're put beside each other, it looks good. What makes a color "opposite" of another is where they fall on the color wheel. Analogous colors are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They exist within the same family of colors. For example, some reddish or red-orange types of colors. Another type of color relation is triadic colors. These colors are also some that usually work well when put together in an art piece. They are called triadic colors because when we choose them they form an approximate equilateral triangle on the color wheel.

Another important note is that colors will look different when put next to different colors. I've given an example below. This is important to realize when you're constructing a complete work of art with different colors. Although some colors may look fine by themselves, when placed next to each other, the way a person's eye reads them can change dramatically.

General Color Psychology

In art, when using colors, it's also important to note the implication of what different colors might mean to the viewer. Certain colors make us feel a certain way, yes. But different cultures can hold different meanings with those colors. We can derive the meaning of colors from nature as well. In nature, red and yellow are associated with danger. While green is associated with growth and lusciousness. Using a color to convey an emotion can be a great tool to use. Just be aware of what meaning the color you're using will convey when you choose it.


For this week's exercise, we'll try something a little different. We'll put pencil to paper eventually, but first I think it's important to take note of colors around you and how they work together. You can take a walk outside, or just around the house, but be sure to make note of the different colors around you and how they make you feel firstly, and secondly, how they work with the colors around them.

If you have coloring materials at your disposal, you can try your hand at using them to see how different colors can combine to make other colors, or how they work with different colors next to them.

If you don't have coloring utensils to use, I recommend checking out a few palette picker websites here:,,

These sites are fun to mess around with and see how different colors interact.

Weekly Challenge

The weekly challenge for this week is really up to your comfort level with what materials you have to use. If you have markers and other coloring materials, I challenge you to use them in a way that utilizes one of the color relations I mentioned before. For example, try creating a piece that consists only of analogous colors, or complimentary colors.

Next Time

I say "next time" instead of next week, because I'll probably be taking a week or so off. But, next time we'll be moving on from our exploration of the elements of art to the other basics of art that are the principles of art. The principles of art include topics like balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. We'll start our journey through these in the next few weeks!

As always, if you have any questions or just want to share what you've been working on, you can find me on social media here: twitter, instagram.

Until next time...

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