Colour Theory in Painting
Colour Wheel, History of Colourism, Characteristics/Effects of Colours, Psychology.

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West Coast of Scotland (2012)
Vivid contemporary landscape painting
by Fiona Scott-Brown.

Colour Theory in Fine Art Painting


Colour Terms
Colour Wheel
History of Colour Theory
Characteristics of Colour
Colour Psychology

For a guide to the use of pigment
by painters, the impact of chemistry
and paint manufacturing techniques,
famous colourists from Renaissance,
Baroque, Impressionist, Fauvist and
contemporary periods, see:
Colour in Painting.
For tips and advice about combining
colours on your palette, see:
Colour Mixing Tips.

For an A-Z list of important artist
pigments, from Antiquity through
Medieval times, Renaissance, Baroque,
Impressionism and Modern Art, see:
Colour Pigments: Types, History.

For the definition and meaning of
colour terminology in painting, see:
Colour Glossary For Artists.


In this article we examine a few of the basic colour concepts underlying the theory and practice of colour in fine art painting. Before we start, however, please note that most colour theory is still in its infancy. The science of colour-optics remains somewhat confused, while colour-psychology is still highly underdeveloped. To illustrate how far we have to go to properly understand colour, and its effects on the human eye, consider this: computers are capable of identifying up to 16 million colours, while humans can detect up to 10 million: yet there are only 11 basic colour terms in the English language - black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown and grey. Indeed, 11 is the maximum number of basic colour terms to be found in any of the 98 languages studied by anthropologists Berlin and Kay during the 1960s. Until we find a way of familiarizing ourselves with a greater number of identifiable tonal variations, our knowledge of colour theory and its underlying concepts is bound to be seriously incomplete.

For details of pigments, dyes and
colours associated with different
eras in the history of art, see:
Prehistoric Colour Palette
Hues used by Stone Age painters.
Egyptian Colour Palette
Hues used in Ancient Egypt.
Classical Colour Palette
Pigments used by painters in
Ancient Greece and Rome.
Renaissance Colour Palette
Colourts used by oil-painters and
fresco artists in Florence, Rome
and Venice.
Titian and Venetian Colour Painting
How Tiziano Vecellio Handled Colour

Colour Terms

The word "colour" describes the appearance of pigmentation of objects, resulting from the light they reflect. A synonym for colour is "hue". Paint colours may be made lighter or darker by adding white or black respectively. A lighter version (eg. pink) of a particular colour (red) is called a "tint"; a darker version (eg. magenta) is called a "shade". So far so good. Now comes a trickier word - "tone". It's tricky because it is sometimes used to describe both tints and shades. Technically however, it describes the relative dull or bright variants of a colour that are obtained by adding grey (that is a mixture of white and black).

Eighteenth Century Colour Palette
Hues used by Rococo and other
Nineteenth Century Colour Palette
Pigments used by Romantics,
Impressionist painters and
other 19th century artists.

Several terms are employed to describe the relationships between different hues. "Primary colours" refers to those colours from which all other colours derive. There are three primary colour models: Red, Green, Blue (RGB); Red, Yellow, Blue (RYB); Cyan, Magenta, Yellow (CMY), depending on the context. "Secondary colours" means those colours produced by mixing primary colours - eg. on the CMY scale: cyan + yellow = green; yellow + magenta = red; magenta + cyan = purple. "Tertiary colours" refers to colours created by mixing a primary and a secondary colour, or two secondary colours.

The Colour Wheel

The Colour wheel, of which there are several versions, is a circular diagram which displays a number of colours arranged roughly in order of their appearance in the spectrum. Most colour wheels include three primary colours, three secondary colours, and six tertiary colors - a total of 12 main segments; some colour wheels feature more intermediates, adding up to 24 segments. The colour wheel is the main diagramatic model for explaining relationships between colours, although it is of limited practical value because, in reality, colours tend to behave and react with each other in less exact ways.

Complementary Colours

These are the hues which sit directly opposite each other in the colour wheel: for example: Purple and Yellow, Red and Green. Colour Complements are colour opposites and contrast each other in the most extreme way.

Analogous Colours

These are any three colours which are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel, such as Orange-Yellow, Orange, Red-Orange.


History of Colour Theory


The first theories about colour were propounded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who maintained (in De colouribus) that the two principal "colours" were white and black - light and its absence - and that all colours derived from one of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire. He also maintained that the true primary colours after white and black are yellow and blue: since we "see" the sun's pure white light as yellow, and the blackness of space as blue sky. As you can see, Aristotle's theory of colours took a philosophical rather than a scientific approach.

Leon Battista Alberti

Next came the colour ideas of the major theorist of Italian Renaissance art, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), expounded in 1435 in his inspirational handbook Della Pittura (On Painting). In Della Pittura, which became one of the major sources for later treatises on fine art painting, Alberti states: "Through the mixing of colours infinite other hues are born, but there are only four true colours from which more and more other kinds of colours may be thus created. Red is the colour of fire, blue of the air, green of the water, and grey of the earth... white and black are not true colours but are alterations of other colours." Without going into detail, Alberti maintains and extends the general Aristotlean approach, minus black and white which are demoted to non-colours. Although his theoretical contribution to colour science was thin, Alberti did have quite a lot of advice for painters about the use of colour, like which pigments and which tints and shades were appropriate.

Sir Isaac Newton: The Colour Spectrum

The next major person to address the fundamental concepts of colour was the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, whose discovery of the colour spectrum together with his theory of colour (outlined in his later treatise Opticks, 1704) - continues to shape the debate. It was Newton's prism experiments in 1666 that furnished the scientic basis for the understanding of colour. In these, Newton proved that a prism separated white light into a range of colours (which he called a "spectrum"), and also that the recombination of these spectral hues re-created the original white light. Although the spectrum was continuous, Newton identified 7 different colour-segments (by analogy with the 7 notes of the music scale) which he named red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. All other colours in the spectrum were created, he hypothesized, from these 7.

Goethe, Chevreul & Others

Subsequent scientific and optical investigations, as outlined in such works as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Theory of Colours (1810) and Michel Eugène Chevreul's Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast (1839), concluded (1) that the three primary colours were red, yellow, and blue (RYB); and that all other colours could be created through various combinations or mixtures of these primary colours, or their children; (2) that this theory of colour-mixing applied equally to the behaviour of light colours (beams of light) added together (additive mixing), and coloured pigments added together (subtractive mixing).

While the first conclusion was mostly true, the second was false. This was because the absorption of light by material substances (like pigments/dyes) follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye.


Towards the end of the 19th century, scientists in Britain and Germany found that the perception of colour is best understood in terms of a different set of primary colours - red, green and blue/violet (RGB) - using a light-based model. Later study by experts in trichromacy revealed that these colours are perceived in special ways by three types of colour receptors or cones in the retina.

Nineteenth century art movements which were based on particular colour theories included Neo-Impressionism (1880s, 90s), Pointillism (1880s, 90s), an offshoot of Divisionism (Chromoluminarism) - see also Italian Divisionism (c.1890-1907), Cloisonnism (1888-94) and Synthetism (1888-94).

Finally, 20th century industrial chemists studying the mixing of pigments and dyes discovered that the behaviour of these materials is best described and regulated by using a third colour-model based on the primary colours cyan (a blue), magenta (a red), and yellow (CMY). In the printing industry, because these pure pigments are expensive, the colour Black (K), is substituted for equal parts of CMY to lower ink costs, thus producing a fourth colour-model, the CMYK system. These important scientific advances were somewhat muddied by a range of populist books such as Modern Chromatics (1879) by the US physicist Ogden Rood, and colour atlases produced by Albert Munsell (Munsell Book of Colour, 1915) and Wilhelm Ostwald (Colour Atlas, 1919).

Twentieth century art movements which were based on particular colour theories included Orphism (c.1910-13), Rayonism (c.1912-14) and Synchronism (c.1913-18).

Primary Colour Theory: Summary

If the above history sounds rather convoluted, here in simple terms are the basic principles of colour mixing theory, as follows:

1. In the mixing of paint-pigments and other dyestuffs (called "substractive" because it involves the absorption or selective transmission of light), the primary colours are cyan, magenta, yellow - the CMY system.

2. In the mixing of beams of light (called "additive" because it involves the addition of spectral components), the primary colours are red, green, blue - the RGB system; or red, yellow, blue - the RYB system.

3. In general, painters typically use red, yellow, and blue primary hues; while psychologists, colorimetrists and other colour scientists use red, green and blue; and industrial chemists involved with dyes or paint pigments use cyan, magenta, yellow primaries.

Characteristics of Colours

According to the principles of colour theory, the effect of painted colours on the viewer will vary considerably depending on the combination of hues present, their luminosity and the purity of their colour. To understand this, imagine you are looking at a painting of a typical red British post-box.

As we have seen already, Hue means colour, which in this case is red. If the artist wishes, he can change the colour of his post-box by (say) mixing red paint with yellow paint. This will produce an orange box.

Value is the degree of lightness or darkness (luminosity) in a normal-strength colour. A light blue, for instance has a lighter "value" than a normal blue. If the artist wishes, he can change his post-box from normal-red to (say) light-red. This won't change the hue, which remains red, it simply changes the value of the colour. Adding white changes normal-red to light-red; adding black changes it to dark-red. Lighter versions of a normal-strength colour are known as tints; darker versions, shades. More precisely, a tint (of say green) is referred to as a light value of green; a shade, as a "dark value of green".


Painters use tints and shades to make colours lighter or darker. Sometimes, however, merely lightening or darkening a colour isn't sufficient to obtain the exact colour-variant. In these cases, by adding grey (a mixture of white and black) the artist can zero in on the precise hue required. Adding grey to a colour creates a "tone". Tones are commonly used by artists to create a specific mood across the whole painting.

Some colours are stronger than others. Red, for instance, is considered a stronger - or more colourful - colour than (say) green. The strength of a colour is called "intensity" or "chroma". A painter can reduce the intensity of a colour without affecting its value by adding a neutral grey. This is commonly done to harmonize varying colours of differing strengths on the same canvas.

The Psychology of Colour

Colour psychology works like this: as light strikes the eye, each wavelength does so slightly differently. Red, the longest wavelength needs the most adjustment to look at it, while green requires no adjustment whatever and is the most restful hue. In the eye's retina, these vibrations of light are converted into electrical impulses which travel to the brain - ending up in the hypothalamus, which controls the endocrine glands, which in turn regulates our hormones. Put simply, each colour (wavelength) focuses on a particular part of the body, stimulating a specific physiological response, which in turn evokes a psychological reaction.

It is also conceivable, though not yet scientifically proven, that colour/light enters our bodies through our skin. Considerable anecdotal evidence indicates that some individuals can differentiate colours with their eyes shut, and certain blind individuals remain susceptible to colour psychology.

Primary Colours

There are four psychological primary colours - red, green, blue and yellow.

This is considered to be the most powerful colour with the greatest impact on the psyche. In his book Color Psychology and Color Therapy the noted 20th century colourist Faber Birren describes experiments using red lights, conducted by researchers at the University of California, which elevated blood pressure levels in healthy adults. Red is the universal colour for danger, stop signs, and colour-sensitive graphics and point-of-sale material. Red has also been the colour of Popes and Potentates throughout the history of art: see Raphael's Pope Leo X with Cardinal Giulio de'Medici and Luigi de'Rossi (1513-18, oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti, Florence); Velazquez' Pope Innocent X (1650, oil on canvas, Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome); and Piero della Francesca's Portrait of Battista Sforza and Federigo da Montefeltro (1465-66, oil on panel, Uffizi, Florence).

As red has been known to raise blood-pressure, blue lowers it. Blue is considered to be a soothing, calming hue. See Caspar David Friedrich's use of blue in his romantic landscapes like Monk by the Sea (1808, oil on canvas, Staatliche Museum, Berlin) and Chalk Cliffs near Rugen (1818, oil on canvas, Winterthur, Switzerland); or Whistler's calming Nocturne: Blue and Gold (1872, oil on canvas, Tate Collection).

This is thought to focus on the nerves and emotions. In Chinese medical theory yellow is associated with the pancreas and the solar plexus: the part of the body that churns when we become nervous. The pioneer 19th century landscape painter JMW Turner frequently used yellow in his expressionist atmospheric paintings. See also Van Gogh's emotionally charged yellow corn in Wheatfield with Crows (1889), and compare the tonal variation with Sunflowers (1888, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London).

This colour is at the centre of the spectrum and represents perfect balance. It hits the eye at the point requiring no adjustment, thus presenting no strain. The universal green pigment chlorophyll is at the root of life, and greenery in our environment has a reassuring effect. The great early Renaissance artist Botticelli used green in his picture of Venus appearing on the seashore in The Bith of Venus (1485, tempera on canvas, Uffizi, Florence). The Venetian architectural painter Canaletto frequently used green in his townscapes of Venice, to create the effect of a peaceful, ordered city.

Importance of Tones in Colour Psychology

Even though the above four colours may have particular attributes, it does not follow that (say) all yellows or all reds have a similar effect. As in fine art painting, tonal variations can have a significant influence on the psychological impact of the colour. A light-red neck-tie or scarf, for instance, may have a completely different effect to that achieved by a normal-strength red. A warm daffodil-yellow is likely to be perceived quite differently from a cold lemon-yellow.

Role of Colour in Public Places

A useful indicator of the effects of pigments on the human brain and/or emotions is the role that different colours play in point-of-sale graphics and posters. What colour is a can of Coca Cola, for instance? Also, consider what colours are used in major institutions, such as hospitals (light blues/greens - never reds or yellows!), banks (neutral hues) and so on. By comparison, shops, art galleries, and schools often use bolder colours like yellows combined with reds and blues.

• For information about oils, see: Oil Painting: History, Painters.
• For a guide to watercolours, see: Watercolour Painting.
• For information about acrylics, see: Acrylic Painting.
• For information about colour pigments and painting, see: Homepage.

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