Color Theory

ColorColor. What is it? Well, there are several ways to answer this question, none of them are wrong and a good understanding of them all is necessary, I think, to using color properly. Color is light, or more accurately , it is light interacting with matter. More specifically still, Color is the narrow band of light frequencies that we can see interacting with matter. When light leaves the sun it has a presence at every frequency, many of those light waves are harmful to the human anatomy(gamma rays, x-rays, microwaves most of the extremely high and some of the extremely low frequencies), luckily for use out earth’s atmosphere scatters many of the dangerous frequencies of light. I’m not completely sure why so much of light of the light spectrum should be so harmful, but it has to do with how the light interacts with our DNA, Or rather the fact that it interacts with our DNA at all. Generally we prefer that our DNA be left alone.

But I digress, The point I am making here is that not all light is the same, and that the light that we see is actually a very small sliver of the whole light spectrum. We call this small sliver, Visible light, and it is what most people are talking about, artists included, when they talk about light and color. When you shine a beam of light through a prism, the glass in the prism warps the light slightly, and each frequency is warped slightly differently, so that they each come out at a unique spot creating a spreading effect. What you see as a result is all of the individual frequency of the visible spectrum spread out in order of wave length. We call it a rainbow.

It is these wavelengths that we, artists, are describing when we talk about hue. Hues are just the different names that we have assigned to each wavelength. They listed in the same order as the rainbow, from lowest frequency to highest, or Red to Violet, thought for our purposes we are going to call the high end purple (I’ll explain later). Generally, for artistic purposes it is most useful to present the spectrum in the form of the color wheel. The color wheel is organized by hue, so that red flows into yellow, which in turn flows into blue, which also flows back into red, forming the classic wheel. Red, Yellow,  and Blue, are, as it happens, the Primary colors so called because you can make any color necessary using this three starting colors.

However it should be noted here that there is a difference between mixing paints and mixing light. What I mean is, that when you mix red and green paints together you get, sort of a muddles brown. But when you mix red and green together in light wave, like say on the screen of a monitor, you get Yellow. There is a very interesting reason for this, and I think that I should spend more time explaining it, But I have spoken too much on the science of color already, and want to get back to the uses of color. But in summary, the RBG (Red, Blue, Green) scale, deals with what the human eye sees color, and the HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) scale deals with how we manipulate color.

So to begin with you have the primary colors; red, yellow, and blue. Mixing each of these with one of its neighbors in turn will give you the secondary colors; orange, green and purple. Mixing each of these color in turn will give you the tertiary colors; red-orange, light-orange, lime green, turquoise, violet, and magenta (this by the way is why I swap out purple with violet on my color wheel). Mixing these final set of color together creates a level of nuance that is of little use and so the quaternary color are not usually named, though there are many color names that fall under the umbrella of quaternary.

Now, in my opinion this is the sticking point, terminology, in fact I think that this is the sticking point in almost all arguments, debates and misunderstandings. We all have specialized terminology the is specific to our areas of expertise, which other might not understand, so lets break it down.

Color = Hue = Base Value = Wave Length = Frequency

Brightness = Value = Illumination = Tint/Shade

Intensity = Saturation = Purity = Vibrancy

We’ve already covered hue, so let’s move on to Value. Value is the brightness of a particular color. To make a specific color brighter using paint you would add white to make a tint, or add black to make a shade. Manipulating value is a good way to show the turn of an object, depicting the depth and shape of three dimensions. You can also use value to show the recession into space, since as an object gets farther away from the viewer the apparent value gets brighter also with earth’s atmosphere slightly bluer.

Intensity is the measure of the purity of a color. The colors that are on the color wheel are generally at 100% intensity, also the color in the rainbow. Photoshop labels this aspect of color saturation. To change the saturation using paints you can add other colors to them, technically they can be any other color but for best effect most people add amounts of the complementary color. So on a color wheel there is an even number of color positions, and so there is always a color on the opposite side for any other given color. Across from red is green, across from yellow – purple, orange- blue, lime green – Magenta, etc. There is always a Complementary color, so called because when placed next to each other the dissonance in their frequencies causes them to pop to the eye; red makes green, greener, purple make yellow more yellow. Mixing the two colors together on the other hand make the colors less intense, and mixing them in equal part will give you a neutral grey. It actually will look more like a muddled brown, but a true brown is actually a very dark orange.

The final thing I’d like to mention for this post on color theory is  temperature, if you were to draw a line through your color wheel from yellow to purple and the colors on the blue side would be considered cool, and all the colors on the red side would be considered wam. This aspect of the color wheel s usually used to communicate emotion, but is also often used to communicate, as the name would suggest temperature. If you are painting winter seen most of you colors should be on the cool side, and if its and scene from a hot desert day then pick from the warm side.

That about sums up this post on color theory, I will probably want to write up another as some of the more nuanced point occur to me, but for now…

That’s my take on color theory.


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