The science of color can be nearly as complex as chemistry or physics, but this article is intended to provide a beginner to intermediate level introduction to the subject. Understanding how we see colors and how those colors can work together in harmony is critical for artists of any medium to be aware of.
Note: we will only cover Subtractive RYB Color Theory in this article.
HOW WE SEE COLOR
The human eye perceives color based on how light is reflected off of an object. For example, red paint is not really red. It is actually absorbing every other color, leaving only red to be reflected back to our eyes. Mind-blowing; I know.
“Hue” is another term for a color family. Some common hues are Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple.
TINTS & SHADES
If we are only working within one color family, it is known as “monochromatic”. We can manipulate the colors within the monochromatic scale by tinting or shading. We can adjust the tint by adding white to our selected color. Likewise, we can adjust the shade by adding black to that same color.
The primary colors on the RYB color wheel are Red, Yellow, and Blue.
If we mix two primary colors together, we create a secondary color. Examples of secondary colors are: Orange (Red + Yellow), Green (Yellow + Blue), and Purple (Blue + Red).
We can also create a tertiary color by combining a primary color with a secondary color. Examples of tertiary colors are: Yellow-Green, Red-Orange, and Blue-Purple.
Colors that are directly next to each other on the color wheel are known as “analogous”. An example of three analogous colors are Yellow, Yellow-Green, and Green.
Complementary colors, which contain one primary and one secondary color, are found in pairs directly opposite of each other on the wheel. Examples include: Red and Green, Yellow and Purple, and Blue and Orange.
WARM OR COOL
Colors can also be classified as “warm” or “cool”. Warm colors cover the side of the spectrum between Red, Orange, and Yellow. They are known for holding more weight and attention in a scene. Warm colors are also associated with intensity, anger, or excitement. Cool colors refer to the Purple, Blue, and Green side of the wheel. They draw less focus in the scene and help to set a more calm, relaxed, and subdued touch.
There are semester-long university courses dedicated to the psychology and equations associated with color theory, along with endless literature to read on the internet. Graphic designers, painters, comic artists, marketing specialists, and others can gain immeasurable value from learning about how color plays a role on our emotions and impulses, in addition to how they work together in a scene. Although color theory can become incredibly complex, understanding the basics will tremendously help to advance your skills and further your journey as an artist.