Color Theory Basics for Beginners

How often do you become frustrated with your ability to combine colors in a pleasing way?  Have you ever decided you just don’t have the knack for it?  Have you ever wondered if it is something people are born with and you missed that gene?

Well, stop the frustration and the wondering.  I have some quick, easy ways to make your art work, well, work.

Color theory sounds really scary doesn’t it?  Like a class with all kinds of notes and tests.  Not at all.  Here is your basics for color theory:

There are three PRIMARY COLORS.  They are Red, Yellow and Blue.

When these colors are combined they make SECONDARY COLORS.  The SECONDARY COLORS are Orange, Green and Violet.

TERTIARY COLORS are made by mixing one primary (full part) with a secondary (half part).  There are six TERTIARY COLORS.  They are Red/Orange, Yellow/Orange, Yellow/Green, Blue/Green, Blue/Violet, and Red/Violet.  You always use the primary color as the first word in your color combination.

COLOR is described with three characteristics.  They are HUE, VALUE, and INTENSITY.

HUE:  is simply the name of a color.  Green, Blue, Orange, etc.

VALUE:  the lightness or darkness of the color.  This is in reference to a gray scale, from the darkest to the lightest.

INTENSITY:  this is saturation or chroma.  The purity of the color which determines the dullness or brightness.  This is different from VALUE but people often confuse these two.

Now you have some variations you can make with your colors.  They are TINT, TONE and SHADE.

TINT:  Color plus WHITE.

TONE:  Color plus GRAY

SHADE:  Color plus BLACK.

Neutral Shade is the equal parts of both black and white combined.  White is the presence of all colors, black is the absence of color.  Since color reflects light, all colors reflecting equally create white.  When there is no color to reflect, you have black.

In my own art practice I have six primary colors, a warm and cool of each.  Warm colors advance or come forward in a painting, and cool colors recede or go back in a painting.  The farther back in a painting something is the cooler and less focused it is.  The closer something is in a painting, the warmer and more focused it is.

The use of six primary colors is called an expanded primary palette.

Here are my choices for my expanded acrylic color palette:

Cadmium Red Medium and Permanent Alizarine Crimson (hue) or Cadmium Red Dark

Cadmium Yellow Light and Cadmium Yellow Medium (or dark).

Phthalocyanine Blue and Ultramarine Blue

With an expanded color palette, white and black, you can mix any color on earth.


You do not need to purchase all kinds of paints.  If you stick with the six, add a good white and black-you are set.  A high quality Titanium White is the most important paint in your kit.  I really love the Titanium White by Matisse .  

I seldom use black in my paintings but my preference is Ivory Black or Mars Black.  You will get different results with each.  They are not the same.  (Ivory black is no longer made from the ivory tusks of animals but they left the name the same.  Just like Indian Yellow is no longer made from the urine of cattle fed only mango leaves and water.)

So why are there so many paints on the market if all you need is six?  Because there are some commonly used colors which artists have found incredibly helpful to have pre-mixed.  Some of these include:  Quinacrindone Magenta, Dioxazine Purple, Prussian Blue, Cadmium Orange.  Then there are the earth-tone colors which are made from natural materials:  Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Raw Sienna, Red Ochre (Oxide).  Each valuable in an artists arsenal, but you can also mix a color very close to each with the ones you pick for your basic six.

The reason you may not get the exact match for these colors is because each paint company has their own chemists which make a healthy living coming up with colors.  Their exact formulas are heavily guarded secrets.  Since I have never been an “it has to be exact” artist, when I mix a color to approximate another one if it looks close enough to me, that’s good enough for me.  I also have books devoted to my own color combinations and mix recipes, spelled out in a way that makes sense to me and in a way I can easily duplicate each color.

Your best tool for learning what colors go with what colors is a basic color wheel.  This will help you instantly and is very easy to use.  There are also many great books on color theory, and I have a lot of them.  I would recommend Walter Foster books.  They are inexpensive, concise, accurate, easy to understand and-in my opinion-an invaluable resource for artists.  Whether you are a beginning artist or a seasoned pro, these books have a wealth of information and are certainly worth looking into.



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2 Responses to Color Theory Basics for Beginners

  1. Pingback: Color Theory Basics, Part 2 | purplewhimsie

  2. Pingback: Color Mixing and Why It’s Important | purplewhimsie

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