Quick color crash course.
Color is one of the foundations of art, and so we need a basic understanding of color theory.
For thousands of years artist and craftsmen have been passing down their knowledge of color and how to use it effectively. In the 1660’s Isaac Newton began experimenting with light and prisms, and our understanding of color expanded. Medical advances revealed how we see color, the cones and rods that interpret the wavelengths of light and send the information to our brains so that we can perceive color, now that is truly miraculous.
So color is light that is perceived by our eyes in predictable ways. Even before we understood how all of that happens artist had been using color intentionally to increase the beauty and the message of art.
In elementary school we all learned that there are three primary colors; red, blue, yellow. These colors are our basic color building blocks. When combined these primary colors give us all the other colors…or that is what we’ve been led to believe. Like most of life, it’s not quite that simple.
We need to make a distinction between combining colors of paint (subtractive color) and combining colors of light (additive colors). When dealing with light, white is the combining of all the colors, and black is the absence of color.
However, if we were to combine all of the colors of paint…we wouldn’t get white…we’d have a brown-black mess. If you look at the illustration you will see that the color combinations for light and for paint are different, and that even the primary colors, as we’ve been taught them, aren’t quite right. The explanation for that is too long for this article, but the point is, for an artist, combining and using color is a complex and important skill to master…and it’s not as simple as you were led to believe in elementary school. Sigh…what is?
So let’s back up a bit, because the standard color wheel, does have quite a bit to teach us. Note: the color wheel is not describing how light is combined to create colors, and there is a great deal more to color theory…but this will get us started. First, let’s get some basic vocabulary down. There are three levels of color. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. Secondary colors are made by combining two of the primary colors. Tertiary colors are made by combining two colors that are either primary or secondary. Spend a minute looking at the chart to see the three levels.
Of course, it’s not like artist started with pigments in any of these precise colors and began mixing them to make the other colors. Pigments to make paints, until recently, had to be found in nature. They were ground up minerals, stones, and plants. Every artist, every day had to mix their own paints, and develop a discerning eye for slight variance in shades. Colors from different regions were different because the pigments they had to work with varied. As travel and trade became easier, artist were able to acquire new colors and new combinations grew from there.
Analogous colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel. When analogous colors are used they create a unified and harmonious image. Paintings of nature are often done in analogous colors. While this can create a beautiful palette, artist have to be careful that the work doesn’t appear monotonous or boring. Here is a painting of sunflowers done by Vincent Van Gogh, that has used an analogous palette.
Analogous colors can also be grouped as warm or cold. The colors red, orange, and yellow make up the warm part of the color wheel, while the blue, green, and purple are the cool colors. Each side has both a positive and a negative side to it. The warm colors remind us of the sun, a crackling fire, and happiness. Painters use these colors when they want to communicate a cheerful vibe. When they are used in abundance or in intense hues they can become the colors of a fiery inferno or angry god, creating tension.
The cool colors are often used to indicate calm and peace. Water the shore, a blue sky, or green meadow, the cool colors often dominate beautiful landscape paintings. Traditionally, blue is associated with heavenly things because of it’s connection to the sky and life giving water. However, when used with intensity or in abundance blue can indicate isolation, depression, and despair. The cold can move from a comfortable cool stream, to a freezing blizzard that threatens.
Contrasting colors are those that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. These color choices provide the greatest contrast. When an artist wants to catch our attention, or direct it on a particular path through a painting, contrast is the key. Our eye is drawn to contrast. Exceptional artist have mastered the manipulations of contrasting colors to create both balance and interest.
Sometimes contrasting colors are called complementary colors because…well, they look good together. Fashion and graphic designers make use of complementary contrast all the time.
George Seurat was a French post-impressionist painter who had a unique way of working with color. He developed a style known as pointillism. In this style the artist doesn’t mix his colors to get the hue he wants, instead he applies the paint in small dots of pure color right next to each other allowing the eye to blend the colors together. From a distance his paintings look fairly normal, but when you move in close you can see the distinctive dots of color. One of the most famous work in the pointillism style is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatt.
As we look at the grass, the water, and the leaves of the trees we can see the use of analogous dots of color that have been skillfully applied to create the grass and water. We can also appreciate how Seurat has placed the woman with the orange dress against the blue water, making the most of these contrasting colors. This close up of the red umbrella against the green tree illustrates how Seurat has used contrast to actually outline the umbrella.
By using darker shades of the same colors the artist has created shadows on the grass, and the play of light reflecting off of the water.
When we first examine a piece of art, this very basic information about color is something to consider. How has the artist utilized color to unify the work, does he create interest with a complementary colors, are the colors warm or cool? What emotion do the colors used create in us? Artist consider these questions when they are creating, and it is useful for us to ask them when we are viewing a work.
We will be continuing our exploration of color in the world of art in upcoming posts. Be sure to subscribe to my email list so you don’t miss out.
If you want to explore color more in another work of art you can check out this post about a work by El Greco. As a mannerist painter, El Greco’s color choices were not based on reality, but on the emotion he was trying to create.