Theory Discussion: "Color Theory" Principles and Practices

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  1. #1

    Exclamation Theory Discussion: "Color Theory" Principles and Practices

    Hello forum people...

    I would like to start by saying hello, my name is Ron Lemen, my handle, Fredflickstone is more recognizeable to other forum surfers. I am an artist/designer/illustrator/instructor in San Diego. I teach at the Jeff Watts Art Atelier, and I study great people to this day, Kevin is among the good company of greats I absorb.

    I am leaving a little paper I wrote for my color theory class. It explains things in a basic approach. The approach is similar to the teachings of Juoaqin Sorolla, I spelled that wrong…and passed on through my instructor, mentor-Sebastian Capella, and now I am transferring the knowledge on to all of you.

    This is merely a glimpse of information from a day long ago, when art teaching was more meaningful, and answers were available to all who wanted them.

    Art is a tricky bastard these days, its not so easy to see the big picture because there are very few who know what the big picture means…it’s a Really Big Picture…anyway, I hope to sit around here more often, and hopefully contribute some stuff for the sake, and betterment of your art learning.

    Thank you for reading this document. It is somewhat incomplete, but it has enough to get you by for now…any questions, please feel free to leave them, and I will answer anything you might have concerns with.

    Thanks again,

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    Color Theory Notes

    Most Importantly:


    The color wheel is a system to learn this principal above. The color wheel is a break down of the color spectrum, scientifically, not based on a palette system, although it is rooted in a palette.
    The palette is derived from pure colors, pure from each Hue, or color family in the color spectrum.
    The wheel is the color spectrum, in value relationship, from one color to the next. Starting with Yellow a 9 on my value scale, we move all the way through to the purple, a 2 or close to that value.
    The color wheel is also a tool to help us comprehend and fully understand the saturation spectrum, or chroma, or intensity. All three of these terms are identical in talking about color. I will stick with chroma.

    The palette is derived of pure hues in the color spectrum, the science of color. This is in no way an influence to a palette system, but, if you take proper note, this palette we will be using gives you basically every color in the color spectrum.
    Because color is intensity relative, the earth tones are finally realized as nothing more than toned down, pure color. This thought process, though, can be transferred to any palette system, as long as the principals of color are strongly adhered to:


    1. Hue
    2. Value
    3. Intensity

    But I still preface that this palette is the strongest palette I have ever used, offering the brightest possible results to the dullest results, all of which are good in their proper context.

    The wheel is broken down into three rings. Each ring is a chroma ring, based on intensity. The lower the intensity, the more gray is added to the colors. When finally seen as just a color wheel, one arrives at the conclusion that the term gray is a big misinterpreted word, when an artist thinks of this term. When we hear the term, it is usually thought of as something devoid of color, something bland and neutral.

    Why do I draw the value system backwards, that is, why is it numbered in reverse? Quite simply, in art class, teachers tend to say “drop the value of this or that,” or “raise the intensity of this or that.” This translates to: drop the value=add more black, raise the intensity=get rid of the black or possibly add white. In either case, you can see that it is stating something quite clear. Then we confuse this statement with “drop this value to a 7 or 8 value,” when the way we think of numbers, dropping a number means going backward down the number scale, adding a this or that is moving back up the scale. To simplify thinking here in these confines, we will stick with 1= black and 0=white.

    This translates into color with our color wheel. The colors are as I stated previously. 9=yellow, and 2=purple. Because, as we will soon learn, in painting in a High Key of chroma, a new term, we will not be using black, arriving at our darks through the means of color. If we think of the color wheel as value, we can resolve the high key painting quite simply by understanding that color=value. When we drop the chroma to a middle or low key of chroma, we will be adding black and white, de-intensifying the color, or dropping the purity of the true colors. Most all paintings are painted in a middle key spectrum, or an earth tone range. The old masters, Rembrandt and such, used a low key of chroma spectrum, or the absence of most color, until it is almost unrecognizeable to what color family it came from.

    To explain the terms I have included, the low, middle, and high keys of chroma.. The chroma keys are identifiable markers for our eye, to understand what key to paint in. Sorolla painted in a naturally high key of chroma, as did most of the impressionists. Manet was the father of this movement, using only pure colors to create the impressions we see of things around us, letting the eye fill in the details. Sargent was a sophisticated impressionist, but worked mostly in a middle to low key of chroma. His impression was the adept ease at which he arrived at shapes, not rendering, but finding light on the form. Rembrandt painted mostly in a low key of chroma, which is usually added to a major key of intensity (another set of terms to be introduced and explained shortly). He painted with such an intense amount of concentrated light, in a dark room, to increase the drama to his statements he was creating; extreme value range, from the blackest black, to the whitest white.

    Why high key of chroma? Why do we want to paint so bright? First, let’s speak of something else; a bit of its history. Explaining the history can answer most of this question I bring up. For many centuries, art had very few rules that helped it remain organized. Somewhere just before the dark ages, man lost some sensibility with art. The classic Greek and Roman art was to be forgotten, and art basically started over from crude, ill conceived ideas, flat, with no tonal control, and no perspective, plus a false sense of understanding of the true human form. Then slowly, through the ages, artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci (perspective, anatomy), Michelangelo (anatomical rhythms) began adding tools, or resources to the history strand of the ever-expanding growth of art. These new tools allowed artists more freedom to finally create impressions that were meaningful, powerful, and to the heart. Since most of art during these times were for the state, the church, or historical recording, the more accurate, and more powerful, the better. These were some of the only imagery most people ever saw, going to pay taxes, paying respects to their lords, and worshipping of rulers and god. These images needed to be made clear, and important, to really make an ever lasting impress on the peoples. During these days of painting, color was not the most well organized item on the list. Although most colors had been created in their mundane mixtures of primitive hues, violet or purple being the rarest, there was no understanding of the color spectrum. Plus, all these new tools allowed artists to now use light and shadow to mould the organized forms in 3 dimensional space, the things our eyes really see. But one piece was still missing; color. It was used, but lacking in its rich vibrancy that we all know of because of the glorious, vibrant sun. A painter by the name of Diego Velasquez came along (Spain) and introduced two things to painting that will forever make him the most important painter of all time: he introduced color into the shadows, and he molded form impressionistically, adding atmosphere to the mix, blending edges into each other, where other artists dare not do such a thing because it went against all that was ever taught. These two principals opened up the path to all the great art we see today, from Waterhouse to Sargent, the Impressionists to the Realists, Velasquez (1600’s) gave art its heart, and the impressionists followed this up many hundred years later with the soul; color and impression. Sorolla(Spain) could be claimed to be the greatest impressionist that ever lived. He brought real color to art, done very realistically, and very sound. Manet brought impressionism, but Sorolla taught most painters to understand how to paint in true direct light. He was the master of color…

    Why High Key? Some people truly experience life from a colorful point of view. In some instances, when I step into a new corner of life, I see it not from the point of view of details and textures, but of color, lots of colors that tease the mind. The earth tone palettes most artists recommend never allow you to fully experience colors the way colors can be experienced. But using this bright color spectrum does have its costs. If using bright colors, one cannot use a full value range. Both contradict one another and create two entirely different meanings. This leads us into the contrast keys…

    Contrast keys help us to gage how much dark and light to use in a picture, and this controls our saturation levels too. In a high key of chroma, we use a major key of contrast. In a middle key of chroma, we can use just about any key from the major key to the minor key. The middle key of chroma is the most forgiving. The minor key of contrast is bringing the value range down to just a few values. This system will become more complex as we progress into the semester, but for now I want to keep it simple in just these three terms for now.

    onto part 2...

    Last edited by Sepulverture; November 25th, 2009 at 02:11 AM.

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  3. #2

    Color Theory 2

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    Let’s review these terms in charts:

    High Key.........................Minor Key
    Middle Key.......................Medium Key
    Low Key..........................Major Key

    Now, let me mention briefly mixing this color wheel:
    The color wheel

    The yellow square is the only square where we use nothing but out-of-the-tube color. This is the cad yellow pale. All the other colors are mixtures of the color, plus the succeeding neighbor color and white.

    The Warm Side

    Yellow- Cad Yellow Pale
    Yellow Orange-Cad Yellow Pale Plus Cad Yellow Orange and a touch of white possibly
    Orange-Cad Yellow Pale Plus Cad Yellow Orange and small amounts of white
    Red Orange-Cad Yellow Orange and Cad Red Light Plus a touch of white

    Before going further, I want to state that these previous colors don’t necessarily need white if the rest of the colors are mixed correctly. The following warm colors most definitely need white to adjust their value—ahhh, there’s that word again…

    Neutral Red-Cad Red Light plus Red Rose Deep and white
    Red-Purple-Red Rose Deep and Ultramarine Blue and white
    Purple-Red Rose Deep and Ultramarine Blue and white

    I need to stress one more point here…keep in mind the thought of color=value…now, look at your straight-out-of-the-tube blue…it is really dark, no? So if you are making a Red Purple, which, if we are thinking in terms that this wheel is a value wheel, then naturally we deduce that our Red Purple is at least a 3 on the value scale, we need to do a little adjusting to the blue. Add white to the blue until you have the correct value relative to the color wheel value, then mix that with the red rose deep that will also have the same treatment. That is, white added to that until it too has the same value. This way, you are not falsifying the value of the color you are attempting to mix. Out of the tube colors are not made as a value, they are made for the sake of the color we need. Each color is a chemical compound, again, not a value system. For us to make order of this subtle chaos, white is added to the color, prior to mixing it to any other color on your palette so you get it value correct to the other parts of your mixture. This is something Sorolla brought to us - a very HUGE reason he got the shape, value, and color correct the first time, in one brush stroke. He knew these tricks. These are tricks, but they have been taught from Sorolla to get impressionistically accurate in one swipe. That is our ultimate goal anyway - total freedom with the brush to do the paintings we want, in an effortless fashion. And if we render, these “tricks” will still help us resolve many frustrations, merely by ignorance of our tools. Let’s get back to the mixtures:

    The Cool Side

    Yellow Green-Cad Yellow Pale plus Viridian and maybe, just maybe a bit-o-white
    Green-Cad Yellow Pale plus Viridian and again, white

    Now white is a must!!!

    Green Blue-Viridian Green and Cerulean Blue and white
    Neutral Blue-Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine Blue with white
    Blue Purple-Ultramarine Blue plus Red Rose Deep and White
    Purple-see above

    Remember-use the least amount of white possible to obtain the highest key of chroma you can achieve.

    As we enter the middle ring, we pull out the black paint, and mix a value scale relative to the scale we are using on our color wheel. Then we taint our puddles of color we mixed earlier, de-intensifying the colors. As we go into the low key ring, it is mostly the grays, with a bit of color. Now here, you will find some startling things occurring. Your grays will turn green in the top part of the wheel, and purple in the lower part of the wheel. The reason for this is the black. Black makes great greens when mixed with yellows and slight oranges, which still have yellow in them. And red added to black makes purple. There is black in all these mixtures you are making for your gray values. You will need to add the neighbor color previous to the color you are mixing with to neutralize the gray so that you get the hue more accurate. There is always a little adjusting to do to make it all work right, because with each step, something else is mixed into the batches of colors. That is why I stated previously adding white to the out-of-the-tube mix before mixing the colors together for your final mixture (whew). The fewer problems you throw into the whole thing, the easier you will spot what is wrong, and fixing it will be easier to figure out as well.

    On a final note, I want to share a new bit of information a painter named Ken Auster gave. It has to do with another level of complexity in our thinking with paint. It has to do with the tools we use:

    There are three things to consider when using oil paints and the other tools in conjunction with them:

    1. Do you have the right tool? The right tool for the right occasion? Most people do not understand the brushes they use, the knives they buy, the paints, or the surfaces…why a bristle? Why a sable? Why canvas, or masonite? Mediums? Why…
    2. The consistency of the paint, when to make it thin, when thick, what mediums to add, and when to add them, for brushstrokes, and layers…it’s very important to know these things
    3. the pressure in which you lay down the paint - when to flick as opposed to troweling, or when to let up at an end vs. scooping the brush up etc.

    1. Tools
    2. Consistency
    3. Pressure

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    These notes are meant for study with oil, in the color mixing part of the wheel that is. The rest is universal. You can apply it to every medium. When I transfer the data from my laptop over to this drive, I will show you a few new life paintings I did digitally using this info.

    Last edited by emily g; January 22nd, 2007 at 12:52 AM.

  4. #3
    Very cool. Thank you all for the comments. I have a few more pages to post with this. I would post them bigger but I cannot afford the bandwidth right now.

    I am looking to posting more tomorrow...

    Yes, Da Vinci Paints are the best I have used next to Old Holland. And if you know oils, you know how NOT SO CHEAP old holland is...

    Thanks again.



  5. #4
    Join Date
    May 2004

    Difficult to learn!

    I think it´s so difficult to see the value relationships in black and white from a photo.
    Can you make some exercises so I can learn how to see these values in real life?


    try to simplify..

  6. #5
    lichi-if you can read this ok, and look at the pictures, this is an exercise in how to see color=value. And if it cant, for whatever reason, then, the next easiest solution is use photoshop, and turn color photos into black and white, and look at what value the colors turn. Its that simple...

    Good luck reading this.



  7. #6
    Very interesting!
    I recently wrote a computer program to help me optimize 256 color palettes, and I had to find formulas for converting to HSV and such.

    A commonly used formula for greyscaling RGB goes as follows:

    Greyscale = ( 0.299*Red ) + ( 0.587*Green ) + ( 0.114*Blue)

    As you can see, the green slider gives the brightest values, and blue is pretty dark.

    Photoshop might be using another formula though (and gamma maybe?) It also appear as if the adjust> desaturate option ignores the RGB scalers and all sliders are worth as much.

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  8. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    Rhode Island, USA
    I would love to see the other pages you have, as these are nice, but theres something a bit off about them i think as a teaching guide, (not that i am one to say, but just voicing my opinion.) It is a good explanation of a typical color wheel, but i think that alot more theory is needed just to cover the bases.

    One thing that concerns me is that to create darks youve suggested to simply add black. black is a fine, fast way to produce a darker color, but if you are going to teach color theory, would it not instead be more suited to teach how to use colors to darken each other first? A novice following this lesson would likely end up with mud by adding black wherever he needs a shadow. better instead to teach the use of compliments i would think, as this darkens and neutralizes colors as im sure you already know, and it would fit in excellently with the color wheel lesson.

    Another thing that seems odd is the sheer volume of different colors used. I realize you are going for high chroma, but i cant help but there is a lot of excess there that will take its toll on a painting. Do you really use all 10 at once? Typically i would be inclined to believe that four different pigments would be fine and five would be ideal, that palette being white and the primary colors, choosing a warm or cool tone of each depending on what you want for that particular work, with that group augmented either by viridian or the cad yellow orange. Ten colors on one palette just seems too many, and an inexperienced painter (intermediates and beyond having already learned basic color theory) trying to use all 10 as suggested would probably find all of their paintings looking like an oil spill.

    that being said, these are readable, well presented, informative, and just all-around well done. textbook quality really, should you ever feel the desire. most imporatntly, thank you for sharing


  9. #8

    Black is a good toner for cool colors. It will lower their tone without altering their character too much.

    For warm colors I suggest warm earth tones like Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna

    As a personal preference I'm not one for mixing complementaries for anything besides chromatic greys for use in landscape.. In the case of portraits, the transparent warm tones uses for shadows in many classical paintings is preferable as transparency is the quality of shadow, not so much color. Even their drapery often uses pure earth pigment and black for shadows and to create darkhalftones.

    As far as palettes I suggest this to start: (refers to oil color)

    A white (Flake or Titanium)
    Cadmium Yellow Light (cool yellow)
    Yellow Ochre (warm earth yellow. Great for flesh mixtures)
    Cadmium Red Light (cool red)
    Red Ochre, Light Red Oxide, (warm earth red)
    Ultramine Blue (warm blue)
    Burnt Umber (dark brown, yellow family)
    Burnt Sienna (dark brown, red family)
    Ivory Black (black, bluish when mixed with white)

    This palette is quite adequate for the beginner and is all around useful. The colors are permanent and time tested. As one gains experience and ability the palette can be expanded with the following:

    Cobalt Blue (cool blue)
    Alizarim Crimson (deep cool red)
    Viridian ( cool green)

    landscapes and florals may require an even more expanded palette, in a higher key, with more bright colors

    Just remember, many of the greatest paintings in the world were created with limited palettes

    Last edited by ArtznCraphs; September 1st, 2006 at 04:54 PM.

  10. #9
    I'd love to see realization of these for Computer programmes.
    Like a tutorial on how to work with Photoshop t alter colours proper, and the same for Painter and Open Canvas.
    Is there anything like that around? I couldn't find it in the forums for Photoshop and Painter in any case...





  11. #10
    Hello Ron and the rest of ppl!

    Thanks for the valuable information on colors. As a painting student I highly appreciate the information you provided above. Can i get an e-book on a color theory? Thanks.


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  12. #11
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    I have a question about the low chroma ring. When its said that the color is to be mixed with grey, its apparent that the grey is 50/50 black and white. My art professor said that to desaturate a color you add its compliment (neutral gray). So lets say one is moving from the middle key chroma to the low key, could they just add a bit of violet and get the same result or is it better to use grey?

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  13. #12
    Thank you so much!


  14. #13
    Join Date
    Nov 2008
    This is a real great tutorial, will be studying it!


  15. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by ErikAlbany View Post
    I have a question about the low chroma ring. When its said that the color is to be mixed with grey, its apparent that the grey is 50/50 black and white.
    Actually no, he's using a different grey to neutralize each hue, because his aim is to change the chroma without changing the value. The basic idea is to neutralize each pure colour with a grey of the same value. In practice the value of the mixture will drop a bit for many colours, but it's still easier to control than neutralizing with the complementary.


  16. #15
    Hey Ron,

    Just wanted to say thanks for this, it may be incomplete but there is more than enough there that we can use and can study :-)

    So just wanted to drop a quick line and just let you know that me and 2 of my art friends are enjoying this a lot :>


  17. #16
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Manila, PH
    Hey, I just want to thank you. This is really great! Now, on to enlightenment lol.
    kudos! :3


  18. #17
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    thankyou so much for this. i have read many books and tutorials on the net and this is by far the most down to bass tacks than anything i have come across i finaly am starting to understand color=value!!!


  19. #18
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    i do have one quick question. i mainly work in water colors, and im finding it difficult to figure out how to getthe different croma key scales in my particular medium. ihope this make sense.thankyou


  20. #19
    Join Date
    Apr 2008

    great post

    Great post.

    I would caution at the use of black though to adjust colors, doing so usually kills the color, deadins it in a way. Instead create your "black" by mixing the 3 colors of the main triad of the color key of the piece, that way if you mix it in with any of your stonger, brighter colors it will reduce them but with out the same color deading effect. I would advise bringing down the value of a color by other ways of mixing and then using the created black for its final value reduction.

    here is some more information on the subject of color, pallets, blending ect. that will explain what im trying to say.

    Fletcher: Colour Control

    Last edited by Zazerzs; June 8th, 2009 at 01:31 PM.
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    Interested in learning more about color? Read this!
    Fletcher:Color Control

  21. #20

  22. #21
    Join Date
    Sep 2009
    Kyoto, Japan
    Thanks fred

    As a beginner, I found this very useful. Will no doubt help me choose colors more wisely.

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  23. You did great job, thank you a lot for sharing this!


  24. #23
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    Brazil / Berkeley, CA
    Wonderful tutorial. Thanks for sharing!

    I have been trying to learn color theory on my own, and I've recently come across Parramon's Color Theory book. The first thing I noticed, however, is that he comes up with a slightly different color wheel (thus giving us different complementary colors)... Here is the color wheel he uses: (not attaching the image here because this is Ron's thread...but you can follow the link to see it).

    He claims, among other things, that "yellow" is the complementary of "blue". See here:

    Is there any explanation for this difference in color wheel? Is Parramon's wheel simply "wrong" or "inaccurate", or is he making use of a different color model instead?

    Thanks a lot in advance for the help!

    Last edited by bkkm; November 24th, 2009 at 11:27 AM.

  25. #24
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Hudson River valley, NY
    Quote Originally Posted by bkkm View Post
    Wonderful tutorial. Thanks for sharing!

    I have been trying to learn color theory on my own, and I've recently come across Parramon's Color Theory book. The first thing I noticed, however, is that he comes up with a slightly different color wheel (thus giving us different complementary colors)... Here is the color wheel he uses: (not attaching the image here because this is Ron's thread...but you can follow the link to see it).

    He claims, among other things, that "yellow" is the complementary of "blue". See here:

    Is there any explanation for this difference in color wheel? Is Parramon's wheel simply "wrong" or "inaccurate", or is he making use of a different color model instead?
    Ron isn't around much these days, so I'll try to answer.
    Ron is using the traditional artist's color wheel, which is based on pigment mixing, while Parramon is using one based on the behavior of light and vision, which gives you different sets of compliments. For details, check out David Briggs' site, specifically the section on hue.

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