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Color Theory

“Drawing and color are not separate at all; in so far as you paint, you draw. The more color harmonizes, the more exact the drawing becomes. When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness also.”

– Paul Cézanne

Understanding Color

To use color effectively, you must first understand the three basic components that make up a color: hue, saturation and value. If you were to try to explain a color that you see to someone, you might first say that the color is red or blue or orange. It may be a dark red or a light orange but you would first identify the base color, that if referred to as it’s hue. The hues are the colors that sit on the outer edge of the color wheel.

Color Wheel

Color Wheel

The color wheel pictured here also shows what happens to a pure hue as it loses saturation. A less saturated color becomes more gray. While the pure hues on the outer edge are intense, if other hues were mixed with them the pure hue becomes muddled, losing saturation.

This is important to keep in mind when mixing colors. It’s generally common knowledge that if you were to mix two primary colors (red, yellow, or blue) you would get a secondary color (orange, green, or purple) but this isn’t entirely true. Really, you’d end up with a slightly gray version of the pure secondary hue. Draw an imaginary line between the pure red and the pure yellow on the color wheel and you can see roughly what color orange you would get. It isn’t on the outer edge and therefore not a pure color. If you were to mix complementary colors from opposite sides of the color wheel you’d end up with a pure gray. While this is theoretically true, in the actually practice of mixing paint things never work out quite so neatly. But you have to understand the principles to understand color.

Color Value Graph

Color Value Graph

Finally, every color has a value that determines its lightness or darkness . As I said before, you can have a dark red or a light orange. Take a look at the color value graph. The center column is a value scale from black to while. The furthest points to the left or right are the pure hues of red and green that you’d find on the outer edge of the color wheel. The outer edges of this graph show how the color changes as the value changes.

Color Solid

The color solid is a way to visualize every visible color possible and how to mix it. Picture in your mind two cones with their bases fused together. Got it? OK. Now the round base in the middle where the two cones are joined is the color wheel from above. The pure hues are on the widest part of the circle and directly in the middle is middle-gray (or 50% gray).

At the tip of the top cone is white and the bottom tip is black. Connecting these two points you would have the gray scale that runs straight through the center of the color solid.

Look at the color value graph above again, you can see the value column vertically in the middle. The angled lines are the edges of the cones of the color solid that shows the values of a color. The horizontal line through the middle that intersects the value scale at middle-gray is a color wheel. From this vantage point it appears to be a straight line because we’re looking at it straight on, like the side of a coin. Along this line you can see a color’s saturation.

Monochromatic Color

Using the color solid as a model, let’s look at all the variations one hue can take on. The graph shown below shows a vertical cross-section of the color solid for the red hue. Essentially, this graph is the same as the Color Value graph above with all the values and levels of saturation filled in. You can see how much range one hue has.

Monochromatic Red

Monochromatic Red

This is an example of a painting done hue but using a wide range of tints, shades, and saturation levels.

This is an example of a painting done with only one hue but using a wide range of tints, shades, and saturation levels.

Pure Hue and Value

Color Values

Color Values

To throw a wrench in things, there is one more tweak we have to make to the color solid. Every hue does not have the same lightness or darkness value. For example, a pure yellow is lighter than a pure purple. The Hue Value chart roughly shows the relative value of a pure hue.

Color Sold Profile

Color Sold Profile

So, what does this do to our color solid? Basically, it tips the base of our two cones where the color wheel resides.

Colors and Photoshop

Now that you can conceptualize the color solid you should be able to understand how to mix colors. The easiest, cleanest, and cheapest way to see the color solid at work is to use Photoshop.

Open the color picker, and choose colors using Hue. The color strip shows the outside edge of the color wheel (the widest part of the color solid). The color field box places the pure hue in the upper right corner. Along the top of the box are the tints and along the right side are the shades (the outer edge of the color solid as seen on the Color Value graph above. Along the left edge is pure value (no hue) that is the center value line through the color solid.

Photoshop Color Picker

Photoshop Color Picker

Using Color

Color Harmonies

Color Harmonies

Even when you have a full range of color at your disposal, you should limit the number of colors. You can choose a two-color composition of ­complements or adjacent colors. You can choose a three-color palette of triad colors or a four-color set of two complements.

Additionally, you can contrast cool against warm, or vivid saturation against grays, or create palettes that reflect a particular landscape or the season.

Color Palettes

Color Palettes

The red on blue swatch show two colors that have the same value and saturation and they fight each other for attention. The yellow on purple swatch show two colors of different values allowing them to compliment each other.

The red on blue swatch show two colors that have the same value and saturation and they fight each other for attention. The yellow on purple swatch show two colors of different values allowing them to compliment each other.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that just because colors are ­complementary on the color wheel they automatically go together. Hue is only one component of color, so if the two colors have the same value or saturation, the two complementary colors will fight with each other instead of harmonize.

Color and Sketching

Color adds a sparkle that can embellish a ­sketchbook as a total work. Sketching with color is different than traditional painting in that it is a rapid ­expression to capture the hues of a subject. The objective of a color study is to give a sense of the scene and orchestrate a color palette that can be used as a reference for further development.

In addition to being used in traditional painting techniques, color can be used to tint a drawing or as an underpainting for a drawing to be developed on. These last two techniques are easy ways to capture color, especially in a scene that is rapidly changing.

The best media to use for color sketching is watercolor because it dries fairly quickly and is easily transportable. Colored pencils, watercolor pencils, and markers are also good media.

A simple wash of color

A simple wash of color

A tinted drawing

A tinted drawing

A simple color study

A simple color study