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Theory of Colour

Do you understand the theory of colour? Are you struggling to mix and blend colours effectively in your paintings?

Maybe you’re not sure what colours go well together, or you're not sure how to mix the colours you want. And what’s the difference between a primary colour and a tertiary colour anyway?

Whether you're a beginner or an experienced painter, this article can help you improve your painting skills.

Understanding the theory of colour is essential for any artist, especially when you’re learning to paint. In this article, we'll explore the fundamentals of colour theory and provide examples to help you better understand how you can use colour in your paintings.

We’ll cover the primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, as well as colour harmony, complementary colours, and colour temperature. 

Understanding these will help you choose colours that work well together and you’ll be able to mix and blend colours effectively and create the desired shades and tones you want for your artwork. 

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is a visual tool that displays the relationships between colours.

 Colour wheel showing theories of colour

Primary colours

The primary colours are red, yellow, and blue. They cannot be created by mixing any other colours. All other colours are created by mixing these primary colours together.

Secondary colours

Secondary colours are created by mixing two primary colours together. The secondary colours are orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (red + blue).

Tertiary colours

Tertiary colours are created by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour. For example, red-orange (a mixture of red and orange), yellow-orange (a mixture of yellow and orange), yellow-green (a mixture of yellow and green), blue-green (a mixture of blue and green), blue-purple (a mixture of blue and purple), and red-purple (a mixture of red and purple).

Have a look at the colour wheel above to see them.

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Colour Harmony

Colour harmony refers to the way colours interact with each other. Certain colour combinations are much more pleasing on the eye, while others can be jarring or overwhelming.

There are several different types of colour harmony, including complementary colours, analogous colours, and monochromatic colours.

Complementary colours

Complementary colours are pairs of colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. When these colours are used together in a painting, they can create a striking contrast and make each other appear brighter and more vibrant. For example, the complementary colour of red is green, and the complementary colour of blue is orange.

Analogous colours

Practicing colour mixing is the best way to learn theories of colour

Analogous colours are next to each other on the colour wheel. They create a harmonious effect when used together. For example, red, orange, and yellow are analogous colours, and so are blue, green, and yellow.

Monochromatic colours

Monochromatic colours are variations of the same colour. They create a subtle, understated effect when used together. For example, using different shades of blue in a painting would be considered a monochromatic colour scheme.

Colour Temperature - Warm and Cool Colours

Colour temperature refers to the warmness or coolness of a colour. Warm colours, such as red, orange, and yellow, create a sense of warmth and energy. Cool colours, such as blue, green, and purple, create a sense of calm and tranquility.

For example, a painting of a sunset might use warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow to convey the warmth and energy of the sun setting. A painting of a serene landscape might use cool colours such as blue and green to convey the sense of calm and tranquility.

OK ... but how can there be cool and warm versions of the same colour?

It’s all to do with the underlying hue of the colour and where that colour is on the colour wheel - left (cool) or right (warm). So when there is a warm and a cool version of a colour it's about what the hue of the colour looks more like and where that hue is on the colour wheel. 

For example, warm yellow has an orange undertone. Orange is on the warm side of the colour wheel which makes the yellow a warm colour - ie warm yellow. Whereas cool yellow has a green undertone. Green is on the cool side of the colour wheel which makes it a cool yellow.

Another example, warm blue has a more purple hue, and because purple is a warm colour, it makes the blue a warm colour too. Cool blue on the other hand has a green hue. Green is a cool colour so the blue is also cool.

And that's how you tell the difference between warm and cool colours!
So don’t think of the colour it is (ie yellow) think about what it looks and feels like, more warm or more cool.

I hope that's helped give you an understanding of the theory of colour which is essential for any painter. When you understand the basics of colour, it allows you to mix and blend colours effectively, creating the desired shades and tones for your artwork.

By learning about primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, colour harmony, and colour temperature, you'll be able to create paintings that are visually appealing and emotionally impactful.

The best way to learn is to practice! Grab a brush and some colours and practice blending different colours. Have fun with it and enjoy exploring all the combinations possible!

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Learn how to use a colour wheel