Color Theory in Painting: A Practical Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. What is color theory?
  2. Primary colors in painting
  3. Secondary and tertiary colors
  4. How to mix paint colors
  5. How to create depth using color
  6. How to use color to convey emotion
  7. Warm and cool colors
  8. Complementary colors
  9. Monochromatic color scheme
  10. Analogous color scheme

Color is more than just a visual treat—it's a powerful tool that artists use to evoke emotion, create depth, and guide the viewer's eye. Understanding color theory for painting can take your art to new heights. But don't worry, you don't need a degree in fine arts to get the hang of it. Let's break it down together.

What is color theory?

Color theory is a framework that artists use to understand how colors interact with each other. It's like the secret language of color, and once you learn it, you'll see paintings—and the world in a whole new light.

At the core of color theory for painting are a few key concepts:

  • Primary colors: These are your basic non-negotiables—red, blue, and yellow. Every other color comes from mixing these three.
  • Secondary colors: When you mix two primary colors together, you get a secondary color. Blue and yellow make green, red and blue make purple, and yellow and red make orange. It's like magic, but with paint.
  • Tertiary colors: These are the colors you get when you mix a primary color with a secondary color. Think of them as the middle children of the color world.

But color theory for painting isn't just about mixing colors. It's also about how to use colors to create depth, evoke emotions, and make your paintings pop. For example, warm colors like red and orange can make objects appear closer, while cool colors like blue and green can create a sense of distance. And did you know that colors can have emotional meanings too? Reds can evoke feelings of passion or anger, while blues can create a sense of calm or sadness.

So, if you've ever looked at a painting and wondered why it makes you feel a certain way, or why some parts of it seem to pop out while others recede into the background—chances are, it's all down to color theory.

Primary colors in painting

Primary colors are the VIPs of the color wheel. In the world of painting, these are red, blue, and yellow. You can't mix any other colors to get these three—they're the originals, the trendsetters, the ones that all the other colors want to be when they grow up.

So why are primary colors so important in color theory for painting? Because every other color comes from them. It's like they're the parents of all the other colors. Blue and yellow give birth to green, red and yellow create orange, and red and blue make purple. And that's just the beginning—by adjusting how much of each primary color you use in a mix, you can create an infinite array of colors. It's like having a rainbow at your fingertips.

But knowing your primary colors isn't just about mixing new colors. It's also about understanding how different colors relate to each other. For example, if you know that green is made from blue and yellow, you can use this knowledge to create a harmonious color scheme in your painting. Or if you're painting a sunset, knowing that orange comes from mixing red and yellow can help you create a smooth transition from the fiery red of the sun to the soft yellow of the sky.

So the next time you pick up a paintbrush, remember—the power of the primary colors is in your hands.

Secondary and tertiary colors

Just as superheroes have sidekicks, primary colors have their partners in crime too—secondary and tertiary colors.

Think of secondary colors as the children of the primary colors. When you mix two primary colors in equal parts, you get a secondary color. It's like a color family reunion. Red and blue make purple, blue and yellow create green, and red and yellow produce orange. These are our secondary colors. They sit between the primary colors on the color wheel, acting as a bridge between them.

Now, if we take this one step further, we get to the tertiary colors. These are the grandchildren of the primary colors. They're created when you mix a primary color with a secondary color. For example, mixing blue (primary) with green (secondary) results in blue-green, a tertiary color. Other examples include red-orange and yellow-green.

Understanding secondary and tertiary colors is a vital part of mastering color theory for painting. It allows you to create more nuanced and sophisticated color schemes and gives you a deeper understanding of how colors relate to each other. Plus, it's a lot of fun to play around with different combinations and see what you can come up with!

So, whether you're painting a vibrant landscape or a moody still life, remember that secondary and tertiary colors are your secret weapons for creating depth, harmony, and interest in your work.

How to mix paint colors

Now that we've met the color family, let's roll up our sleeves and have some fun mixing paint colors. This is where the magic of color theory for painting really comes to life.

Firstly, always start with your primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. These are your fundamental building blocks. They're like the flour, eggs, and sugar in a cake recipe—you can't make a cake without them!

Next, let's talk about ratios. Mixing paint isn't about perfect measurements, but more about understanding the relationships between colors. For example, to get a perfect green, you don't just mix equal parts of blue and yellow. You'll want to add a little more yellow than blue to get it just right. So, think of it as a 2:1 ratio. Two parts yellow, one part blue. It's all about balance and finding what works for you.

And what about those tricky neutral colors like grey and brown? Well, here's a neat trick: try mixing complementary colors together. That's right, those colors that sit directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Combine red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple, and you'll get a beautiful range of browns and greys.

Remember, mixing paint colors is not only a science but also an art. It's about experimenting, making mistakes, and learning from them. So don't be afraid to get messy and creative. After all, that's what painting is all about, right?

How to create depth using color

Creating depth in your paintings is like giving them a new dimension. It is a game-changer, and believe me, the color theory for painting plays a huge role in this. But how exactly can we use colors to bring our flat canvas to life?

One way to create depth is by using color values. This means how light or dark a color is. For example, lighter colors tend to advance in a painting, meaning they appear closer to us. On the other hand, darker colors tend to recede, or seem further away. So next time you're painting a landscape, why not try using lighter colors for objects in the foreground and darker colors for the background?

Another way to use color theory for painting depth involves warm and cool colors. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow have a way of jumping forward in a painting. Cool colors like blue, green, and purple, on the other hand, have a knack for stepping back. It's like they're a bit shy. So, playing around with warm and cool colors can also help you create a sense of depth.

And remember, don't stress if it doesn't look perfect on your first try. Creating depth is a skill that takes time and practice. But with a little patience and a lot of fun, you'll be painting 3D masterpieces in no time!

How to use color to convey emotion

Have you ever noticed how different colors can make you feel different emotions? This is no accident, my friend. In fact, it's a big part of the color theory for painting. Artists have been using color to stir up emotions for centuries. And you can do it too!

Let's start with red. Red is a bold color that can symbolize passion, love, or even anger. Imagine a painting with a fiery red sunset. It can make you feel the intensity of the scene, can't it?

Next, we have blue. Blue is a cool color that often conveys feelings of calmness and tranquility. Picture a serene blue sky in a painting. It can make you feel at ease, right?

Then there's yellow, a bright and cheerful color that can bring feelings of happiness and energy. A painting with a bright yellow sunflower field can instantly lift your mood, wouldn't you agree?

And of course, these are just a few examples. There are so many colors and so many emotions they can convey. The key is to experiment and see what works for you. So, why not pick up your brush, choose your colors, and start painting your feelings on the canvas?

Warm and cool colors

Let's dive a little deeper into color theory for painting by discussing warm and cool colors. Warm and cool colors can dramatically impact the overall mood of a painting and guide the viewer's eye around the artwork.

Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow. These colors can create an atmosphere of warmth, excitement, or even agitation. Imagine a painting of a desert at midday – the warm tones might make you feel the heat of the sun and the dryness of the air.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have cool colors: blue, green, and violet. Cool colors tend to convey calmness, serenity, or even melancholy. Take an ocean scene for instance. The cool blues and greens can give the impression of a peaceful, tranquil environment.

Remember, warm and cool colors aren't just about emotions. They can also play a big role in creating depth and perspective in your artwork. Warm colors tend to advance, making them pop out in a painting, while cool colors tend to recede, providing a sense of distance. Isn't it fascinating how color theory for painting can influence how we perceive a piece of art?

So next time you pick up your paintbrush, think about the temperature of your colors. Are you looking to create a cozy, intimate scene? Or perhaps a serene, distant landscape? Your choice of warm or cool colors can help you achieve just that.

Complementary colors

Now, let's move on to another interesting aspect of color theory for painting — complementary colors. Complementary colors are pairs of colors that, when combined, cancel each other out. This means that they produce a grayscale color when combined. But when placed next to each other, these colors create the strongest contrast and reinforce each other.

Here's a simple way to understand it. Picture an artist's color wheel. Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Some examples include red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and violet.

Ever noticed how a red apple stands out against a green background? That's the magic of complementary colors at work! When used thoughtfully in a painting, complementary colors can create vibrant and dynamic contrasts, adding visual interest and energy to your artwork.

But be careful, you don't want to go overboard and overwhelm the viewer. Instead, think of complementary colors as a spice — a little can go a long way in enhancing the overall flavor of your painting.

The next time you're planning your painting, consider using complementary colors to bring a touch of contrast and vibrancy. It's one of the many ways color theory for painting can bring your art to life!

Monochromatic color scheme

Let's switch gears and explore the monochromatic color scheme, a unique approach in the realm of color theory for painting. A monochromatic scheme uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color. Sounds simple, right? But there's more to it than meets the eye.

Picture this: a painting bathed in shades of blue, from the deepest navy to the lightest sky blue. That's a monochromatic color scheme in action. It creates a soothing, harmonious effect that's easy on the eye. But it's not just about aesthetic appeal. Monochromatic schemes can help to convey a particular mood or emotion in your work.

Think of a gloomy day, represented in a painting with shades of gray. Or a sunny field, depicted with different tones of yellow. These monochromatic schemes can evoke feelings of melancholy or joy, respectively. It's a powerful tool in the hands of an artist.

A practical tip for achieving a successful monochromatic scheme is to mix your chosen color with both white and black. This will give you a range of tints (lighter variations) and shades (darker variations) of the same color. The result? A visually engaging painting that tells a story through a single hue.

The monochromatic color scheme is one more tool in your "color theory for painting" toolbox. It's proof that sometimes, less is more, and a single color can speak volumes!

Analogous color scheme

Now, let's dive into another fascinating aspect of color theory for painting: the analogous color scheme. This scheme involves using colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. For instance, red, orange, and yellow or blue, green, and violet. It's a bit like having neighbors over for a party — they all live next door, so they naturally get along.

Analogous color schemes can create a sense of harmony and unity in your artwork. Just imagine a sunset — the smooth transition from red to orange to yellow feels seamless and natural, doesn't it? That's analogous color theory at work.

Here's a handy trick for you: When using an analogous color scheme, choose one color to dominate, a second to support, and a third for accents. This will help to maintain balance and prevent your painting from becoming visually overwhelming.

Remember, while the analogous color scheme can add harmony to your painting, it's important not to let the colors become muddy. Keeping your colors vibrant and distinct can be a real game-changer. That's why it's a good idea to use clean brushes when switching from one color to the next.

Exploring different aspects of color theory for painting, like the analogous color scheme, can truly elevate your work. It's all about finding the right balance and harmony among colors — just like in a beautiful sunset.

If you enjoyed exploring color theory in painting and want to dive deeper into this fascinating topic, check out the workshop 'Intro to Colour Theory' by Matt Herbert. This workshop will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of color theory, and help you apply it effectively to your painting projects.