The Color Wheel is a useful tool to begin understanding how colors relate to each other. This is a very simple color wheel which we will refer to throughout this section. I suggest that you make your own in a sketchbook or journal. Creating your own color wheel and mixing colors will help you to understand the concepts we are discussing.


The color wheel is built on three colors: red, yellow, and blue. All other colors can be mixed from these three colors (plus black or white). You can think of them as the building blocks of color. Often, children’s toys, clothes, books, furnishings and other objects use the primary colors, especially for babies and toddlers.


Notice the use of primaries in the painting below. How does the use of color feel to you? You might think of balance, basic, building blocks—what kind of emotion do these colors evoke in you? In this case, black and white are used to define shape in space, and structure.

Relational Painting No. 64, 1953
Fritz Glarner (American, born Switzerland, 1899–1972)
Oil on canvas 20
x 20 in. (50.8 x 50.8 cm)
Gift of Celeste and Armand Bartos, 1983 (1983.579)
Source: Fritz Glarner: Relational Painting No. 64 (1983.579) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here are three more examples of the use of primary colors. Notice in the Hoffmann painting the additional use of other colors, and how the primaries stand out


Glass garland bowl, Bowl, late 1st century B.C.; Early Imperial, Augustan Roman
Glass; H. 1 1/2 in. (3.8 cm), diameter 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm)
Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891 (91.1.1402)

Stepping Out, 1978
Roy Lichtenstein (American, New York City 1923–1997 New York City)
Oil and Magna on canvas; 86 x 70 in. (218.4 x 177.8 cm)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, Arthur Lejwa Fund in honor of Jean Arp; and The Bernhill Fund, Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc., Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation Inc., Walter Bareiss, Marie Bannon McHenry, Louise Smith, and Stephen C. Swid Gifts, 1980 (1980.420)

Summer 1965, 1965
Hans Hofmann (American (born Germany) 1880–1966)
Oil on canvas; H. 72, W. 48 inches (182.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Gift of Renate Hofmann, 1991 (1991.428.1)

SECONDARY COLORS are the colors that result from mixing primary colors. (Refer to the color wheel to see how they fit in). Red + yellow = ORANGE. Yellow + blue = GREEN. Blue + red = VIOLET.

TERTIARY COLORS are the colors that result from mixing a primary color with a secondary color (Refer to color wheel). Red + orange = RED ORANGE. Blue + green = BLUE GREEN, and etc. The word tertiary means third.


ANALOGOUS colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Green and blue, yellow and orange, violet and red are examples of analogous colors. When used together, analogous colors seem to blend with each other.

COMPLEMENTARY COLORS are across from each other on the color wheel. Red and green, blue and orange, violet and yellow are complementary colors. Complementary colors create strong contrast. They stand out. They draw attention to themselves. Complementary colors are often used in advertising, and sports team colors.

Compare the use of analogous or complementary color schemes in the following artworks. Notice how each makes you feel.

Notice how the colors blend together in the first three examples. The title of Albers’ painting (“Soft Spoken”) fits with his use of analogous colors

Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken, 1969
Josef Albers (American, born Germany, 1888–1976)
Oil on Masonite 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm)
.Gift of the artist, 1972 (1972.40.7)
© 2010 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Source: Josef Albers: Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken (1972.40.7) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Morning on the Seine near Giverny, 1897
Claude Monet (French, Paris 1840–1926 Giverny)
Oil on canvas; 32 1/8 x 36 5/8 in. (81.6 x 93 cm)
Bequest of Julia W. Emmons, 1956 (56.135.4)

Red, Ochre and White, 1952
Fritz Bultman (American, 1919–1985)
Gouache and graphite on paper; H. 23, W. 29 inches (58.4 x 73.7 cm.)
Gift of Estate of Fritz Bultman, 1994 (1994.437)

In the next artworks, compare the use of complementary colors to the use of analogous colors. Compare the Bultman painting below (using complementary colors–the ochre color works like orange) to the previous Bultman painting (Using analogous colors).

Blue I, 1958
Fritz Bultman (American, 1919–1985)
Gouache and graphite on paper; H. 29, W. 23 inches (73.7 x 58.4 cm.)
Gift of Estate of Fritz Bultman, 1994 (1994.436)

In the following example, Lawrence is using both analogous and complementary colors. Notice how the red stands out strongly and becomes the focal point.

Pool Parlor, 1942
Jacob Lawrence (American, Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917–2000 Seattle, Washington)
Watercolor and gouache on paper; H. 31 1/8, W. 22 7/8 in. (79.1 x 58.1 cm)
Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1942 (42.167)

Here are a pair of Van Gogh paintings, one using analogous colors and the other using complementary colors.

Madame Roulin and Her Baby, 1888
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)French
Oil on canvas; 25 x 20 1/8 in.
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.231)

La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930), 1889
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Oil on canvas; 36 1/2 x 29 in. (92.7 x 73.7 cm)
The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1996, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1996.435)


VALUE is the lightness or darkness of a hue (color).

In pencil drawings, value is determined by the amount of pressure you apply with the pencil. The more the pressure, the darker the value. A very light touch will produce the lightest shades. A classic exercise in working with value is to take your pencil and draw lines back and forth on the paper, without lifting the pencil, starting with the lightest values you can create and gradually adding more pressure to the pencil to create progressively darker value, ending with the darkest hue you can create. See how many different values you can create. This will enable you to create the exact values you want in your work.

Lighter values can be added to a hue by mixing white (or a lighter color) with it. This is called a TINT. Darker values can be created by mixing black (or a darker color) with the original hue. This is called a SHADE. Practice mixing colors to create as many tints and shades as you can. The more you practice missing colors, the more precise you can be with color in your own work.

Make your own grids to practiced mixing colors. Practice mixing complementary colors in progressive amounts until you are able to mix them in equal amounts. Then, practice making tints and shades by adding white and black to all of the colors you create by mixing complementaries. Below is an example of grid that mixes both complementaries and tints and shades.

Another good exercise is to create grids for mixing colors, and experiment with randomly mixing whatever colors you feel like mixing. Have fun with it. You will surprise yourself with the colors you can create.


A color scheme that incorporates tints and shades of only one hue (color) is called MONOCHROMATIC. What kind of effect do you think that would have? Imagine a room painted and decorated with a monochromatic color scheme, or an outfit that incorporates tints and shades of just one color.

The Picture, 2004
Shishir Bhattacharjee (Bangladeshi, born 1960)
Mixed media on canvas; 135 X 135 cm Image courtesy of the artist Source:
Postmodernism: Recent Developments in Art in Pakistan and Bangladesh | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEUTRAL colors are considered to be whites, blacks and grays, and some tans. They are called neutral because they are considered to have a minimal impact. (However, all you have to do is imagine a room filled with office cubicles or a doctor’s exam room to see that we do have a response to neutral colors)


In artwork, neutrals are used when the artist wants to emphasize structure or form over a response to color. Cubists originally used only neutrals to call attention to the multiplicity of viewpoints they combined. Some photographers prefer black and white over color photography, so they can emphasize form.

In fashion, decorating, and graphic design, neutrals are used for the same reason, to emphasize structure and form. Sometimes neutrals are used in clothing to keep from calling attention to oneself, and in rooms to try to appeal to a wider group of people.


Some colors are called WARM because they tend to feel warm; while others are called cool because they tend to feel COOL. In general, warm colors contain more yellow, and cool colors contain more blue. Red can go either way, depending on the amount of yellow or blue in it. For example, a tomato red would be considered warm, while a maroon red would be considered cool.

The use of either predominantly warm or predominantly cool hues has a markedly different psychological effect. For example, to some people cool colors feel more calm, while warm colors may feel more energetic. An equal use of cool and warm colors would balance the psychological response.

In addition to the psychological aspect, there is an optical effect of warm and cool colors. Cool colors appear to recede, while warm colors appear to come toward the viewer.

Compare the feeling of the two rooms below. One uses primarily warm colors, while the other uses primarily cool colors.

The Croome Court tapestry room, Worcestershire, 1758–67
Designed by Robert Adams (English, 1728–1792)
Plaster, pine, mahogany, bronze-gilt, marble, lapis lazuli, steel, and tapestry
H. 27 ft. 1 in. (825.5. cm), W. 22 ft. 8 in. (690.9 cm), D. 13 ft. 10 3/4 in. (423.5 cm)
Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1958 (58.75.1–22) Source: Robert Adams: The Croome Court tapestry room, Worcestershire (58.75.1-22) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room from the Hewlett House, ca. 1740–60
Woodbury, New York 9 ft. 3/4 in. x 17 ft. 3 in. (panel)
Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, John B. Dunn, William B. Codling and Edwin N. Rowley, 1910 (10.183) Source: Room from the Hewlett House [Woodbury, New York] (10.183) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


INTENSITY refers to how pure a color is. The purity of a color is determined by whether or not a color is mixed with other colors and to what degree. The most intense colors are those that are not mixed with other colors. Less intense colors are those that are mixed with other colors (including black or white). These colors are called more muted. Like complementary colors, intense colors attract attention. A color scheme that attracts the most attention is the use of complementary colors with a high degree of intensity.

A good place to observe the contrast between intense and muted colors is looking across a river or a vast landscape. The colors on the same side of the river, or those closest to you in the landscape are more intense. Those on the other side of the river, or far away in the landscape are more muted. This is known as atmospheric perspective. If you want to create an illusion of great distance or space, use a contrast of intense and muted colors.

Notice the difference between the two paintings below. One uses very intense colors, while the other uses muted colors. Compare the feeling and effect of intensity of color.

André Derain, 1906
Maurice de Vlaminck (French, 1876–1958)
Oil on cardboard 10 3/8 x 8 1/4 in. (26.4 x 21 cm)
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 (1999.363.83)
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Source: Maurice de Vlaminck: Andre Derain (1999.363.83) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hammamet with Its Mosque, 1914
Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland, 1879–1940)
Watercolor and pencil on paper 8 1/8 x 7 5/8 in. (20.6 x 19.4 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.4)
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Source: Paul Klee: Hammamet with Its Mosque (1984.315.4) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art



Most of what we have studied so far considers the psychological effect of color, in other words, how people may feel when they are exposed to certain colors. This is a very personal thing that varies from person to person, but there are many similarities between people. Certain aspects of color theory involve a more optical response, how the eye perceives color. For example, complementary colors attract attention, and warm colors seem to come forward while cool colors appear to recede.

Symbolic color is universally (or culturally) accepted use of color to represent something specific. Flags that represent different nations, sports teams, cultural rituals such as weddings and funerals, and holiday themes are all examples of symbolic color. Everyone (within a specific group of people) accepts that symbolic colors represent very specific things. An emotional, or psychological response to symbolic color is a response not to how the color feels, but to what the color represents.

How does the use of symbolic color affect the meaning or content of the two paintings below?

Freedom of Speech, 1990 Faith Ringgold (American, born 1930)
Acrylic and pencil on paper 24 x 35 3/4 in. (61 x 90.8 cm)
Purchase, Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein, by exchange, 2001 (2001.288)
Faith Ringgold © 1990 Source: Faith Ringgold: Freedom of Speech (2001.288) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Flags, 1968
Jasper Johns (American, born 1930)
Lithograph with stamps 34 x 25 in. (86.4 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Dr. Joseph I. Singer, 1969 (69.701.2)
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Source: Jasper Johns: Flags (69.701.2) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This Jasper Johns painting has a very interesting visual effect. Stare at the upper portion for a few moments and then quickly shift your gaze to a white surface, like a wall or a sheet of paper. You should see the flag in red, white, and blue.

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