Color is the most exciting design element. Color has three distinct properties:

  Hue spectral color name
  Value lightness or darkness
  Saturation brightness or dullness

This part of the course will investigate color: how you see it, how to mix it and a little about how to use it.


Although you see color in our brain, it is the eye that has the receptors that tell your brain what you are looking at. There are two sets of receptors in the retina in the back of the eye: rods and cones.

There are about 125 million rods (named for their shape). They are very sensitive to light but are mostly color blind. We use them in dim light and so the saying: "all cats are gray in the dark."

The color detectors in the eye are the cones. There are about 7 million of these in three forms concentrated in the center of vision. Individual cones can only sense one of three narrowly defined frequencies of light: red, green and blue. The response from these three "primary" colors is sorted in our brain to give us the perception of color. One or more of these color receptors malfunctions in a color blind person.
  Adobe has a site that thoroughly discusses the physics of light, color and how the human eye reacts to color: Basic Color Theory For the Desktop. Another worthwhile site explaines how we see color.    

Color is a property of light. Our eyes see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is made up of the wavelengths of light between infrared and ultraviolet radiation (between 400 and 700 nanometers). These frequencies, taken together, make up white (sun) light.

White light can be divided into it's component parts by passing it through a prism. The light is separated by wavelength and a spectrum is formed. Sir Isaac Newton was the first to discover this phenomenon in the seventeenth century and he named the colors of the spectrum.

If the ends of the spectrum are bent around and joined a color circle (color wheel) is formed with purple at the meeting place.

Color has three distinct properties: hue, value and saturation. To understand color you must understand how these three properties relate to each other. You will do a project exploring each in this part of the course.

The traditional color name of a specific wavelength of light is a hue. Another description is: spectral color. All of the colors of the spectrum are hues. There are only limited hue names: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Magenta and cyan are also hues.

You will study hues and how they are mixed to make other hues in the color wheel project.
Value is concerned with the light and dark properties of color. All colors exhibit these properties. The hues have a natural value where they look the purest. Some colors, like yellow, are naturally light. Some, like violet, are darker.

All hues can be made in all values. Adding white paint will make any pigment lighter. Adding black paint will make most pigments darker, but will cause yellow paint to shift in hue to green.

Value can exist without hue (see achromatic). Black, white and gray are values without color. Since these values are used extensively in art, it is important to understand their relationship to one another. You will study this in value.



Saturation is concerned with the intensity, or the brightness and dullness of color. A saturated color is high in intensity -- it is bright. A color that is dull is unsaturated or low in intensity. Another term for saturation is chroma. A color without any brightness (no hue) is achromatic (black, white and/or gray.

Saturation is the most difficult aspect of color to understand since value and saturation are often confused. You will make a saturation scale to better understand this concept.

The color wheel (right) diagrams the relationship between hues (around the outside) and saturation (center to outside). It is the teritory in the center of the color wheel that must be understood in ordeer to be able to control the brightness of colors.

The triangle (left) diagrams the relationship between value (vertically) and saturation (horizontally).


Munsell color tree


All three properties of color are needed to accurately describe a color. To just say you want "blue" leaves many possible choices. Do you mean a greenish blue or a more violet blue (hue)? Do you want a light blue, or a dark blue (value)? Is it a bright blue or a dull blue (intensity)?

Using a color name that describes something familiar, like robin's egg blue, is helpful. But would you want the bedroom painted too bright if the painter's robin laid different colored eggs than from yours? Most color names are only vague descriptions and will be different for everyone. Try describing your favorite sweater's color to someone who has not seen it. Could they buy yarn to match? Not unless you were very specific about hue, value and saturation.

Albert Munsell developed a system for giving colors numerical descriptions. There are five primary and five secondary hues in this system. Hue, value and chroma are then rated with numbers. Colors can be very accurately described using this system. Liquitex paints have Munsell system ratings on their labels.

Color is said to be three dimensional because of it's three aspects: hue value and saturation. A three dimensional model using Munsell's system is called a color tree. The center hub is value (achromatic) with the ten hues radiating from it. The color samples on each hue's vane go from dullest to brightest as they radiate from the center out.

The farther from the center a color is, the brighter it is. Note that each hue is brightest at it's natural value: yellow is lightest and blue and violet the darkest.

For more about Munsell and color theories go to: Adobe's Color Model site.
There are two theories that explain how colors work and interact. The light, or additive theory deals with radiated and filtered light. The pigment, or subtractive theory deals with how white light is absorbed and reflected off of colored surfaces. This course will investigate the pigment theory.


Additive color wheel
Light theory starts with black -- the absence of light. When all of the frequencies of visible light are radiated together the result is white (sun) light. The color interaction is diagramed using a color wheel with red, green and blue as primary colors. Primary here means starting colors. These are the three colors that the cones in the eye sense. This is an RGB color system (Red, Green and Blue).

The primary colors mix to make secondary colors: red and green make yellow, red and blue make magenta and green and blue make cyan. All three together add up tomake white light. That is why the theory is called additive.

You can see an example of light theory in action almost every day on a computer monitor or a colored television. The same three primary colors are used and mixed by the eye to produce the range of colors you see on the screen. This theory is also used for dramatic lighting effects on stage in a theater.


Subtractive color wheel
Pigments behave almost the opposite of light. With pigments a black surface absorbs most of the light, making it look black. A white surface reflects most of the (white) light making it look white. A colored pigment, green for instance, absorbs most of the frequencies of light that are not green, reflecting only the green light frequency. Because all colors other than the pigment colors are absorbed, this is also called the subtractive color theory.

If most of the green light (and only the green light) is reflected the green will be bright. If only a little is reflected along with some of the other colors the green will be dull. A light color results from lots of white light and only a little color reflected. A dark color is the result of very little light and color reflected.

The primary colors in the pigment theory have varied throughout the centuries but now cyan, magenta and yellow are increasingly being used. These are the primary colors of ink, along with black, that are used in the printing industry. This is a CMYK color system (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and (K)black). These are the secondary colors of the light theory. More about this in color wheel.




Cover the middle of these charts with your hand and glance at the apparent colors on the ends of the center bars.


Much has been said about how colors interact. You rarely see only one color. When you see two or more colors together they have a profound effect on one another. There are a lot of different possibilities but these three examples will suffice:

In this example the center bar experiences a hue shift.

In this example the center bar seems to changes in value.

In this example the center bar appears to change in saturation



The color wheel is useful in that it shows the relationship between warm and cool colors. This is called color temperature and relates to the sense of temperature each color imparts.

The colors on the red side of the wheel are said to be warm because they are associated with warm phenomina. The green side implies cool phenomina. These color temperature designations are absolute.

More subtle color temperature relationships are relative. One red can be warmer or cooler than another for instance.

Color temperatures effect us both pshchologically and perceptually. They help determine how objects appear positioned in space. Warm colors are said to advance -- they appear closer to the observer. Cool colors are said to recede -- they appear farther from the observer.



There are a number of concepts about color organization but none that will make you a good colorist. Color schemes are descriptions of color relationships, not formulas for using color well.

Color schemes are based on the traditional color wheel. Here are the most common, starting with the simplest:
Achromatic: Black, white and the grays in between -- what could be simpler. There are no possible color contrasts. The thing to remember is that black and white provide the strongest contrast available in art. Values must be chosen for contrast and visibility with or without color.
Chromatic grays (also known as neutral relief): This just means dull colors, sometimes with a hint of brightness. Colors near the center of the color wheel are neutral. This scheme is generally harmonious since strong hue contrasts are not possible.

Monochromatic: This is like either of the first two but with one dominant hue -- a single spoke of the color wheel. Red, black and white is a common example.
Analogous: These are related colors from a pie shaped slice of the color wheel. They all have one hue in common so things can't get too wild. Starting with this scheme more hue contrasts are possible. This means more freedom and expressive potential but it is increasingly difficult to make good color combinations.
Complementary: This scheme uses colors that are opposite on the color wheel (complements). These colors are as far apart (hue wise) as colors can be so there is ample potential for conflict. Oddly, though, they actually can complement each other if used in appropriate proportions and with control over saturation.
Triadic: Usually red, yellow and blue -- works for Disney. Actually any three more or less equally spaced hues can fit this scheme, but why bother. By now you have so many colors involved, why not just choose the ones that work for what you are trying to communicate.
Others: Any geometric configuration on the color wheel can be called a color scheme -- but enough is enough.

It is hard to use color effectively. The ability to use colors is difficult to learn and comes with lots of experience and a good eye. Color has such strong psychological, and even physiological, effects on us that any formula about it's use would be doomed to failure.

The best advice is simple: keep in mind what you are trying to communicate and make it look right to you. Look carefully and critically at how nature and other artists use color. Learn first by observation and then by using color in your own artwork.

You will use colors on most of your projects so learn all you can as you work. Now you will start to add more to your understanding of color and learn a little about painting in the process.

There is a class that studies color at Palomar College (Art 200).


© 2001 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.