What is Colour Theory?

Our choice of colours and the way we use and combine them has a huge impact on the works of art and design that we create. Used correctly colour can create visual impact, draw our attention and provoke emotion.

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The Pool of London (1906) André Derain 

Artists and Designers use Colour Theory to help them find the perfect colour combinations for their work. To understand colour theory better the best place to start is the colour wheel.

“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light” 

Hans Hofmann

In 1666 Isaac Newton mapped the colour spectrum onto a circle creating the first colour wheel. The colour wheel is the basis of colour theory, because it shows the relationship between colours. 

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The Colour Wheel

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary

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Kiss V (1980) Roy Lichtenstein 


We start with the Primary Colours. They are red, yellow and blue. These colours cannot be made from any other colour, yet we can create almost any colour using them.

Roy Lichtenstein often used primary colours in his works. In this Silkscreen Print the use of bright red, blue and yellow makes a striking image that stands out to the viewer.


Secondary colours are made by mixing equal amounts of primary colours together:

Purple, orange and green are secondary colours. On the colour wheel, each secondary colour sits halfway between the two primary colours it is mixed from.

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Woman with Parasol (1893), Paul Signac 


A tertiary colour is made by mixing equal amounts of a primary colour and a secondary colour together. There are lots of different names for these colours and people often have different names for the same colour. When they’re not sure, people often use other colours to describe them. For example turquoise could also be called blue-green or green-blue.

In this painting, called Woman with Parasol, Paul Signac creates an vivid, vibrant image by using pure contrasting tertiary colours

“All colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites.” 

Marc Chagall

Colour Temperature

The twelve part colour wheel can be split in half into a section of six warm colours and a section of six cool colours.

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Warm Colours

Warm colours remind us of things that are warm, the most obvious being fire. The warm colours are: Orange Red and Yellow.

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Haystack, Morning Snow Effect (1891) Claude Monet 

Cool Colours

Cool colours remind us of things associated with cold, or the absence of heat – such as ice etc. The cool colours are: Blue, Green and Purple.

For example, Monet’s use of lots of blue in this painting makes the scene feel cold, reminding us of that cold winter feeling.

Interpreting Colour

Have you ever heard the phrase “green with envy”?

If you have then you’ll probably already know that colour can be used to communicate our emotions. Artists and designers have been doing this for centuries to make us feel a certain way or to communicate their feelings

Colour is very subjective and how you interpret colour can depend on the culture you grew up in. Let’s take the colour red as an example.

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul”

Wassily Kandinsky

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The Old Guitarist (1904) Pablo Picassso 

Example: Reds

The colour red can have many different meanings.

Often we associate red with danger, it is the colour of blood and as a colour it grabs our attention. Red is used all over the world for warning signs and to tell us to stop.

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However, it can also have positive associations. In the west we associate red with strong emotions like love, passion and anger – the colour red is everywhere on valentine’s day. On top of that we also see red as a festive colour – the colour of Christmas and Santa Claus.

On the other hand In Eastern countries like China red is associated with luck, long life and happiness and is often the colour worn by brides on their wedding day.

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Hue is the name of the actual colour or 'pure colour'. Red is a hue, green is a hue, yellow is a hue. You get the idea.

There are also some key colours that you may have noticed we’ve not covered yet. black, grey and white. These are neutral colours. 

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We can use neutral colours to change the colour without changing the hue. By adding black or white we can change the value or lightness of a colour. When we add white it is called a tint whereas when we add black it is called a shade. These are all still the same hue (in this case blue)

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Saturation is about the brightness or dullness of a colour. Its very hard to make a colour brighter or more saturated but we can easily make it duller by either adding grey or by adding the opposite colour on the colour wheel. Again you can see these are all still the same blue but they are less blue.

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Impression, Sunrise (1872) Claude Monet 

This painting of a sunrise by Claude Monet is an excellent of example of saturation. The sun has been painted with really strong saturated colours which makes it stand out really brightly against the dull grey colours of the background.

“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.” 

Paul Gauguin