It’s All About Color

Color plays a major role in art. It can set a mood. It can change the hierarchy of a composition; pushing the subject into the foreground or gently allowing it to fade off into the distance. Color can create harmony or conflict, depending on the artist’s choice of palette. It can give subconscious meaning to an element. Yet the most interesting observable fact that happens with color is its ability to perceptually change, depending on its environment. An artist has control over texture and line work; they can set the stage with composition and pattern, but the one uncontrollable factor in a work of art, is color.

In studying color theory, an artist learns that color has perceptual changes depending on the visible light and surrounding color. We learn that even though we may have chosen specific colors for our piece, when and where the artwork is viewed changes the overall effect we may have been trying to achieve; that a work of art will appear different in sunlight as opposed to fluorescent or incandescent lighting. It will change depending on the wall color or physical space that it resides in. And at some point, an artist has to give up stringent control and allow the art to take on a life of its own.

If you’ve ever done any home decorating, you’ll have experienced this phenomenon. A color chosen in a store from a swatch of fabric or a paint card does not look the same when placed in your home. It might appear duller or more vibrant depending on its surroundings.  It might not feel like the same color at all.  A friend of mine painted her house a sedate shade of beige, only to be stunned to see that in early morning light, it appeared to be a rosy pink. How can this be? The painter must have bought the wrong paint!

How colors relate to one another is a fascinating study. If you look at the image below, the purple square on the black background appears larger and more vibrant than that on the white background. The purple on the pink background fades off in the distance, whereas on the green it jumps out at you. The purple squares in this image are all the same size and color; it’s only the background colors that change. This image shows how the human eye perceives color differently depending on its surroundings.



In the image below, if you cover the lower half of it with your hand, you’ll see two different blue squares, one on a blue background and one on a green. The squares appear to be different color; the left more green than blue. But they are exactly the same color. This perceptual change is due to its surrounding color. If you look at only the longer blue rectangle on the lower half of the image (the exact same color) you will see that the color is consistent throughout the horizontal bar.



Understanding color relativity and how color changes with its environment is only one of the challenges an artist must learn when working with color. An artist also studies how colors are created; what colors are made when mixed together. Most everyone knows the three basic primary colors: red, blue and yellow. We know that when we mix red and blue, we get purple; when we mix yellow and red, we get orange; and that mixing blue and yellow makes green. Color-3Those are the secondary colors (purple, orange and green). Some may also be aware that if you mix a primary and a secondary color, you get the tertiary colors of yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green. Yet many people have no experience with color beyond that point. They know their childhood box of crayons has 64 different colors (with a built in sharpener!), but most have no idea what colors were blended together to create those specific Crayola colors. They might be surprised to learn that the Burnt Sienna crayon is not just a mix of red and yellow, but has a tiny bit of blue thrown in to help desaturate the hue.

An artist studying color learns that most people are affected by color in two different ways. There’s a natural association that happens when viewing a color, and there’s a subconscious, psychological meaning that originates from a cultural association that people have. For example, most people feel calmed by the color blue. They associate cooler colors like blues and greens with nature, the sky and water, and it feels familiar and safe. People associate warmer colors such as yellow or red with fire and blood, creating feelings of energy, passion, fear, anger, or violence. But some of these associations are cultural. In Asia, the color red is associated with wealth, where in the U.S. people associate green with money. Purple is often associated with death in eastern culture, but in western culture associates it with royalty or bravery.

Adding more color confusion to the mix, most people think that warmer colors only reside on the red side of the color wheel and that cool colors reside on the blue side, but this isn’t true. Each color has a warm and cool variation, depending on how much visible yellow or blue is in the hue. The image below shows an example of how each of the three primary colors (blue, red, yellow) has a warm and cool variation. The color to the left is warm; the color to the right is cool.



In color theory, when we talk about color harmony, we speak about  how well colors interact with each other. How they add visual interest without making the piece overwhelming or chaotic. Two basic color formulas that create color harmony are Analogous color and Complementary color. Colors that are close together on the color wheel are analogous and create a soothing, relaxing feel when used in a composition. Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary and create contrast; a visual energy or stimulation to the eye. Nature often provides the perfect color palette. When in doubt, select a color palette from the multitude of colors thrown together that nature provides.



Whether you’re choosing color for a work of art, for a new couch that you’re planning on purchasing in the future, or just trying to pick a color from your box of Crayola crayons, these color applications will assist in making a color choice that’s right for you. How well you understand color theory and its application will determine whether you become master of the box of 64, and whether that leads you beyond, to the lofty level of 150 colors, now offered in a store near you.