Understanding Colour

The first known studies of colour were done in ancient Greece by Aristotle, who theorized that colour existed in the form of rays sent down from the heavens by God. His theory was undisputed until the Renaissance when more sophisticated colour systems were developed by Aguilonius and Sigfrid Forsius. Aguilonius's system was the first attempt at defining all colours and was based on his observations of the changing colour of the sky from dawn to dusk. In 1660, Sir Isaac Newton developed a more logical colour order based on his scientific observation from experiments. Using a prism, he acknowledged that white light could be broken down into the colours of the rainbow, and as such had a clear, set order. I remember how we memorized these colours in school using the letters ”VIBGYOR” - violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. I’ve never forgotten it since!

So what is colour?

Colour can be defined by three properties:

  • hue
  • intensity
  • value

When we call an object "red" or “blue” we are referring to its hue. It is the most basic name that can be assigned to a colour. A paint may be named “Ultramarine” but we would say that its hue is blue. A paint named “Pumpkin” is a yellow-orange.

The intensity of a colour refers to how dull or bright it is and is also known as “saturation” or “chroma”. It is the purity and strength of a colour. Colour intensity ranges from neutral to brilliant. Two colours may have the same hue but one is more vivid and the other, dull.

Value refers to how light or dark a colour appears. The subtle gradations of dark to light are clarified by artists using a “value scale” usually with 10 steps or increments from dark to light. A colour’s value is increased, or lightened, by adding white or another lighter value colour to it. The lightened colours are called “tints”. A colour’s value is decreased or darkened, by adding black or a darker value colour to it. The darkened colours are called “shades”.

Colour Theory

Colour theory…is simply a set of principles and terminology used by artists to talk about colour.

The Colour Wheel

The Colour Wheel visually presents colour relationships - it is the colour spectrum presented in the form of a circle. It helps us to understand colour relationships, colour schemes and also allows us to identify how colour mixtures are derived.

The Colour Wheel is most commonly presented using 12 colours placed in the order in which they appear when a beam of light is passed through a prism. The colours that form the 12-part colour wheel are categorized into primary, secondary and intermediate colours.

Primary colours are colours at their basic essence - yellow, red and blue. All other colours are mixed from them but they cannot be created by mixing others.

Secondary colours are colours achieved by a mixture of two primary colours. There are three secondary colours:

  • Orange - derived by mixing Red and Yellow
  • Purple - derived by mixing Blue and Red
  • Green - derived by mixing Yellow and Blue

Intermediate colours are derived by mixing a primary and its closest secondary colour on the colour wheel. Intermediate colours are also known as “tertiary” colours and there are six colours:

  • Yellow-orange
  • Red-orange
  • Red-purple
  • Blue-purple
  • Blue-green
  • Yellow-green

Colour Schemes

Colour schemes are a systematic way of using the colour wheel to put colours together to create colour harmony. There are various formulae for creating colour schemes but the more common schemes are:

  • Monochromatic
  • Complementary, and
  • Analogous

“Mono” means “one” and “chroma” means “colour”. A Monochromatic colour scheme is one which uses only one colour in various values i.e. in various degrees of lightness or darkness.


This Hindeloopen carousel is an example of a project painted with various tints and shades of blue to create a pleasing monochomatic colour scheme.

Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. Complementary colour schemes use greatly contrasting colours such as green and red, purple and yellow etc.

English Canalboat Painting

This English Canalboat project is painted using the complementary colours green and red and orange and their various values.

An analogous colour scheme is one which uses 3 - 5 colours which are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. This combination of colours provides very little contrast.

Bauernmalerei and Multi-loading

This multi-loaded iris plate was painted using an analogous colour scheme comprising blue, purple, green and their values.

Warm and Cool Colours

Warm and cool colours are terms used to also describe a collection of colours. Warm colours are found on the right side of the color wheel and cool colours are found on the left side of the color wheel.

Warm colours are those identified with fire and the sun. When used in a painting, they make objects look closer or come forward.

This zhostovo plaque was painted using warm colours - crimson, red, orange and touches of yellow.

Cool colours are colours associated with snow and ice. When used in a painting, they tend to recede or go backward in a composition.

These zhostovo daisies on the other hand were painted with cool colours - various values of blue and blue-green were used.



Artezan Home

Decorative Painting Resources
Decorative Painting Tips
Understanding Colour
All About Brushes

Basecoating Guide

Varnishing Guide


Books to help you

Colour Theory for Oil Colours and Acrylics: An Uncomplicated Approach to Colour Theory
Michael Wilcox

The Elements of Color
Johannes Itten




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