Color Theory

Using Color

For years I have been trying to figure out how to teach a good class on the use of color. Not about color theory (which is useless without being able to apply the concepts) but about the use of color. You see, I think most of us use color rather mindlessly. I mean that we give little thought to how might we deploy this element to service our artistic goals.

Photo of a watercolor palette

A watercolor tray with a chart that shows how the colors behave on paper.

And, to be fair, I can’t blame people for focusing on the technical aspect of this huge topic. It is extremely easy to become overwhelmed with all the technical information out there. Some friends of mine have used the verb “drown” when they talk about navigating the ocean of color supplies, advice, paraphernalia, terms, theory, research, and safety warnings about its use.

But it should all boil down to this simple, essential question: “how should I use color to service my artistic goals?” The answer lies somewhere between what excites you as an artist (your color goals) and your skill level in deploying color to your service. Sometimes we get frustrated by our use of color but we do not know what we should do instead. Words fail. Our own work does not seem to elicit an answer. While most people are able to voice what they are not satisfied with, it is much harder to name what we want when we haven’t had sufficient experience painting. That’s when I ask my students to look for images of the work of one artist that excites them. Then I ask questions. A while later, their color goals have been articulated. If I still feel they are not clear enough I will re-phase them until the student hears something that sounds like what they want.

Here are some color goals my students have articulated:

  • to know when to use vivid color and when to avoid it
  • to express moods
  • to avoid “mud”
  • to make my painting more lively through color
  • to be able to choose a palette appropriate to the media I use
  • to learn how to limit my palette
  • to learn how to choose pigments I like

Once we go through this, it is much easier to look at our paintings with those goals in mind.

Thinking About Color

Photo of a watercolor palette

A watercolor tray with a chart that shows how the colors behave on paper.

“I just start painting very excitedly and the last thing I think about is my palette. Most of the time, composition keep me so busy I completely forget about color.”
“I feel like an outsider during visits to the art store. I must be the only person in the universe that does not know what colors to buy!”
“My palette is so garish. Everything looks fine in the beginning but when I finish I see my colors are too bright for my taste.”

Color is one of the dimensions of design that seems the most inscrutable. While almost everyone can appreciate size, texture and contrast, color perception is highly individual. To complicate matters, as humans we have developed a series of terms to discuss color that vary enormously from person to person. Then there’s color theory. Some of us were taught color theory as a means to learn those specialized color concepts such as the law of simultaneous contrast. Others just remember the tedious exercises.

Photo of four flower still lives

Student Diane Platner tried out four different color harmonies for this subject.

Is there a way to make sense of color that is friendlier to the average art learner? I would say there are many, but what they all have in common is that they all involve today’s most precious commodity: time. “Serious” art students have for decades gravitated towards instructors with a mastery over color. Those instructors have in turn passed on their methods for making color decisions very much like passing on a recipe. Those students adopt those methods and use them forever.

Then there is the rare instructor who has developed their own teaching technique for helping students figure out color relationships on their own. Some host wonderful, meaningful studio discussions and others, like Josef Albers, have developed interesting exercises to stimulate this type of individual discovery. These two approaches require the context of a class in order for a student to have time to ponder what color is all about. In short, there is no quick and dirty method to “learn color” overnight.

Photo of a finished exercise with two limited palettes.

I send these exercises home as a way for students to experience a limited palette.

All of this would have no meaning if a students is not allowed to engage in the most important aspect of color learning for an artist, which is to integrate this new knowledge into the work they like to do. In my opinion, the only reason we learn about color is to develop and enhance our voice as visual artists. Questions like the role that color plays in our work, the mood that color variations bring to a painting, the importance that adopting a given palette might have or not have. This is why we would take a class, to engage in this type of thinking. No instructor can answer these questions for us. A good teacher will provide the space to answer them.