Basic Color Theory

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for. –-Georgia O’Keefe

Before you get started painting, you need to know some of the basics about color theory. Understanding the effect of mixing two or more colors together and the vocabulary of color will provide the foundation for your understanding of color theory.  You want the paint that you apply to your canvas to match your artistic intention.

Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:

The Importance Of The Color Wheel

Mixing Paints To Create Colors

Further Definitions

The Temperature Of Colors

Utilizing Color Temperature In Painting

Hue And Saturation

Exercise 1: Make Secondary And Tertiary Colors

Exercise 2: Make Your Own Color Wheel

Exercise 3: Mixing Neutrals

Exercise 4: Mixing Values

The Importance Of The Color Wheel

We’ve mentioned the color wheel in some previous lessons. It is your guide to mixing paints to get the color you want. Let’s build the color wheel, using our vocabulary for colors.


The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. Many of us were introduced to the primary colors in elementary school.

Mixing any two of these create what are called as secondary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green, and purple.

See here:


Blue + Yellow = Green

Blue + Red = Purple

Yellow + Red = Orange

Secondary colors: The colors you get when you mix primary colors together are called secondary colors. These are orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary colors: Tertiary colors are the colors you get when you mix a primary color with a secondary color, or mix two secondary colors. For example, if you mix red (primary) with orange (secondary), you get vermillion (tertiary). Or blue (primary) mixed with purple (secondary) makes violet/blue-purple (tertiary).


This is often illustrated by a color clock or color wheel.

Exercise One: Make Secondary And Tertiary Colors

Grab a small canvas (8” x 10” or thereabouts) and all of your paints. Lay your paints out on your palette and try mixing them on your palette. Try making secondary colors with your primaries. Then try making some tertiary colors by mixing primary and secondary (or secondary and secondary) colors. Make swatches on your canvas to note how you arrived at each color mixture. For example, if you mix red and yellow, make a swatch of each of those colors on your canvas and the resulting mixed orange next to that.

          Color Clock (Or Color Wheel)

Look at this color “clock.” You’ll notice the primary colors are located at 12, 4, and 8, while the secondary colors are at 2, 6, and 10. The others are all tertiary colors. Download it as a PDF here so you can print it for handy reference!

If you mix equal parts of 1 and 3, you’ll get 2.

If you mix less of 3 with 1, you’ll get a 2 that’s closer to 1.

If you mix colors directly across from each other (12 and 6, 9 and 3, 10 and 4, etc.) you’ll make a neutral color because you’re mixing complementary colors.

Complementary colors: These are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.


These are important to know because, for one, it will help you to pick out a color scheme that matches your artistic intentions (I’ll get into this more in a bit) and two, mixing complementary colors will make mud. This is both a good thing and a bad thing! If you’re unaware that mixing blue and orange will make a grayish brown, and you start painting some orange flowers on top of your still-wet blue sky, your flowers will look pretty muddy. If, though, you’re painting the sky and it’s just too blue, you can add a bit of orange to your paint to tone down or neutralize the blue.

Exercise Two: Make Your Own Color Wheel

Mix your paints and come up with as many of these colors as you can then put it on canvas, paper, or cardboard. You can also use colored pencils, markers, or even colored paper.


Mixing Paints To Create Colors

This image is from Ian Sidaway’s book, Color Mixing Bible, which has some really great information on color and color theory as well as lots of illustrations showing different paint combinations in every medium.

mixing neutrals sidaway

The bar on the left shows mixing two complementary colors, in this case, cadmium red and pthalo green. At the top is pure cadmium red, mixed with progressively more and more pthalo green as it moves down. You’ll see in the middle where the colors are mixed closest to 50/50, the color becomes a neutral dark grey. The bar on the right is showing value—the lighter values are created by adding increasingly more white to the dark grey in the middle of the left column.

Every color has a complementary color. This doesn’t mean that all reds mixed with green will make grey, brown, or black! For example, if you’re using a red with more orange tones and you mix it with a green that has more yellow tones, you won’t get a nice grey or black mixture. You’ll need to experiment with your colors to see what you can make with what you have. And that is what your palette is for!

During the exercises later on in this Course, you’ll be following an instructor in creating 3 paintings. As far as knowing when you’ve mixed the same color as the instructor…the short answer is you won’t know.


In other words, there’s no guarantee you will mix exactly the color the instructor uses. It’s a matter of seeing what colors the instructor has mixed, eyeballing the instructor’s paint color and giving it your best shot. There are no set formulas. ‘Matching exactly’ is one of those things you as a student just have to “let go”.


As a painting student, we hope it gives you comfort that there’s a lot of room in the exercises for some creative expression!


Helpful hint: If you’re using oil paints, instead of throwing out your leftover colors on your palette at the end of a painting session, mix the complementary colors together to make some rich neutral greys and browns to save for later painting. Scrape off the paints with a palette knife and save them in airtight containers such a baby food jars or buddy cups, which can be purchased at the art store.

Exercise Three: Mixing Neutrals

Try mixing some grey/brown tones by mixing your complementary colors. Try to get as close to black as possible. Add white gradually to make different values.

Test these on your small canvas and keep notes, including the colors you started with—you may come up with something you want to use later.

Here is an example of one:


    1. Cad (Cadmium) Red Deep & Viridian
    2. Alizarin [Crimson] & Sap [Green]
    3. Cad (Cadmium) Yellow & Dioxazine Purple
    4. Cobalt Violet, [Yellow] Ochre, touch of Ivory Black
    5. Cad (Cadmium) Yellow, Cad (Cadmium) Red Light, French Ultramarine [Blue]
    6. Cad (Cadmium) Yellow, Cad (Cadmium) Red Light, Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber
    7. Cad (Cadmium) Red Deep, Sap [Green], touch of Ivory Black
    8. Prussian Blue & Ivory Black
    9. Viridian & Alizarin [Crimson]
    10. Viridian & Cad (Cadmium) Red Light
    11. French Ultramarine [Blue], Cad (Cadmium) Red Deep, Cad (Cadmium) Yellow, Ochre
    12. Alizarin [Crimson], Cad (Cadmium) Yellow, French Ultramarine [Blue], Ivory Black
    13. Cobalt Purple, Raw Sienna, Ivory Black
    14. Lemon Yellow, Cad (Cadmium) Red Light, Prussian Blue, Ivory Black
    15. Cad (Cadmium) Red Light, Sap [Green], touch of Ivory Black
    16. (no label)

I split the canvas into two sections (note the dotted line down the center to divide the two halves). The darkest swatch on the left is the colors mixed together without any white. I add progressively more white as I move to the right to see what each color looks like with a different value. The colors all look very similar because they are neutrals made by combining complements on the color wheel. Some combinations are more successful than others!

You’ll notice that not all complementary colors make grey or black. That’s just because they’re not true complements. For example mixing red and green should yield a neutral black color, but if the red has a little more of a blue tint and the green also has a little blue, you won’t get black. You’ll just get a toned-down green or red. This is why it’s good to experiment! A lot of the color mixes I did on the canvas pictured above look pretty neutral in their darkest value (on the left) but the lighter they get, the more it looks like a toned-down or neutralized version of another color. Though the lightest values aren’t neutral greys or browns, they’re good to keep in mind for when you’re painting and need to tone down your hues.

You can hang these canvases on the wall in your studio or just keep them tucked away in a cupboard. In fact, I have a lot of small canvases I have tested things on (paint mixes, mediums, etc.) that I keep around for reference. I usually write the names of the colors or mediums directly on the canvas so I don’t forget. You don’t have to have a memory like a steel trap to be an artist!

A note about smart phone photos: You may think about using your smart phone to take a photo of the color you’ve mixed as a way to keep a record. The problem with this is that 1) cameras lenses and the lenses of our eyes perceive color and light in very different ways 2) photographing color to be a perfect representation of what you’re actually seeing is VERY difficult! The white balance on your phone may not be adjusted to the light you’re in and the photographed color will look different. It’s best to test these colors on canvases or even thick pieces of white paper so you can always be sure of the color’s accuracy.

Further Definitions

Time for some more definitions–value, tint, shade, and tone–to help you further understand color theory.

Value: Value (also called brightness or luminosity) is the lightness or darkness of a color. Light colors are often referred to as tints while dark colors are referred to as shades.



Tint: A tint is made by adding white to your color, making it lighter.

Shade: A shade is made by adding black to your color, making it darker.

Tone: A tone is made by adding grey, or both black and white, to your color.



Pigment: A pigment is an ingredient used to color your paint. Paints can be made with one or more pigments.


Natural ultramarine pigment in powdered form.

The powder is mixed into different “vehicles” to create paint. For example, in oil paint, the pigment might be mixed with linseed oil.

Exercise Four: Mixing Values

Try making different values with your paints by adding white or a dark neutral (that you’ve mixed from the previous exercise). See the example below.

Grab another small canvas and start by putting a small dab of your starting color in the middle. Underneath your color, add gradually more and more of your dark neutral until you have as close to black as possible. Then do the same thing with white on top of your pure color.

The Temperature Of Colors

Colors also have temperatures. When you look at a color wheel below, you can see it can be generally divided into warm and cool colors.


Y = Yellow / YO = Yellow-Orange / O = Orange / RO = Red-Orange / R = Red

RV = Red-Violet / V = Violet / BV = Blue-Violet / B = Blue

BG = Blue-Green / G = Green / YG = Yellow Green

Close your eyes and try to think of things that are warm and cool. Did you think of fire and ice? Those are good examples of warm and cool color temperatures. Fire is generally red or orange, which are both warm colors. Ice we usually think of as blue, which is a cool color. This doesn’t mean that everything is a warm color or a cool color based on its actual temperature, it’s just helpful to keep in mind when thinking about color temperature.

To complicate things even more, not all red and oranges are warm, just as not all blues and greens are cold. In the images below, the big square is the pure color (fully saturated) and the light part on top is the same color mixed with some white.

The Gamblin website has some handy tools for navigating color space, including a video explaining hue, saturation, value, and a list of all their paints with the color temperature listed next to them. Click the link above to go there.

Utilizing Color Temperature In Painting

When you’re painting, warm colors will appear closer to you and cool colors appear further away. Also, objects that are further away will appear lighter in color while objects in the foreground (close to the viewer) will be darker and more saturated.


Leonardo da Vinci knew this. See how he makes the mountains in the background fade just by making them lighter and cooler in color than Mona Lisa herself? We can even tell that the mountains over her right shoulder are closer to Mona Lisa than the ones over her left shoulder because they are darker in value and warmer in tone. Look at what happens when we isolate the colors and put them next to each other:



The first square is the color of the mountains that are furthest away from Mona Lisa (and us), while the second square is from the mountains closer (over Mona Lisa’s right shoulder). You can see how the closer mountains are warmer and darker, making them push forward.

And now look at the shift in value from Mona Lisa to the background.

monalisa_3   monalisa_4
The first square is from Mona Lisa’s face, which is in the foreground (closest to us) of the picture. The second square is from the background (furthest away from us) of the picture. Even though when you’re looking at the whole painting they may appear to be almost the same color, when we isolate them, notice how the object closest to us is darker.

Of course, there will be shifts like this that happen all over your painting.

Hue And Saturation

These terms come up in the discussion of color, so we want you to be familiar with them.

Hue: The hue is important to know because it’s the main way you’ll be describing the colors you’re using to paint. The hue is the most obvious characteristic of a color, i.e. red, blue, yellow, green. In painting color theory, the hue is a color that hasn’t been mixed with white or black.


For example, if you’re working with a paint color you would describe as Navy Blue, the hue is blue. Persimmon = Orange hue. Burgundy = Red hue. Canary = Yellow hue.

If you see the word “hue” on a tube of paint, it means that the original ingredient used for the pigment has been replaced by something very similar to achieve the same hue as the original. Usually, this is done when the ingredient is toxic or very expensive (this happens a lot with cadmiums).

Saturation, Intensity, or Chroma: These three terms all refer to the purity of a color. Fully saturated colors (colors with a full pigment load) are vibrant, while less saturated colors are duller.

   Least saturated → Most saturated


Key Lesson Learnings:

We’ve covered a lot in this lesson, including many definitions used in talking about color, mixing colors to get secondary and tertiary colors, and the color wheel. You’ve had a chance to mix your paints to create colors you might use in future paintings, and kept notes on the paints used to create these colors.  Using the Mona Lisa as an example, we’ve seen how artists use warmer and darker colors to push objects to the foreground, while using cooler and lighter colors has the opposite effect.


Next lesson: Color Illusions and Themes


  1. March 29, 2017
  2. October 8, 2017
  3. December 8, 2017
    • December 11, 2017
  4. April 16, 2018
    • April 16, 2018

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