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Artist insight
Mastery of colour theory is essential for artists. Philip Straub
takes a look at some the basic principles of colour
hen used effectively, colour There’s an incredible amount of

Philip Straub
W helps describe mood and
evoke an emotional
response from the viewer.
scientific documentation available;
however, much of it’s not applicable
to artists. I’d like to cut through all
COUNTRY: US Correct colour application is one of the redundant stuff and get down to
CLIENTS: Universal
Studios, Vivendi the most important components for a the most important info on colour
Universal, Mercer Mayer painting to succeed. The application theory. We’ll be looking at different
Based in
of colour isn’t just something that an types of colour schemes available to
Florida, Philip artist inherently knows, it’s a craft an artist, how to use colour as a
Straub is a that’s studied. There are rules to compositional tool, how to use colour
concept art
director for
follow and ignore but all artists must to lead the viewer’s eye through a
video game publisher begin with the basic building blocks painting, and how to use balanced
Electronic Arts of colour theory to find success. colour in a painting. So here we go…

1 THE THREE PROPERTIES • The value is the lightness or

OF COLOUR darkness of a hue (colour).
Before we take you deep into • The intensity is the brightness
colour theory, you need to have or dullness of a hue (colour). Pure
an understanding of the basic hues are high-intensity colours.
principles behind it. Let’s take a Dull hues are low-intensity colours.
look at what’s known as the three The value, hue, and intensity of the
properties of colour. The three colours you choose will be dictated by
properties below and to the right many things, but primarily by the light in
represent the common language the scene you’re depicting.
used in colour theory and should
be present in your thought process 2 KNOW THE
when painting. COLOUR WHEEL
• The hue is the name of a colour, A colour circle, based on red, yellow and
such as red, blue, or yellow. blue, is traditional in the field of art. Sir Isaac
Newton developed the first circular diagram
of colours in 1666. Since then, scientists and artists
have studied and designed numerous variations of this
concept. Differences of opinion about the validity of
one format over another continue to provoke debate. In
reality, any colour circle or colour wheel which presents
a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.
The primary colours are red, yellow
and blue. In traditional colour theory,
these are the three pigment colours
that cannot be mixed or formed by
any combination of other colours.
All other colours are derived from
these three hues.

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Artist insight Colour theory
Secondary colours are green, IS BALANCED
orange and purple. Secondary You can’t simply make an object or
colours are the colours formed by subject in your painting colourful by
mixing the primary colours. These using one or all of the primary
with the primaries give us the six colours. You must find balance in
full-strength colours of the your colour composition. There
spectrum. They are arranged (as needs to be some tertiary colours or
you can see) in sequence in a circle greyness in your colour scheme to
and I’ve outlined them in black in the calm the painting down a bit. If you
diagram. By mixing each colour don’t keep this in mind as you
with its neighbour, we get construct your painting, you’ll have
six more colours, the viewer looking everywhere, even
called the tertiary if your value and design composition
colours. is well thought out. In nature
especially, you will seldom see
primary and secondary colours
occurring in abundance;
instead it’s a delicate
balance to make up the
5 KNOW YOUR whole that is our reality.
TERTIARY COLOURS It’s our job as artists to
Tertiary colours are: yellow-orange, know when and how to
red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, skew that reality or
blue-green and yellow-green. These accentuate that reality
are the colours formed by mixing to make it more beautiful,
one primary and one secondary more dramatic or more
colour. Again I’ve outlined them in frightening, whatever the
black so they’re more obvious to you. assignment may be.

In this image, notice how controlled the palette

is. The colour palette was not chosen randomly,
but very deliberately to further enhance the
mood of the piece. If you know your colour
theory, you’ll be aware that the colour blue has a
calming effect on human beings and therefore is
the obvious choice for this image.

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The analogous colour scheme uses
colours that are adjacent to each
other on the colour wheel. One
colour is used as a dominant colour
while others are used to enrich the
scheme. The analogous scheme is
similar to the monochromatic, but
offers more nuances. I find this
approach much more effective than
a monochrome colour scheme and
it’s virtually as easy to produce.

The complementary colour scheme
consists of two colours that are
opposite on the colour wheel. This
scheme looks best when you place
a warm colour against a cool colour;
for example, red versus green-blue.
When using this scheme, choose a
dominant colour and then use its
complementary colour for accents.
One of the more traditional
approaches for this type of colour
7 IS IT RELATIVE? scheme is to use one colour for the
Think your colour scheme through background and its complementary
and make sure it’s relative to the colour to highlight important
subject matter of your painting. elements. Through this approach
When thinking about mood and you’ll get colour dominance
tone, think about the finished piece. combined with sharp colour contrast.
If you’re depicting a scene of power The challenge here is that
and destruction, you wouldn’t paint although it produces high contrast
it with happy colours, would you? and high impact visuals, it’s far more
The image above shows the difficult to handle than an analogous
powerful combination of value and and monochromatic colour scheme.
colour working together to create a You must be very careful to balance
mood that affects the viewer and your colour usage just right.
further ‘sells’ the concept behind the The split-complementary colour
image. Here I’m using an abundance scheme is a variation of the standard
of tertiary colours offset with just a complementary scheme. It uses a
touch of primaries (in the eyes and colour and the two colours adjacent
spinal cord) to lead the viewer’s eye to its complementary. This provides
through the image to the focal point high contrast without the tension of
(the face and eyes of the character). the complementary scheme.

The monochromatic colour scheme
uses variations in lightness and
saturation of a single colour.
Working in monochrome is a quick
and easy way to add colour and life
to your value studies. The approach
is the easiest way for the novice to
deal with colour without sacrificing
quality and impact. In fact, I think
some of the most emotionally driven
imagery uses this approach. The
downfall with a monochrome colour
scheme is that it can sometimes lack
brilliance and contrast.

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Artist insight Colour theory
You can’t simply make an
object or subject in your painting
colourful by using one or all of
the primary colours


The colour of any object that exists in our world is affected
by the world it exists in. Every object starts with its local
colour, or the colour that an object is without outside
influence. All colours, as we see them, are colours modified
by the surrounding conditions. A warm light on a warm
object simply accentuates the warmth of the local colour,
while that same warm light subtracts from the brilliancy
of a cold colour. We only paint local colour in neutral
11 TRIADIC OR light, which rarely exists. There are some constants that
TETRADIC COLOURS we can use to our advantage when producing
The triadic colour scheme uses convincing concept art.
three colours equally spaced
around the colour wheel. This 13 REMEMBER YOUR
scheme is popular among TERTIARY COLOURS
artists because it offers strong When you’re putting together your
visual contrast while retaining colour scheme, be conscious of the
harmony and colour richness. The temperature or temperatures of all
triadic scheme is not as contrasting of the elements in the scene. Most
as the complementary scheme, but wide expanses of colour, like a sky,
looks more balanced and harmonious. should be toned down so that they
The tetradic (double don’t overwhelm the rest of the
complementary) scheme is the four colours are used in equal scene. The larger the area the softer
richest of all the schemes because it amounts, the scheme may look or less saturated the colour should
uses four colours arranged into two unbalanced, so you should choose be. Avoid primary colours in your
complementary colour pairs. This a colour to be dominant or subdue backgrounds as they will tend to
scheme is hard to harmonise; if all the colours. lift off of the picture plane.

Once again, you can see the subject

matter dictates the palette of the
painting. Notice that there aren’t
any primary colours to be found in
this image, especially in the sky, the
largest single area in the painting.
If you could colour pick the image,
you’d see just how subdued the
colours really are. Basically I’m
creating the illusion of colour by
carefully placing the complements
and opposing colours next to each
other for drama (otherwise known
as the focal point).

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A shadow colour in natural light can’t be colour that lacks Colour is very much like a bank
any of the original local colour. Without additional colour
influence, the shadow colour would be the same colour as account. If you dip into it too much, soon
the local colour, only darker. The shadow colour will be
reduced in intensity and saturation by its complement.
you have none. It’s said that some of the
Shadow colour cannot be purer or stronger when in shadow most beautiful paintings ever produced
unless a similar colour has been reflected into the shadow
increasing its brilliance.
have a restricted colour palette
15 COLOUR IN LIGHT area of interest in a painting. It’s the colour in the spectrum is really
All colours become a source of incredibly important that every white light broken down into its
reflected colour when in light and painting has a resting place, a lead elements. Objects only have colour
will reflect themselves into lesser actor in the scene, that begs for the because their surfaces are
light. All colours’ greatest intensity most attention. Certainly a painting absorbing the light and reflecting
should occur in the lights or can have multiple actors, objects, or back all the other colours in the
halftones. Your most brilliant colour focal points but, the more you add spectrum. If there wasn’t colour in
does not necessarily occur in the the more challenging the painting light, then colour simply wouldn’t
part of the object that is receiving will become. The most effective exist to the human eye.
the strongest light, however. If paintings have a centre of interest Obviously without a good
an object’s value is nearly white and other smaller areas of interest to drawing, colour is meaningless,
where the strongest light is, then help balance things out. but it’s the marriage of solid value
your most brilliant colour will occur composition and colour composition
in your halftones. 17 COLOUR BALANCE that makes the good pieces great! If
AGAIN, FOLKS you can master the ability to
16 REMEMBER YOUR Famous illustrator Andrew Loomis create a solid colour
FOCAL POINT once said, “Colour is very much like composition to
In general, you want to keep your a bank account. If you dip into it too complement your
bright colours around your focal much soon you have none.” It’s said spatial and value
point or area of interest. Does that some of the most beautiful composition,
everyone know what a focal point paintings ever produced have a your
is? And do you truly know how to restricted colour palette, instead paintings
use it? This is one of the most of an over-abundance of colour. will jump
powerful tools an artist has to help Without getting too scientific, off the
lead the viewer’s eye to the main it’s important to understand that page.

In this painting called

Christmas Town, notice
how I’ve accentuated the
contrast in the centre of the
town so that the viewer’s
eye is drawn to that area.
Not only is there a contrast
shift in that area, there is
also a colour saturation
shift as well.

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