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Color

Hue

Colors of the visible light spectrum (image: Meganbeckett27, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Colors of the visible light spectrum (image: Meganbeckett27, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Artists can use colors for many reasons other than to simply duplicate reality including setting moods and highlighting importance.
The colors of the world can be divided in different ways. When we use the term “color” casually, what we usually mean is hue. Hues appear on the visible spectrum. On the spectrum, we see the pure hues. These can be divided into primary, secondary and tertiary colors, as on this color wheel.
Color wheel (image: public domain)
Color wheel (image: public domain)

Primary, secondary and tertiary colors

Primary colors are, for most art media, red, yellow and blue (the exception is the additive color system, which is used in computer screens, theater lighting and the like, and has red, yellow and green as its primary colors). All the rest of the colors can be made from these.
Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors: Red and yellow make orange, and so on.
Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color.

Complementary and analogous colors

The colors opposite one another (like red and green or blue and orange) are complementary colors, which tend to stand out boldly next to one another. These are therefore often used for university colors and sport team logos. Colors next to one another (like red and orange or blue and green) are analogous colors, and these tend to blend together more smoothly.

Warm and cool colors

The colors on the left of this wheel are called cool colors and those to the right are warm colors. Using cool or warm colors in an image can create moods. Pierre Auguste Renoir used warm colors for his Mother and Child, 1886, creating a warm, cheerful, inviting scene. The oranges, pinks and yellows dominate the image.
Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mother and Child, 1886, pastel, 79.1 x 63.5 cm, (Cleveland Museum of Art); right: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasant Mother, 1962, oil on burlap, 249 x 180 cm (Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City) © David Alfaro Siqueiros
Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mother and Child, 1886, pastel, 79.1 x 63.5 cm, (Cleveland Museum of Art); right: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasant Mother, 1962, oil on burlap, 249 x 180 cm (Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City) © David Alfaro Siqueiros
Diego Alfaro Siqueiros presents a similar subject in his Peasant Mother (1929), but through the use of cool colors, instead creates a sad, cold scene dominated by figures of blues and greens. Neither of these artists was worried about portraying the world as it really looked. Instead, they used color to inspire feelings in the viewer.

Value (tint and shade)

Color can also be considered in terms of value, which is the degree of lightness or darkness of a color. If we add white to a hue, we get a tint. If we add black, we get a shade. As we might expect, tints tend to be more cheerful — pastel colors are all tints. Shades tend to be gloomier. Indeed, our terms for moods are based on these properties, so that we say that we are lighthearted, or in a dark temper. There are many tints in the Renoir’s Mother and Child, and many shades in Siqueiros’ Peasant Mother.
Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, oil on canvas, 180.5 x 221 cm (The State Hermitage Museum)
Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, oil on canvas, 180.5 x 221 cm (The State Hermitage Museum)

Saturation

Finally, intensity or saturation is how bright or dull a color is. Henri Matisse tended to use very saturated colors, as in Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908), whereas in Peach Blossom Spring (1533), Zhou Chen relied on a much more muted palette with very little saturation of colors.
The landscape is almost entirely in shades of brown and beige. The grey-green of the trees is low in saturation, leaving the single splash of red on the child’s cloths the only moment of high saturation in the image. Therefore, we notice this tiny detail within this large painting. The Matisse painting, on the other hand, is a blaze of colors. The vibrant red of the wall and tablecloth dominates the image, in sharp contrast with the green grass showing through the window and the blues and purples curving throughout the image.
Zhou Chen, Peach Blossom Spring, 102.5 X 161.5 cm (Suzhou Museum)
Zhou Chen, Peach Blossom Spring, 102.5 X 161.5 cm (Suzhou Museum)

Contrast

Contrast is the amount of variation between the highest and lowest values in a work. This is perhaps most commonly used to talk about photography, but can be applied to any work. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Cliffs of Moher (1989) has very low contrast. There are no dark blacks, no stark whites; everything is in very similar shades of gray.
Left: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, 1989, offset lithograph, 24 x 31 cm (Art Institute of Chicago) © Hiroshi Sugimoto; right: Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1987, gelatin silver print, 17.94 × 17.78 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art) © Robert Mapplethorpe / The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Left: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, 1989, offset lithograph, 24 x 31 cm (Art Institute of Chicago) © Hiroshi Sugimoto; right: Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1987, gelatin silver print, 17.94 × 17.78 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art) © Robert Mapplethorpe / The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
The low contrast conveys the soft and gentle feeling of a heavy mist over quiet water. On the other hand, Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, Calla Lily (1987) has much higher contrast, meaning that the difference in the whites and blacks is much greater. The effect is much sharper and crisper, making this simple flower appear grand and impressive.
Moving yet further, in Kara Walker’s silhouette image, Untitled (from Testimony), the contrast is absolute. We see only black and white (and here, some red).
Kara Walker, Untitled (from Testimony), 2004, cut black paper with pencil, pressure-sensitive tape, metal fasteners, and synthetic polymer film on paperboard, 52.7 x 38.1 cm © Kara Walker, (The Museum of Modern Art)
Kara Walker, Untitled (from Testimony), 2004, cut black paper with pencil, pressure-sensitive tape, metal fasteners, and synthetic polymer film on paperboard, 52.7 x 38.1 cm © Kara Walker, (The Museum of Modern Art)
In this case, the artist is using the power of this contrast to draw the viewer’s attention to some of the problems in American race relations, and their origins in the institution of chattel slavery. Therefore, while visual elements produce visual effects, their implications can extend well beyond the purely visual.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Igor Bezerra
    If I am not mistaken, the primary colors in lighting (in the aditive color system) is not Red, Yellow, Green. It is Red Green Blue! RGB. Or am I Wrong?
    (11 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Carter Johnson
    In the text above it incorrectly states that Red, Yellow, and Green are the primary colors in lighting and computers, rather than Red, Green, and Blue.

    I believe that is why igor.uenf made the comment here already, so as to direct attention to the mistake and in order to correct the error.

    Is there a way that this may be corrected in the text above?
    (12 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user ArchieSMillard
    I don't know why, but I have trouble conceptualizing the difference between value and saturation...
    Somewhere online it said to think of lowering of saturation as the adding of gray.
    So, you could have a shade or tint of a hue at full saturation...meaning it doesn't have any gray in it?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user tomislav.bleiz
    It appears that David Alfaro Siqueiros incorrectly referenced as "Diego Alfaro Siqueiros" in the text.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user A'mmani Page
    Can a color be less bright and mean the same as a dark bright color?
    (2 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Tecumseh
      The term 'dark bright' is contradictory and could be confusing to others when describing the color. To communicate a color's intensity, it is best to use the term saturation.

      A color mixed with white (creating a tint) or black (creating a shade) would look dull and would be described as having a low saturation, while a pure color would look vibrant and would be described as having a high saturation.
      (7 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kyle L.
    When defining primary colors, the following exception is noted: "the exception is the additive color system, which is used in computer screens, theater lighting and the like, and has red, yellow and green as its primary colors".

    Is this correct? The additive color system is about how light is perceived, and it is based on red, green, and blue and is often referred to as RGB.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Additive_color
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Bela Verma
    arent the primary colors magenta/cyan/yellow? Perhaps in terms of light?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user hachemmichelworkout
      no basically the primary colors are the colors (red, blue and yellow) which you can use with black and white colors to get any other color. you can get the cyan by mixing the blue and green adding white where necessary) and you can get magenta by mixing the red and blue (also white). As such, magenta and cyan colors are secondary colors.
      (2 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Jayla
    I know we need to practice almost everyday to get better at art and colouring but is there any faster way to get better, I see all of these younger kids they are drawing better than me and I can't help but feel like my drawings are poop compared to them
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Paul W.
    It’s very interesting how Matisse uses saturation as a tool to provide depth in his Red Room. Many artists chose to use tint that way.
    (2 votes)
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  • boggle yellow style avatar for user Patches
    If you mix a tertiary color with another tertiary color, what do you call it? Is it anything like animal food chains?
    (2 votes)
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