What is Colour Theory and How Does it Apply to Coloured Pencil Art?

Beginners often ask “what is color theory”.

To make it easy to understand, think of color theory as a guidebook for using colors effectively. It helps artists understand how colors interact, how to combine them (or layer them), and the emotional impact they can have.

Colour theory for coloured pencil artists

When you're using colored pencils, you mix colors right on the paper. You do this through layering and blending — effectively mixing pigments to achieve the desired hue, value, and saturation.

Layering is a technique where the artist applies colors in strokes one on top of the other, often using a light pressure. This process allows for a gradual build-up of color, creating a rich depth that is difficult to achieve in a single pass.

It's like glazing in oil painting, where transparent layers of paint are used to adjust the tone and color without obscuring the underlying layers.

To create a lush green, start with a yellow base and then layer blue on top, adjusting the ratio of each color until you achieve the desired hue.

Blending, is the act of smoothing out the transitions between colors.

One method of doing this is by using a colorless blender pencil, which is specifically designed to meld the colors together, adding no additional pigment.

Alternatively, we can apply solvents like odorless mineral spirits with a brush to dissolve the binder in the colored pencils, thus allowing the pigments to merge. This can create a painterly effect and soften the graininess that can sometimes occur with pencil work.

Understanding “what is color theory” is essential in this process.

Understanding how different colors work together helps make drawings look more lifelike with better shadows and textures.

For instance, using a complementary color for shadows (like purple for a yellow object) can make the image pop and provide a more dynamic range of tones.

I’ve used some terms above that may be new to you, so let’s look at each in more depth.

The Color Wheel

Color theory is based on the color wheel.

This is like a pie chart displaying different colors that shows how they relate to each other. On the color wheel, we position the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—equidistantly from each other.

Primary colors are unique in that we cannot create them by mixing other colors.

Mixing two primary colors makes the secondary colors: green, orange, and violet.

You create tertiary colors like red-orange or blue-green by mixing a primary color with a secondary color.

Hue, Saturation, and Value

Let's look at the three fundamental building blocks of color: hue, saturation and value. To make this easier to understand, open your tin of pencils and have them in front of you as you read on.

  1. Hue refers to the distinct color of each pencil—red, blue, green, and so on. It's the aspect of color that we usually think of first..
  2. Saturation describes how pure or intense a color looks. A color with high saturation will look very rich, while a less saturated color might appear more faded or dull.
  3. Value is all about the lightness or darkness of a color. Adding black or white to a color changes its value, making it either lighter (adding white) or darker (adding black).

Together, these three properties define every color we see and are crucial for artists to understand.

Warm and Cool Colors

Understanding the temperature of a color (whether it leans more towards warmth or cool) can be helpful.

For example, when you paint a landscape, if you use bright and warm colors like red or yellow for a flower that's near you, it will look closer. If you paint mountains or trees in the distance with cool colors like blue or green, they will seem farther away.

When things are far away from us, they usually look lighter, bluer (or 'cooler'), and less sharp. As an artist, you can use this trick by painting distant objects with these cooler and lighter colors. This makes them seem further back.

Up close, you see things with more color and detail. So, you will paint things we want to appear closer in bright, warm colors (like reds and oranges) and with more detail.

This contrast between the 'warm' and 'cool' colors makes the complete picture feel more three-dimensional.

If you can master this concept, your art will guide the viewer's eye around your work. But understanding and applying the concept of warm and cool colors is just one part of being an artist.

Color Relativity and Simultaneous Contrast

You might have come across the term “color relativity” or "simultaneous contrast" which refers to the same thing.

Color relativity refers to the way we perceive a color based on the context in which it appears.

Colors can appear differently depending on the colors surrounding them, the light, and even the shapes and patterns they're part of. This means that a single color might not look the same in one setting as it does in another, because these surrounding elements influence our perception.

For instance, if you place a gray square on a red background, the gray will look a little greenish because green is the complement of red.

When colors are side by side, they can change how we perceive them because of this contrast effect. It's a handy concept in art to make colors pop or to create a specific mood in a drawing.

To illustrate this with another scenario, imagine drawing a tranquil ocean scene with colored pencils. You could employ color relativity by surrounding a patch of medium blue with darker, duller shades of blue to make it appear brighter and more 'glowing'. This contrast can give the impression of sunlight piercing through the water's surface, enhancing the luminosity of the ocean.

If we placed the same blue patch in a different situation, perhaps surrounded by saturated oranges, it may look less intense.

Understanding and using the concept of color relativity allows you, as an artist, to manipulate how we perceive colors in a scene, adding to the visual storytelling of the artwork.

color theory infographic

Color Harmonies

Color harmonies are the pleasing combinations of colors based on their positions on the color wheel. Some of the most common harmonies include:

Monochromatic: This harmony uses variations in lightness and saturation of a single color. It's simple and cohesive, often creating a soothing effect.

Analogous: These are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. We often find these schemes in nature and can create a harmonious and serene visual experience. Picture a sunset with its blend of reds, oranges, and yellows—that's an analogous harmony.

Complementary colorsComplementary colors sit opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green or blue and orange. When placed together, they create a visual contrast that is vibrant and eye-catching. Artists leverage this contrast to highlight areas of interest and to infuse their work with dynamic tension. This technique can guide the viewer's eye to focal points, enhancing the overall impact of the artwork.

Split-ComplementaryA split-complementary color scheme uses one color plus two colors next to its opposite on the color wheel. It's like a complementary color scheme but easier on the eyes, good for art that needs both contrast and harmony.

Triadic: This harmony involves using three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. Think of it as drawing an equilateral triangle on the wheel—those three points determine the triadic colors. When using a triadic color scheme, artists often choose one color to dominate, a second to support, and a third as an accent.

Square: Similar to the tetradic, but the colors are spaced equally on the color wheel. It's like drawing a square inside the color wheel and using those four points. This scheme is vibrant and works best if one color is dominant, and you use the others as accents.

Using color harmonies can make visual projects look better. This applies to paintings, room decor, and websites. It can set the mood, from calm and peaceful to energetic and exciting, depending on the harmony chosen.

Another option is to pick a limited color palette to work from. There is an example project using a limited palette here

The Psychology of Color

Before I move on from answering the question ”what is color theory” I wanted to introduce color psychology.

Color psychology is a field of study that analyzes how colors affect human behavior and emotions. As an artist, particularly one skilled in using colored pencils, an understanding of color psychology can be immensely valuable in creating works that resonate with viewers on an emotional level.

Let’s consider red, a powerful color that is often associated with passion, love, and energy. It's also linked to danger and urgency, which is why it's used for stop signs and fire engines.

When we use red in art, it can

  • draw the eye immediately to a focal point,
  • create a sense of movement,
  • or elicit a strong emotional reaction.

It's a color that can dominate a piece if not balanced correctly. As a colored pencil artist, using red in moderation or in combination with other colors can help temper its intensity.

Blue, however, is on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. We often see it as a calming, serene color, evoking a sense of peace and tranquility. It's also associated with stability and reliability.

In artwork, blue can...

  • create a calming effect,
  • provide a sense of depth,
  • or depict cooler light and shadows.

Blue can be used to great effect in backgrounds or areas you want to recede in the composition, offering a respite from more dominant warm colors.

Beyond these, there are other colors with their own psychological associations.

We often associate green with nature, growth, and renewal. It can provide a sense of balance and harmony in a piece.

Yellow is bright and attention-grabbing and can communicate joy, energy, and optimism. However, it can also be cautionary or straining to the eyes in large amounts.

Historically, we link purple to royalty and luxury, as well as mystery and spirituality.

As an artist, you can use these associations to guide viewers’ emotions and direct their focus. When you select your palette, you are not just choosing colors that match the subject, but also considering the mood and message you want to convey.

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