{D} Decoding color theory

While you wait for your supplies to arrive, let’s go over the basics about color theory. This is a vast topic, and this post is by no means exhaustive. It is enough, though, to help you make a confident start with combining colors and understanding how they work together.

The color wheel.

color wheel

First, we have primary colors: red, yellow and blue. These are the three colors that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of any other colors. All the other colors are derived from these 3 hues.

Next, we have secondary colors: Green, orange and purple, which are created by mixing the primary colors.

Red + yellow = orange

Yellow + blue = green

Blue + red = purple/violet

And finally, we have tertiary Colors: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green. These colors are formed by mixing a primary and secondary color.

Warm and cool colors

COLOR_WHEEL_WARM_COOL_COLORSThere are a couple of reasons why it is important to understand warm and cool colors. First, by balancing the two in your painting, you automatically create a more harmonious overall color scheme. Second, you can use warm and cool colors to bring forward or push back elements in your painting. Cool colors appear further away and worm colors tend to look closer. And third, knowing your warm and cool colors means that you won’t inadvertently mix mud.

If you divide the color wheel into half, you will have the warms – reds, oranges and yellows on one side and the cools – purples, blues and greens on the other. Mix up some colors and see how many lovely shades you can create. Some warm + cool colors make gorgeous browns too, but the only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting. So pull out your paints and a piece of paper and start mixing!

Easy color combinations

Understanding how colors work together harmoniously can help you to create effective color combinations. Each color choice has an impact on the energy of your art – an analogous scheme may evoke calm, while complementary colors evoke energy. Once you understand the basic theory behind effective color combinations, and how to use them to create harmony, experiment with breaking the rules and see what you think!

analogous_complementary_color_wheelA monochromatic color scheme is the use of one color in various hues and tints – e.g., cobalt blue, Prussian blue and Indigo.

Analogous colors are any three colors that are side by side on a color wheel – such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. Usually one of the three colors dominates the piece.

Complementary colors are any two colors that are directly opposite each other, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. These opposing colors create maximum contrast and maximum stability.

Tip: Extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.

Put this lesson to work: Creating your own color wheel and mixing colors is the best way to really learn how different colors work together. I encourage you to spend some time just mixing paints to see all the different colors you can create – and make sure to keep notes.

Share your findings with me in the comments!

Posted in Art Journaling and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Colors spell love for me. I do not have a single favorite because I want to fair to the spectrum that loaded with one shade prettier than the next.

    Last week I had been running the colors classification with my child to help her mix and match as she learns to paint this summer.
    Decoding the color theory comes in real handy when get our home painted. I did the drill a couple of years back 🙂

  2. Colour is such a pervasive part of everything we visually encounter in the world, that for many designers it becomes an intuitive choice. If you think back to primary/elementary school though, you’ll recall being told that there are three ‘primary’ colours – Red, Yellow, and Blue. We were all taught that any colour can be created by mixing these three colours in varying quantities. Understanding how colour is formed and, more importantly, the relationships between different colours, can help you to use colour more effectively in your designs.

    • Very true! And for those of us who do not have formal visual arts training, a refresher on color theory is important because we often forget what we learnt in elementary school!

    • I’m wondering if I should invest in one of those color mixing recipe books. I tend to wing it when mixing colors and love the outcome. But I’ve also never been too fixated on an exact shade…

  3. I’m so excited I found your site through the A-Z Challenge! I was looking for something fun to do for my artist date this week, and everything I came up with felt…meh. Mixing colors sounds like fun, and I might even try my hand at art journaling while following your blog!

    • I’m so glad you made it here Grace! Do tell me how your artist date went, and have fun creating an art journal. There’s a lot more information, tips and techniques coming your way through the month! 🙂

  4. More elaborative than my school 🙂
    I am not very good in painting but I am surely going to mix the colors. Besides I am going to keep these in mind while choosing marketing ads
    @thefuschialady from

  5. Pingback: Yummy color stories: Using color psychology and finding your color story in your art journal | Modern Gypsy

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