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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #13


A good artist can paint a picture on any surface, in any size, from an ivory miniature to a huge wall or ceiling. He can make the picture look like a real scene of nature: humans, animals, in any kind of action, cities by day or by moonlight, fruits, vegetables, articles of any sort. He can paint pictures with no describable or obvious meaning or theme, just for the sake of decoration. Whatever his purpose, the painter works with colors and he has to know how to apply and how to organize those colors so well that the final result should be exactly what he had planned. A composer must know not only how to jot down the main idea of his composition - be it an old-fashioned melody or a modern work of total dissonance. He must also know the sound and capability of every musical instrument he plans to employ; he must know when, where, and how best to utilize these sounds in order to achieve the right final effect when an orchestra performs his composition

The painter, too, has to know the proper technique of his medium. But he also has to know what each color, each shade, and every combination of these, can do for him. The painter, like the composer, has a number of ingredients and tools with which to work. If we have sonatas, symphonies, fugues, operas, operettas, and tone poems, we also have landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, still lifes, and figure paintings. above all, we are not supposed to merely copy someone else's work. We have to create our own, and we have to put something of ourselves into our creations.

The painter, like the composer, has to study all possible effects that are already known, so that he might be able to achieve something original. The first step in painting is the testing of simple, everyday effects, and trying to figure out how these are obtained, what they mean to artists in general, and to yourself in particular, and how they can lead to the understanding of more impressive, more complex effects.


You can perform a simple and valuable color test with a package of assorted construction paper, and a few pieces of real or artificial fruit. The paper comes in 9" X 12", and 12" X 18" sizes, usually fifty sheets in ten different colors to the package. It's available in many stores at very little cost and it's most helpful in trying out color combinations for any purpose. Also buy three golden apples, or bright yellow bananas, three red apples, and three green pears.

Set red, yellow, and green construction paper next to one another on a table, and place one yellow fruit on each sheet. The fruit will look "normal" on the red paper, unimpressive on the yellow, and quite brilliant on the green sheet. Replace the yellow fruit with red apples. Now, the red apple is hardly noticeable on the red paper; it's bright on the yellow paper; while it looks flat, but jumpy, on the green paper.

Remove the apples, and put a green pear on each sheet. It's almost invisible on the green paper, extra bright on the yellow, and rather disagreeable to the eye on the red sheet. The brightness, the dullness, the jumpy, or disagreeable effects depend upon the shades of red, yellow, and green in the paper. It's a good idea to try the same fruits on lighter and darker shades of red, yellow, and green paper. You might as well try other colors, both in paper and fruits.

Don't observe only the general color effect. Consider the reflections in the fruits. Most fruits have a high sheen, similar to that of the human skin, and the colors of paper, background, or foreground are reflected in each fruit to a certain extent. The bottom of each fruit reflects the hue of the construction paper in about the same manner as if you mixed the color of the fruit with the color of the paper. Thus, the yellow reflection in a yellow fruit is hardly perceptible, but the bottom of the red apple turns orange, and the bottom of the green pear becomes yellowish on the yellow sheet. The red paper noticeably affects the yellow and green fruits, while the green paper alters the red and yellow fruits.

Continue the exercise by placing three different fruits on each sheet of paper, in the same arrangement. The visual effect is so dramatically different that you don't believe you're dealing with the same fruits. Try dark blue, light blue, pink, orange, gray, black, white, brown paper too. The changes will surprise you, if you've never seen such tests before.

The moment you place three different colored fruits next to each other, they also affect each other's hues. Depending upon the closeness of the items, and the sheen of their skins, they reflect each other as well as the colors around them. Even if you aren't a traditional artist, observe these effects, because they are exciting. Moreover, it's only after you've acquired sufficient knowledge that you can decide what to omit, what to retain, what to emphasize, what to subdue in your painting, no matter what your style and subject may be. Many beginners think it's a sign of individuality to omit not only small details, but major forms and color effects. Remember that you cannot learn shorthand before you know how to write correctly in longhand.

While working with paper of assorted colors, you can discover which goes well with all the articles you're testing. It's easy enough to achieve a strong effect by placing colorful items on a black background, but fine artists avoid such flashiness. Subtlety is as important in painting as in diplomacy, and the most obvious color combinations are not necessarily the best. A soft hue might bring out the variety of colors in your fruits in an esthetically satisfying fashion. I am talking about fruits because they're easy to obtain in practically identical colors and shapes, and because you can eat them after the test!!

The purpose of a test like this is to familiarize yourself with a number of facts valid in every type of painting:

  • The same hue appears to be different when surrounded by, or juxtaposed to, different colors.
  • Colors literally affect each other by reflecting hues that surround them, including natural, or artificial
    light, both of which cause considerable differences in all colors. The degree of such reflection depends upon the surface of the objects. The glossier an article, the brighter the reflection. A fuzzy peach doesn't reflect colors as much as a polished apple. A suede shoe or a dirty shoe, doesn't reflect colors and lights the way a highly shined shoe does.
  • Serious representational painting cannot be done without observing the diversity of hues in all items you depict. The understanding of colors and color effects is vital in nonobjective painting, too, but not in the same sense. There being no subject, no recognizable theme in such a painting, the colors have to speak for themselves.


According to dictionary definition, harmony is musical consonance, tuneful sound. Disharmony or discord is a combination of musical sounds which strikes the ear harshly; dissonance; noise of conflict, argument. There is a relationship between music and painting, expressed in similar terms. Composition exists in painting as well as in music; a composer can paint, depict a mood, or give an underpainting in music. On the other hand, a painting can sing with color, and have rhythm in its pattern of forms and hues. The word chromatic refers to music no less than painting. We have high and low colors, just like high and low notes.

In painting, harmony is the juxtaposing of colors which go well together. Disharmony is a combination of colors which clash with each other and appear to be jumping out of the picture. One is acutely conscious of such disharmony and wonders why the artist, the interior decorator, or anyone else should have assembled those colors.

Definitions are meaningful only to people with the same general knowledge. The most precise definition of a piano wouldn't be grasped by a member of a primitive tribe never in contact with a civilization in which the piano is an established article. As for colors, It's unquestionable that people in most parts of the world are aware of them. National costumes, folk arts of many kinds flourish in the darkest and furthest corners of the earth, in proof of a truly universal love for artistic expression. Love for art is normally as great as love for music and dancing.

There's also a great deal of similarity between color combinations, although designs and national motifs are often quite different. One nation can appreciate, and even imitate, the art of another nation or tribe, despite the ancient saying that tastes are different, or that one shouldn't argue about taste. We find ample evidence of the effect of Hellenistic art on the art of India, where it was carried by the victorious armies of Alexander the Great. The barbarians of northern Europe bought Greek pottery in ancient times. Tastes may differ, and change, but, generally speaking, the same kind of people accept certain standards of taste, even though they often object to any change in the prevailing taste.

Nature offers us many instances of lovely, harmonious color effects, and also many odd, absurd combinations of colors. The exquisitely beautiful plumage of hundreds of birds in the bird house of a big zoo serves as an inspiration for all artists, decorators, fashion designers. Consider, on the other hand, the parrot, with its loud, dissonant coloring. We deride a person who is "dressed like a parrot."

The easiest way to harmony in colors is to stick to shades of one-and-the-same color. I used to know a man who wore a blue suite, with a light blue shirt, blue necktie, black socks and shoes, a blue-gray fedora, one day. The next day, he'd show up dressed in a dark brown suite, buff shirt, brown tie, socks, shoes, and hat. He was harmonious all right, but without any distinction or elegance. I've known women, too, who felt secure only when each part of their apparel and accessories was merely another shade of the same hue.

True harmony may, and should, be found in different colors arranged in a pleasing manner, so that your eyes glide from one hue to the other without stumbling or without feeling jarred. Such harmony is often achieved by selecting different shades of several colors, some of higher, some of lower values. A cadmium red stripe looks jumpy between stripes of a very bright green. the same red, however, is quite harmonious between stripes of a medium, slightly grayish, green. And this is a much more interesting combination than, let's say, lighter and darker red, or lighter and darker green stripes would offer.


Cut 2 1/2' or 3" squares of the following sheets of construction paper or cardboard: cadmium red, yellow, orange, burnt sienna, black, ultramarine blue, and purple. Place them next to each other, in a row, in the order listed above. You'll find these seven squares quite pleasing to the eye.

Rearrange then as follows: cadmium red, black, yellow, purple, orange, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna. The colors are the same, but they appear to be jumping all over the place. Look at them for a few minutes, in a strong light, then turn away from the light. You'll see purple, green, and orange worms wiggling in front of your eyes! If you cut several of each square, you might arrange them in other sequences as well.

Another test requires a living person - man or woman - or a good, preferably life-size color picture of a man or woman, You'll need a number of different scarves, or swatches of textiles. Place a piece of textile around the neck of the person, close to the chin and cheek. Notice how the color affects his or her appearance. Each of the scarves or swatches will have a different effect on the same face. One color may turn a good complexion into an ugly or repulsive one, while other colors are flattering.

When you receive many compliments from your friends and acquaintances, you can bet that the color you are wearing is responsible for your success to a very large extent. And when the usual compliments are not forthcoming, look into the mirror, and see if another scarf, shirt, suite, or dress might not be the answer.

The total effect of your painting can be changed as easily as your appearance, just by changing one color. One bright hue is in the wrong place, or one dark spot where it doesn't belong, and everyone feels something is wrong with your painting. Any color combination can be transformed into a harmonious one by subduing a tone here and there; by making one hue warmer or cooler; by giving the picture an over-all glaze of the right shade. Only the parrot is helpless, hopelessly attached to its own feathers.


You want to decorate your home or office, and decide to furnish it according to a plan which includes colors as well as furnishings and equipment. Color has grown very important in every field. Kitchens and bathrooms were once drab. Offices once had light-buff walls, a brown, or maroon floor, dark furniture, gray cabinets. Now these rooms are colorful, designed by specially trained decorators.

I've already spoken of persons who believe that various shades of the same hue are safe and are a sound combination. Others, however, think that the oddest color combination becomes perfectly correct, if you repeat the color in other objects.

It's not the repetition of colors that make a good color scheme, but the arrangement, the massing of a few colors, where you place what, and how much of it. A good color scheme is the one in which nothing jars your eye. A few bright spots may enliven a dark, somewhat formal room, that's true. A room filled with nothing but bright spots, however, is a distressing hodge-podge. There's a very big difference between artistry and artiness.


Natural illumination is provided mainly by the sun. The moon merely reflects the light of the sun with a soft glow, which is harmless to the eye, although Old World superstition warns you not to gaze into the full moon, least you lose your mind! The stars never hurt your eyes. You can see fairly well by moonlight as your eyes become gradually accustomed to it; and you can behold a vast panorama on a clear, starlit night. You can paint the effects of moonlight, and straight from memory, based on observation, but you cannot paint by moonlight or starlight.


The power of the sunlight depends upon the season, the weather, the time of day, the much-talked-about pollution. Our large cities are constantly covered by smoke and dirt in the air, so that the sun, the moon, and the stars are never as bright over them as in the open country, especially in a dry climate, such as North Africa or Arizona.

The color of sunlight varies with the weather, and the time of day. On a cloudy, rainy day, everything is veiled by a grayish tone. The morning sun is a cool yellow; the noontime sun is a warmer yellow; the afternoon sun becomes reddish; the setting sun is orange, and casts an orange glow on everything it illuminates.


The light rays of the sun radiate in every possible direction, but we see only the rays that hit our planet. The sun, however, is at so colossal a distance from the earth, and our planet is so small, compared with the sun, that the rays of the sun reaching our globe are parallel as far as we're concerned. This means that the shadows cast by sunlight are all in the same direction on as large a section of the earth as we can possibly see. (Perhaps astronauts, hundreds of miles above the earth, can notice the fact that the shadows are not same beyond a certain perimeter.) Sunlight moves with the earth. thus, if you paint outdoors, especially during seasons when the days are shorter, shadows change considerably within a couple of hours. The light may come from the upper left side in the morning, so that shadows are on the right side of each object. By noon, the sun is almost directly above your head, causing objects to have small shadows only. By mid-afternoon, the light comes from the opposite direction and shadows are consequently reversed. They also grow longer and longer toward evening as the sun goes lower. If you make the mistake, quite common among art students, of finishing one part of your picture before going to the next part, you may find yourself doing just about the oddest imaginable thing. You will have a painting in which some shadows are on the right, others on the left, and still others in-between. I've seen this happen, especially in cityscapes: shadows under roofs, eaves, balconies, windowsills were different on every house! The correct procedure is to lay out all shadows and lights at the same time, when you believe they are most satisfactory from an artistic viewpoint. Paint them that way, regardless of the motion of the earth and the continuous changing of the shadows. Or work only for a couple of hours and return to the same place the next day, at the same time, and, naturally, in the same kind of weather. Shadows and lights change according to atmospheric conditions. They are clear and -sharp on a sunny day, hazy, indistinct on a cloudy day.


Who hasn't exclaimed "How beautiful!" at the sight of sunlight streaming into a room through a crack in the curtain or widowshade? A slanting shaft of such light illuminates billions of particles of dust dancing or floating in its path, from the window to the floor, where the light creates an image similar to the opening through which it enters the room. How can you paint so marvelous a sight? The answer is: observe and render the light without any exaggeration. The slightest overdoing will ruin the effect. The sunlight is something vibrating, ephemeral - a spirit, rather than a tangible substance. You feel like putting your hand into the light to see whether you could break it. Your hand glows in the light and its shadow is clearly seen on the floor. Don't paint such light as if it were a solid plank or beam of wood in a bright color. Show the opening through which the light comes and the spot where it hits the floor or where it hits any other object. Connect the two ends with a glazed, completely transparent tone that doesn't obliterate the space the light transverses, but merely make it visible. As you know, glazing is possible in any medium, but requires care and skill. It's a challenge worth accepting. Squint when observing the shaft of light. Compare the value of this light with the value of each object next to it: furniture, carpet, wall, whatever you may see in the room. The shaft of light is bright, comparatively, but not actually. In other words, such a light is not like an electric spotlight searching for planes in the night sky. The contrasts are gentle and mellow.


Sunset is one of nature's most gorgeous spectacles. It's one of the most universally appreciated splendors of the world, too. A sunset over a calm lake, with the countless hues of the sky reflected into the water, is especially breathtaking. Many an artist and Sunday painter has tried to render such a scene. It's difficult to paint the delicate hues, ranging from the palest yellow, through shades of green, turquoise, and violet, to orange, purple, and cobalt blue. It's a vast array of colors, and what colors! Yet the dazzling display is never gaudy. Subtlety is paramount in depicting a sunset. Don't copy picture postcards of sunsets. Such cards, at best, represent some horrible conflagration, the burning of Rome, or the Great Fire of Chicago. At worst, they're nightmarish or ridiculous.

The true colors of sunset are inspiring, not only because they represent a sunset, but because they point the way to abstract or nonobjective arrangements in painting. The extreme intensity and purity of the hues also pose a challenge to your technical ability and patience. The slightest mistake in colors makes your sunset muddy. Work with clean colors, clean oil, turpentine, water, or any other medium. Also watch objects silhouetted against the sunset sky, such as clouds floating in mid-air, the shoreline, perhaps a few tall trees. None of these objects is black or even a dark gray. They may seem to be dark against the glowing sky, but, actually, they're only a few shades darker than the sky itself. Don't paint them as if they were cut out of black paper. Show the three dimensional quality of each item by painting the edges illuminated by the glow of the last rays of the sun, very bright, but without leaving hard edges. The clouds, especially, have soft, fuzzy outlines, and what makes the clouds look dark is the fact that they are a cool gray-blue, whereas the backdrop, the sky, is vibrant with light hues. Practice painting sunsets over and over until you achieve subtle, yet rich colors. These will enhance your landscape paintings greatly.


Shiny metals are attractive to man in real life, and they are just as attractive in painting. There's something rich and enticing about all shiny metals, not only about gold and silver. Metal objects are especially fine for still lifes. Most beginners in art think that gold, silver, brass and chromium articles can only be painted with gold or silver paint. This belief is supported by the fact that metallic paints are available in art supply stores. Such metallic paints come in jars, powder, cakes, tubes, bottles, and in various media. Faced with the project of a still life containing highly polished metal utensils, the art student is ready to rush to the nearest art supply store for what he believes is an absolute necessary metallic color.

The fact is that metallic colors are manufactured for decorative purposes. You can paint a raw wood frame in gold or in silver. You might paint metallic stripes on doors, shelves, tables. And, naturally, such paints are excellent for giving your radiators a new look. But nobody will ever believe that such articles are made of real gold or silver.

Shiny metal objects are easily recognized by the way they reflect all colors and images in a somewhat silvery or golden tone, depending upon the basic color of the metal. They're also recognizable by the way they reduce the sizes of reflected forms and pictures, and by their very strong, sharp, shiny highlights. What we see in each metal is not really the metallic color by which we know them, but the colors they reflect and the manner in which they reflect them.

When painting such an object, observe the reflected images and hues, their comparative sizes, and more or less distorted shapes. The degree of distortion depends upon the form of the metal itself. Flat metals are almost like mirrors, and change an image only if the metal is not absolutely flat. Roundish shiny metal articles, however, - such as bowls, vases, or pitchers - distort images as drastically as distorting mirrors found in amusement parks do.

There's no trick to painting shiny metals. It merely requires acute observation and faithful rendering of whatever you see in such articles: every color, size, shadow, highlight, image, the peculiar kinds of distortions. A concave section of a silver vase reduces the size of an apple to the size of a cherry. A convex part of the same vase enlarges a cherry to the size of an apple. Highlights on metal are mirror images of the light source, such as the window, but the shapes of highlights depend upon the shapes on which they are seen. In gold or brass articles, all hues have a gold quality. In silver or chromium, everything has a grayish tone.


Painstaking observation of values is perhaps even more important in the rendering of reflections in water, especially when lights of one kind or another, such as illuminated windows or lamps, are involved. If your subject is a lake or river shore, decide which is lighter: the sky or the water. Normally, the water reflects the color of the sky, but rippled water changes the color considerably. Reflections in choppy, stormy water are never clear. Only the crest of waves reflect some of the sunlight or lamplight; the rest may be greenish brown or bluish gray. By sunlight, the water is likely to be somewhat darker than the sky; but toward evening, the sky may become darker than the water. Don't take anything for granted. Look, and look again.

Reflections of objects, such as houses, trees, bushes, persons are directly underneath the actual objects, seen in the same perspective. each reflected image is as far below the water line as the actual item is above the water line, provided that you are on a low shore. If you look at reflections from a higher level, a hill or a tall building, the reflected images may not be visible. Here, too, go by what you see. Although water can be mirror smooth for a while, it usually has ripples, at least close to your own shoreline, so that reflected images are not absolutely clear. The edges normally become zig-zaggy. You might paint the reflections fully, then pull your brush across the reflections in order to give them a feeling of wateriness. Make sure to ripple at least the bottom edges, which are, of course, reflections of the top part of each item, because images are turned upside down by water.

Colors in reflections are similar to the actual hues, but softer, slightly darker, as if a very thin green, blue, or gray veil had been thrown across the entire reflection. Reflections of the setting sun or of the moon are often painted, because they are attractive subjects. Such reflections are vertically below the sun or the moon, but never straight-edged. What you see are ripples, one ripple below the other, dancing according to the waves or ripples in the water, in a color similar to the reddish sun or the yellowish moon, but always a little less intense than the sun or the moon. The brightness of the rippled reflection can be enhanced by painting violet or purple spots on thin lines between ripples.