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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #16

This week's lesson concludes our investigation of color. In this last lesson I hope to tie up a few loose ends and have some further conversation about color and all of its intricacies.


There is no subject more difficult to talk about than color. This is because it is so personal. I am often asked to give formulas for color but there aren't any. Each artist must decide for themselves what colors they are to use in their work. It is a form of artistic self-expression and doesn't lend itself to a formula. I hope that in this series I have shown you a few ways that color will behave, but in the end it is you who must decide just how you want to make these colors and color combinations dance to the music on your canvas.

However, this is often taken as a sign that one need know nothing about color since it is all up to the artist. Nothing could be further from the truth for one might well decide what words to put to a piece of music, and he might well be able to hum the tune he wishes to accompany those words, yet without acquiring the skill to play the music on some instrument, all is for nothing.

What we can safely say is this: it's not enough for you to decide to express yourself in color, or in any other medium. You must also know how to express yourself, and this is the equivalent of saying that you must know how to paint before you can express yourself.

Don't rely on color alone. There's so much else in art. Learn all you can. Not only how to mix colors, and how to apply paint with brush, palette knife, flitgun, or cake-decorator. You have to know the esthetic concepts, the techniques, and not merely the latest ones, but the older ones as well. What we know is based on what we have learnt. What you will know must also be based on what man has learned over a period of long years. You are but a link in an endless chain. Be a strong link.


Self-expression is a term introduced quite recently. The term has been spread and popularized all over the world to such an extent that a great many people have become keenly interested in expressing themselves. Many attempt to do so in some form of art. This conscious trying is what causes difficulties. Self-expression must be natural, unconscious, or subconscious, the way it existed for centuries, without having had a name applied to it.

Artists of the past did not try to express themselves. They expressed themselves without any deliberate effort, in their works. Their subjects, colors, techniques all revealed their innermost personalities. You hear about the "mysterious smile" of the Mona Lisa. That smile isn't hers; it's Leonardo's own smile. He painted every male and female face, except the thirteen men in The Last Supper, with exactly the same smile. The Mona Lisa isn't a portrait at all. It's a standardized face, the kind Leonardo da Vinci liked, without any individuality. The master expressed himself, not the woman.

Didn't Domenicos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (The Greek), express himself, his early youth in his native Crete, in the elongated, vividly colored images of saints, martyrs, Jesus, the virgin, the Count of Orgaz, and his equally elongated portrait of Cardinals? Didn't he express himself when he painted himself among other people participating in the scene?

Didn't Rubens express himself, without any effort, in his plump, prancing, baby-faced, but mature women; in his strong, fat men, and bronzed warriors? Didn't Rembrandt express himself in the tender, completely human forms in which he depicted biblical, mythological scenes forbidden by law in his Protestant Holland? Didn't Frans Hals, Rembrandt's fellow countryman, express himself in the superficial, boisterous portraits and group portraits, in which he treated human beings with as much emotion as he had for silverware, fruits, and a mug of beer?

None of these artists had ever heard of self-expression. None of them ever made an effort to be "different" or sensational. Each of them just happened to be different, and this fact is expressed in the works of all important artists. They had fewer colors, smaller brushes, but just as many personal problems and complexes as we have.

Despite the smaller number of available colors, the works of these masters can be quickly recognized by an experienced person. Each artist had different color combinations, different esthetic concepts, different likes and dislikes. We analyze not the artists, but their works. We study their methods, their ideas, the novelty, originality of this or that feature of each. We don't know all about those artists; often enough, we know very little of their personal lives. It is their works of which we know.


As we have said, we must learn the languages of art of which color is one. For that reason, I feel a need to include a glossary of color terms to help the beginning (and not too few intermediate) artist. Print it off and keep it at hand. It may serve you well when the need arises.

Acrylic    A man-made, synthetic material used in fixatives and polymer (plastic) colors.
Aerial perspective    Formerly applied to the effect of distance, weather, and light on the appearance of scenery and objects. Color perspective is the correct, now generally employed, term. Aerial perspective refers to the distortions of lines and colors in scenery or objects viewed for a high-flying airplane.
Aquamedia, or Aqueous media    See Watermedia.
Aquarelle    Any watercolor in which pigments are mixed with gum arabic; applied to transparent watercolors. Also, a painting done in such colors.
Atmosphere   Literally, the mass of air surrounding the earth. In art, the visible effect of air, weather, and light on scenery and objects. Figuratively, the general mood of a work of art.

Baroque    The name of the asymmetrical, often vehement, art and period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. The word is derived from barrueco, Spanish word for an odd-shaped pearl.
Black-and-white  Pictures or drawings executed in black pencil, charcoal, crayon, or pen-and-ink. Also, a general term referring to fine prints: woodcut, engraving, etching, lithograph, etc., done in gray tones.
Brilliance    The degree of brightness found in colors, ranging from the zero brilliance of black to the maximum brilliance of white.

Casein  A white protein found in curdled milk; employed in waterproof glues and paints. Pigments mixed with casein are called casein colors. They become waterproof, even though applied with water.
Chemical colors An important group of artists' colors, prepared chemically. Such colors are often more uniform in quality and more permanent than colors derived from natural pigments.
Classicist or Classic Revival   The period of art from the second half of the eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth, based on the ideology of the French Revolution, reviving the idealized proportions and images of ancient Greece, often in a theatrical manner.
Color perspective  The correct term for what used to be called Aerial perspective.
Complementary colors   A pair of contrasting colors which, when mixed in the right proportions, gives a neutral gray. In physics, such colors are combined into white when passed through a crystal prism. In everyday life, we see complementary colors when we look into a strong light, such as the sun or an electric sign, then suddenly turn toward a darker surface, on which we see the same shapes, but in totally different hues.
Composition  The design which holds a work of art together as an inseparable unit.
Cool colors  Whitish blues and greens are called cool, because they remind us of ice.

Earth colors  A large and important group of colors - the earliest known to man - prepared from "earth", that is, from various iron ores and oxides. Earth colors are permanent; they are low priced, because such pigments are found in most parts of the world.
Enamel  A vitreous (glasslike) substance made in any color. Used for coating bricks - in ancient times - and later used on pottery; now, popular on glass, metal, and jewelry.
Encaustic  A very ancient medium for painting; pigments are mixed with molten wax, applied while hot.
En grisaille   A painting executed entirely in gray tones; popular in the Classicist period as an underpainting.
Extender  A white paste, made of marble dust, used for heavy applications of paint in any medium. Also called modeling paste.

Facade  The front view of a building, usually where the main entrance is situated.
Flamboyant  Flamelike decorations, referring to the Late Gothic style, with its restless, wavy ornaments. Also anything of a flashy style, in any form of art.
Fresco  Painting in watercolor on freshly spread, still moist, plaster. The pigments become chemically fused with the plaster.

Genre  Painting or sculpture depicting an everyday story that has nothing to do with religion, mythology, or history. Highly favored by the ancient Romans, it was reintroduced by artists of the seventeenth century, in Protestant countries, especially Holland.
Gesso  Plaster (whiting) mixed with a binder, such as linseed or polymer, used as a ground for painting or for creating reliefs.
Glaze  A glasslike coating applied to pottery; also, any transparent coat, or layer of paint, in the fine arts.
Gothic  The period of the late Middle Ages, featuring pointed arches, finials, and flying buttresses. The term was first employed by Italian Renaissance artists, in a derogatory sense.
Gouache (gwash)   Opaque watercolor; or a painting done in this medium.
Graphic arts  All prints made by artists in restricted, numbered, individually signed editions. Also used in reference to the craft of printing and publishing.

Heraldic  Referring to symbols, designs, and colors of coats-of-arms.
Hue  The name of a color. Synonymous with color. Red, blue, green, brown, pink, etc., are hues or colors.

Illumination  Decorations in gold, silver, and bright colors in manuscripts. Illuminations may, but need not be combined with miniatures.
Impasto  A thick application of paint in a work of art. Formerly only possible in oils; now, with extender or an underpainting white, any medium can be used in impasto.
Intensity  The strength of a color, usually as compared with gray.

Linear perspective  The visual appearance of lines and shapes as distorted or changed by distance and viewpoint. Receding lines, diminishing sizes, parallel lines converging, circles turning into ellipses are features of linear perspective.

Medium  1. The substance with which pigments are mixed - water, oil, casein, wax, etc. 2. The ingredients added to various colors in order to make them more or less fluid, to cause them to dry faster or slower, etc. 3. The material through which an artists expresses his ideas and concepts, such as bronze, marble, enamel, aquarelle, and so forth.
Mineral colors  The most expensive group of artists colors, prepared from minerals, metallic elements, such as cadmium and cobalt. Bright and permanent.
Monochrome  Anything done in one color, or shades of one-and-the-same color. Opposite of polychrome.

Oil colors or Oils  Pigments mixed with linseed or poppyseed oil.
Opacity  The quality of not allowing light to pass through an object or material. The opposite of transparency.
Organic colors  Pigments derived from animal or vegetable substances; usually not permanent. Not recommended for artists.

Pastels  Pigments compressed into sticks; also, the work done with them. Pastel pictures are considered paintings, and are grouped with watercolors, as a rule.
Pigment  The coloring matter, which, mostly in powder form, is used in paints.

Saturation  The degree of intensity of a color; its freedom from any mixture; its full strength.
Sfumato  The soft, gradual blending of colors into each other, believed to have been introduced by Leonardo da Vinci in his Mona Lisa.

Tempera  Pigments prepared with the white of egg, or the whole egg as a binder. Applied with water, tempera is a water medium; applied with varnish and turpentine, it is oil tempera.

Underpainting  A simplified painting done on the support, then glazed over to obtain the final effect. Old Masters used tempera underpaintings; present-day artists often prepare an underpainting in tempera, casein, or in underpainting white. Glazing is done on oils or in polymer colors.

Value The relationship of any color to white - the lightest - and to black - the darkest - color we know.

Warm colors  Reddish, yellowish colors are called warm as they remind us of fire and flame.
Wash  A transparent coat or layer of color, used with water.  

This will pretty much end this discussion on color. I hope that you have enjoyed the series and have received some benefit from our study. Next week we will launch into a new series. I always look forward to a new series and hope that you will join me.