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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #7


Have you ever looked at the glowing orange setting sun? When you look away, you see purple and green suns jumping in front of you. Similar spots act like jumping beans of diverse dark hues, when you turn toward a shaded wall, after having looked at a bright sunlit building. Notice what happens when you stare at a brilliant neon sign for a few minutes at night. When you turn toward the dark sky or toward a dark building, you'll see a shape similar to that of the illuminated sign, or to its brightest feature, only in a different color. These spots and shapes are called after-images. Among the most memorable ones I've ever seen were purple and green sailboats floating in the sky, after I had gazed at a couple of white sailboats, brilliantly illuminated by the sun against a cloudless summer sky, on the bright blue Mediterranean Sea off North Africa.

According to physicists, the colors of after-images are the complementary colors of the original objects. Two colors which give white when combined through a prism are called complementary colors. Greenish-yellow and blue are a pair of such complementaries. Since there are countless colors, there must also be countless complementaries. Let the physicist pair them all. Artists, as a rule, merely see the colors of the actual objects.

The question is: should we, can we, paint such after-images? One celebrated artist who did paint them was Vincent van Gogh. He employed swirling brush strokes, many colors, and, in a later period, he painted spots in the sky. We know from Vincent's letters to his brother, Theo, that his aim always was to paint exactly what he saw, and every now and then he reported with great satisfaction that he had succeeded in doing just that. We must assume that he painted the dark spots in the bright sky because he saw such spots. He literally saw them, even though he knew they weren't actually in the sky. He also saw swirling forms in the almost tropical sunlight of the Arles region, where he lived.

This doesn't mean that we ought to paint such spots, too. We'd only be imitating Vincent van Gogh. But the after-image effect can inspire us to select our colors according to the fact that a very brilliant form might be repeated elsewhere in a very dark color, and thus give the onlooker a sense of life, a feeling of vibration. Surely, a bright sail will look even brighter if you paint the sky just a little darker next to it, and if you paint a less bright sail next to it, or if you paint a dark spot, perhaps a clump of land with dark green trees, in the same picture.


Most painters know the difference between two kinds of yellow; between cobalt, ultramarine, and phthalo blue; between alizarin crimson and cadmium red; between a blue-violet and a red-violet; a yellowish orange and a reddish orange, and so on. But we remember colors the way we remember anything else: vaguely, often incorrectly. There are so many shades of so many hues that it's literally impossible for anyone to recollect each of them.

A smart seamstress doesn't go to a store to purchase a piece of material to match a specific color without carrying a swatch of the required color with her. We recall with certainty only the names of colors, and the fact that they are dark, or light, very dark, or very light. As for color perspective, we recollect only that distant hills that we have seen were violet in tone. It's especially difficult to remember changes in colors caused by illumination.

Practically any artist with modest experience knows how to paint an ordinary little landscape, with a bright blue sky, white clouds, brown and green ground, a few trees, and a red farmhouse. Depicting a more definite theme from memory, for example an early morning scene, a late afternoon scene, or a landscape as it looks just before a shower, is far more complicated. Usually, when such scenes are painted from memory, the sky, the ground, the trees don't go with each other. Such paintings remind me of a clown dressed in striped trousers, highly polished boots, a torn sweater, a patched up lumberjacket, a tophat, and a green umbrella. It's fine for a clown, of course, but you wouldn't want to be caught dressed like that.

Unless you are truly experienced at painting from memory, or unless you don't mind working like an amateur, make on-the-spot sketches in pencil and in color. Use watercolor, casein, crayon, but have something to refresh your memory when you paint a serious picture. Above all, try to return to the place later and compare your finished, or nearly finished, painting with the actual scenery.

One of the problems of memory-colors is a lack of variety and accidental flaws, peculiarities you always find in nature, but cannot invent. No wall, no door, roof, rock, tree, or road is perfectly clear, clean, and undamaged. You notice and paint these odd features when working from observation, but you forget them, or misplace them, when painting from memory. An experienced artist can immediately tell whether you had painted a picture from life or from memory. A sound combination of on-the-spot sketches, notes, photographs, and memory will help you paint successfully, and in a professional style.


In his endless search for causes, reasons, explanations, and in his equally endless hope of finding answers to all questions and meanings in all phenomena, man must have stumbled on meanings of colors at an early date. Didn't a blue sky imply a pleasant day? Didn't dark clouds announce a storm or rain? Wasn't the green pasture more pleasing to the eye than the dried-out, dirty-brown vegetation? Wasn't red the color of blood? Wasn't white the purest possible color? Didn't darkness frighten people? Didn't the radiant sun resemble a huge disk of gold?

Later on, certain colors became associated with facts, events, ceremonies, titles. What may surprise us is to find that some colors have different meanings in various parts of the world.


We have ample evidence that colors began to have special meanings a very long time ago, and that those meanings were clear to the entire population. One of the most famous edifices of antiquity, the Ziggurat of Ur, built between 2300 and 2180 B.C. in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, consisted of four main stories. The first story, rising from a white court, was black, symbolizing the underworld; the second was red, representing the earth; then came a blue shrine with a gilded top, symbols of heaven and the sun. We cannot be sure these colors were applied at the time the Ziggurat was erected; they may have been added later, during a reconstruction. Nor have we absolute proof, right on the spot, of the meaning of the colors.

Judging by the use of similar colors elsewhere, though, there can be no question of an accidental, or whimsical juxtaposing of colors. Those hues were selected for symbolical reasons.


Most colors have several meanings, but they are closely connected with each other. Here are a few examples:

  • Blue stands for sky, heaven, and water.
  • Green may also be water, but it generally means hope, the color of spring, the renewal of life, feed for animals, and thus, food for humans. Green also means poison, because arsenic, known in most ancient times, is green, and so are many poisonous sulphates. In more recent times, many poisons were manufactured in green powder form, in order to differentiate them from flour or sugar. Green also symbolizes jealousy, and fear, both of them deadly poisonous emotions.
  • Red is the color of blood; hence, it represents courage, sacrifice.
  • Black is death, the underworld, mourning, desolation.
  • White is purity, chastity, but it's the color of mourning in the Far East. Isn't white as pure, or as empty as black? It's also the color of surrender, because a piece of white on a pole could be seen from a great distance, and could not be mistaken for any kind of flag. White means cowardice, too, because some people surrender for no other reason than to save themselves.
  • Gold or yellow means the sun, sungod, wealth. Yellow, however, also represents envy, treachery, cowardice. A yellow flag on a ship signifies contagious disease. In the Western world, yellow is the symbol of a certain type of sensation seeking, destructive journalism, because the most vicious kind of news was printed on colored (yellow) paper to incite the curiosity of the public.
  • Purple is emblematic of rank and authority. It's derived from the ancient, expensive dye prepared from the purple fish (purpura in Latin, porphyra in Greek). Purple robes were worn by Roman emperors and, later, by high ranking prelates of the Christian church.
  • Scarlet, a yellow-red hue of very high saturation, is also a sign of dignity and high rank. Originally, it was a kind of Persian broadcloth, used for tents and flags. The textile was often dyed this particular red and, eventually, the name of the cloth became synonymous with the color. Scarlet, however, is also applied in an opprobrious manner, to women of ill repute. This association is due to Revelations XVII, 1 - 6. Blue, scarlet, purple, and gold are the colors of the priests' garments, as listed in Exodus.
  • Gray means colorless, figuratively as well as literally.

As you can see, a color is unlikely to have one rigid meaning. actually, it may be more accurate to say that a color has a variety of connotations - or implied meanings - which the viewer may think of consciously or unconsciously.

Symbolical paintings are not as fashionable today as they used to be. Still, colors have their connotations, and most people have learnt these connotations in their childhood, just as they learn prejudices and superstitions. A great many buildings have their fourteenth floor right above the twelfth, because countless persons consider thirteen an unlucky number, and would not live on the thirteenth flood, or in room number thirteen. To many people, black is invariably the color of death. An artist may or may not be superstitious; he may not believe in actual meanings of colors; but he ought to consider color connotations when he paints. The generally accepted meanings of colors often have a distinct bearing on one's liking, or disliking a painting.

At this point I will let you mull over what we have said, but just briefly. I expect to list another lesson in just a day or two. I stop here because we next discuss the psychology of color. This is a bit of a complex section and I want to give it to you all in one setting. I sincerely hope that you are using these lessons in your everyday painting sessions. You ARE painting every day aren't you? The finest watercolorist I ever knew painted 10 watercolors a day, every day. Repetition is the best formula for art.