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[ Home: Color Theory & Mixing: 16 Lessons in Color Theory: Introduction ]
"16 Lessons in Color Theory: Introduction"
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Author: Roger_Elliot, Contributing Editor


In an age like ours, color is not the luxury it was in past centuries. We are inundated by manufactured color -- surrounded, immersed, swimming in a sea of color. Because of sheer quantity, color is perhaps in danger of losing some of its magic. I believe that using color in drawing and painting helps us to recapture the beauty of color and to experience once again the almost hypnotic fascination it once had for us.

Human beings have made colored objects since the earliest times, but never in such great quantities as now. In past centuries, colored objects were most often owned by only a few wealthy or powerful people. For ordinary people, color was not available, except as found in the natural world and as seen in churches and cathedrals. Cottages and their furnishings were made of natural materials -- mud, wood, and stone. Homespun cloth usually retained the neutral colors of the original fibers or, if dyed with vegetable dyes, was often quick to soften and fade. For most people, a bit of bright ribbon, a beaded hatband, or a brightly embroidered belt was a treasure to guard and cherish.

Everywhere we turn, we encounter human-made color: television and movies in color, buildings painted brilliant colors inside and out, flashing colored lights, highway billboards, magazines and books in full color, even newspapers with full-page color displays. Intensely colored fabrics that would have been valued like jewels and reserved for royalty in times past are now available to nearly everyone, wealthy or not. Thus, we have largely lost our former sense of the wondrous specialness of color. Nevertheless, as humans we can't seem to get enough color. No amount seems to be too much -- at least not yet.

But what is all this color for? In the natural world of animals, birds, and plants, color always has a purpose -- to attract, repel, conceal, communicate, warn, or assure survival. For present-day humans, has color even begun to lose its purpose and meaning? Now that we have this huge bulk of manufactured color, is its use mostly indiscriminate? Or is purpose and meaning still subliminally inherent in color as a remnant of our biological heritage? Is the pencil I write with painted yellow for a purpose? Did you choose to wear blue today for a reason?

And what is color? Is it merely, as scientists tells us, a subjective experience, a mental sensation that can only occur if three requirements are fulfilled: that there is an observer, an object, and sufficient light in the narrow band of wavelengths called the "visible spectrum"? It certainly is true that at twilight the world turns to shades of gray. Is the world really colorless, only seeming to become full of color again when we turn the lights on?

If color is a mental sensation, how does it happen? Scientists tell us that when light falls on an object -- for example, an orange -- the surface of the orange has the particular property of absorbing all of the wavelengths of the spectrum except that which, when reflected back to our eyes and processed through the visual system, causes the mental sensation we have named the color "orange". My writing pencil is coated with a chemical substance (paint) that absorbs all the wavelengths except that which, when reflected back to the eyes, is "yellow". Is the orange really orange? Is the pencil really yellow? We cannot know, because we cannot get outside of our own eye/brain/mind system to find out. What we do know is that when the sun goes down, color disappears.


Given sufficient light to perceive colors, scientists also tell us that the brain's reaction to colors seem to depend on the differences in thinking modes of the various sections of the brain.

Very bright, intense colors (and colors that shine and glitter) draw a response from the so-called "primitive" brain, the limbic system. This response is an emotional one, perhaps connected to our biological heritage of color as communication. For example, many people say, "When I get mad, I see red!" The inverse of this exclamation perhaps describes the situation whereby an intense red elicits an emotional, aggressive response.

The main role of the left hemisphere of the brain , is to tag colors with names and attributes, such as "bright blue", "lemon yellow", or "burnt umber", and to translate into words or emotional reactions to color.

Additionally, the left hemisphere is specialized for designating sequenced steps in mixing colors -- for example, "to mix orange, add yellow to red," or "to darken blue, add black."

The right hemisphere is specialized for the perception of relationships of hues, particularly for subtle linkages of one hue to another. Right hemisphere is biased toward discovering patterns of coherence, specifically toward combinations of hues that balance opposites -- for example, red/green, blue/orange, dark/light, dull/bright.

Right hemisphere has another important role in color: seeing which combination of colors has produced a particular color. Given a range of grays, for example, the right hemisphere sees which one is warmed with red, which one is cooled with blue.


Nearly everyone is interested in color, yet most people have surprisingly little comprehensive knowledge about it. We often take it for granted that we know enough about color to know what we like, and we feel that's sufficient. Yet pleasure in color, as in almost every subject, is increased by knowing something of the enormous body of knowledge about color.

Something odd happens when a student of drawing begins to add color to the gray, black, and white of drawing. No matter how satiated by our modern color-loaded surroundings, students focus on color as though seeing it for the first time, almost with the naive pleasure of children. And color in drawing does indeed add a tremendous emotional charge to drawing.

For the basic exercises we will begin next time we meet, you will need to buy a few new drawing supplies. I will add to the list of supplies as each technique is introduced. First, buy a set of colored pencils. "Prismacolor" is a good brand, but there are many others. I suggest the following colors:

Black, Sienna Brown, Vermillion,
White, Dark Brown, Violet,
Ultramarine Blue, Sepia, Slate Gray,
Cope. Blue, Burnt Umber, Sand,
Dark Green, Yellow Ochre, Warm Light Gray,
Flesh, Canary Yellow, Lemon Yellow,
Cream, Scarlet Red, Warm Gray Medium,
Magenta, Olive Green, Orange,

Also, buy six sheets of colored paper at least 9" X 12" or larger. Construction paper is fine, or you may prefer another type of paper. Any colored paper that is not too smooth or shiny will do. Avoid bright, intense colors. Choose instead soft green, gray, sand, blue, or brown. you will need a plastic eraser and a kneaded eraser. Buy a hand-held pencil sharpener, or a small knife if you prefer to hand-sharpen your pencils.

Prepare to have some great fun with color and to perhaps, understand it for the very first time....see you again...in just a couple of days. This will give you time to get the necessary supplies. Then we can move on...
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