Colour Theory: The Hidden Meaning Behind Colour

Colour can be defined as the appearance that an object or substance has as a result of the reflection of and emission of light and is usually categorized by its measurement of saturation, temperature, hue and value. Saturation refers to the degree of spectrum purity the colour holds; the saturation of a colour changes when two compliments are combined. For example, red become less pure when green is added. Temperature relates to the warm or cool undertones in a colour. Red, orange and yellow or usually considered to be warm colours, while blue, green and purple are consider cool colours. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a colours; this means that one colour is not seen the same in light as it is seen in shadow.

Colour theory, then, is the study of practices that guide an artist’s ability to mix these colours in ways that will impact the visual effects of subjects and compositions. While colour theory does involve a substantial collection of theories, definitions, concepts and design applications, there are three basic categories that are logical as well as useful to artists: the colour wheel, colour harmony, and the context of how colours are used.

The colour wheel

All theories stem from the colour wheel, which was introduced by Issac Newton in the seventeenth century. Artists and scientists have continuously studied and designed variations on this concept and the validity of one format over another throughout history.  Realistically, all of these variations would be sufficient so long as their sequence of pure hues has merit.  The colour wheel itself it an abstract illustration that organize colour hues around a circle that then demonstrates the relationships between said colours such as primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

Primary colours are red, yellow and blue, and are the three pigments that cannot be mixed by a combination of other colours. Secondary colours are derived of two primary colours, and include green, orange and purple. Tertiary colours are formed by mixing a primary and secondary colour, and include yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Colour harmony:

Harmony can be related to a variety of arts subjects and refers to a pleasing arrangement of parts. In this instance, colour harmony involves a pleasing balance of colours, and engages the viewer by creating a sense of order. When an artwork is not harmonious, it causes viewers to be less engaged as it can feel chaotic and boring, whereas a harmonious colour palette will deliver visual interest as well a sense of order. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium: extreme unity leads to under-stimulation; extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. You need a balance.

There are multiple formulas that can help artists when trying to create colour harmony: analogous colours, complementary colours and natural colours. Analogous colours refers to three colours side by side on a 12-part colour wheel. Complementary colours refers to two colours which are directly opposite each other. Colour combinations found in nature provide a perfect departure point for colour harmony. If there is a photo of a flower that is red against a yellow and green background, they will be harmonious regardless of whether this combination fits into a technical formula.

Colour context:

Colour context refers to how different colours relate and interact together. For example, red appears significantly more brilliant against a black background and duller against an orange background. Placing one colour onto multiple backgrounds with differing undertones will completely change the way that single colour is shown, and maybe even make the illusion that it is in fact a different colour. The relationship between the value, saturation and warmth or coolness of a colour actually causes noticeable differences in our perception of colour.

What is the role of colour in art?

In art, colour has a profound effect on the viewer: it can be used for decoration, beauty, to create mood, to express and arouse emotions and the list goes on. It goes beyond just naming the colours when seen in an artwork, it is using the inherent qualities of the colour to guide description, articulation and interpretation. Colour affects the entire composition of an artwork, and acts to harmonize, unify, set a visual path, produce rhythm and create emphasis. If used correctly, colour – in collaboration with form, line, texture, pattern, composition and process – can one of the most significant tools to achieving effective and meaningful artworks.

Colour theory is vastly subjective, and different colours produce certain emotions and reactions from the viewer, both consciously and unconsciously. For instance, baby pink will affect emotions differently than salmon pink even though they’re both labeled as pink. This occurs as every colour has its own vibration that is similar to how different sounds have different wavelengths. In some cultures, such as Chinese, ancient Greek and Egyptians, the affect these vibrations had on the mind and body sparked a belief that colours had healing powers.

There is a plethora of choices that dictate the energy that is created by a chosen colour – the amount of colour, the tone, the combination of colours, as well as the hue, value, saturation and lightness or darkness of said colour. As an artist understands these principles, colour can completely transform an image, and play a major role in the overall well-being of the viewer. Furthermore, understanding colour principles allows artists to create their own sense of individuality by the choices they make. Interior designers, graphic designers, advertisers and artists all use specific colours to evoke certain moods or messages within their environments and evoke strong reactions from their viewers.

The amount of a single colour in an image can alter the energy created by producing stronger or weaker emissions of that energy. For example, an artwork that contains 5 different shades of a cool toned red with emit a different energy to a painting that has the same composition but uses every colour of the rainbow.

The tone of the chosen colour refers to how light or dark the colour is. Lighter tones, such as baby blue are soft and light, while darker tones such as ultramarine are heavier. Having a mixture of light, medium, and dark tones in an artwork will help move the viewers eye around the piece and will help to create an atmosphere that is desirable. If you’re looking for something whimsical and dream-like, you would not choose pure or fluorescent colours, as these would create the wrong atmosphere, you would choose pastels with touches of pure and fluorescent colours that draw viewers eyes around the work.

Lastly, the combination of colours that are chosen greatly affect the overall outcome of an artwork and the reaction it produces from viewers. Mark Rothko’s work is a great example of this. His artworks play with different combinations of colours, and they all have their own voice and meaning. Even a single dot of purple paint on a large yellow canvas can alter the outcome, meaning and composition of the entire piece.

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