Basic Color theory

A little basic color theory wil help you to make your first improvements in painting. On one hand, it's about taste and subjective judgement, but at the same time it's really a kind of science. Check here for an more poetic approach to color, Goethean color theory), and scroll down for direct painting tips. Click here to find a guide on mixing colors.
Mastering Color - click here for more info.

Click here for info

The most important thing in learning color theory is: learning to see. Someone has to tell you how and where to look. Recently I found a basic color theory course that offers exactly this help: a step-by-step visual course with visual aids for your own study, for every step you learn. Once you know how and where to look, the colors of your painting will become easily manageable. Click on the picture, or scroll down for more - there's basic color theory on this page, and on the bottom more info on the recommended course.

The color wheel

Color Wheel

You already know the basics of color theory once you know the color wheel. In this wheel there are three colors you can't mix: red, yellow and blue (indicated by the arrows outside the wheel). On the color wheel, you can see how you can mix the other colors with them. If you pick two colors that are close to each other on the color wheel, they'll mix into the color in between. So, red and yellow mix to orange, magenta and blue mix to violet, yellow and blue mix to green - check here for examples. Sometimes red is replaced by magenta (strong pink), which gives a slightly different mixing result. If you like pure violets, magenta is a better option.

When you take two colors that are further apart, the colors will be more muddy. And when you mix two colors that are opposite in the color wheel, the result will be greyish-black. The figures on the wheel indicate, what colors visually 'balance each other out'. They're good base colors, for starting a painting.


Contrasting colors are colors opposite in the color wheel. They make each other look stronger, because they summon up each other. Grey accents on a red brick wall will take on a blue appearance - not only to your eye, also to a digital camera. Check here for a visual example of this kind of contrast.

These are contrasting colors:

Yellow and blue-violet

blue violet

Orange and cobalt blue

cobalt blue

Vermillion-red and turquoise

Vermillion red

Magenta and green

contrasting green

The funny thing is: if you mix these colors, they destroy each other - they turn into a muddy-blackish grey. When you have a pretty strong yellow, and add violet, the paint color can seem to look lighter than before because the power of the yellow is broken. But side by side, they make each others color stronger. It works in all kinds of colors, no matter if the colors are strong or really weak. So:

  • If the contrast is too strong (shouting colors that hurt the eye), add a bit of one color to the other and vice versa, they'll tone down and become bearable
  • The blackish grey, mixed from contrasting colors (that are in the same painting) makes the best black for that painting.
  • If you want to have a pure white on a red background, add just a little bit of the same red to it, to prevent it from taking on a green appearance
  • Brown accents on a blue background will look warm and radiating, because the "orangeness" is pulled forward by the blue.
  • Grey accents on warm reds or red-browns will look either fresh and cool blueish, or greenish (depending on the kind of red)
  • Check here for more on contrast


example of a red car

When you see a colored object, not all parts of it are equally dark. Some parts are highlighted, others are in the shade. This light-and-darkness is called "value". The easiest way to paint a red car, is to take black, red and white. Carefully analyze the car: where do you see light spots, where the dark spots? For the darker spots you mix some black through the red, for the highlights, you add much white. Hazy bits have some more grey. But too much grey will take away the color. More advanced painters will use a mixed grey or a dark green by the way - but for learning value, black is OK.

A car is difficult of course, so maybe it's better to start with something more simple, let's say a red cubicle. (in fact: this is one of the excercises you can find in the color theory tutorial on the bottom of this page). Scroll down for this dvd-course on basic color theory. The same thing goes for a wall color: one kind of paint color won't look the same under different lighting conditions. So, in a darker room you need to use lighter colors than in a light room, to get the same color effect. You can even use this feature to suggest light that's not even there, if you like.

Another thing with value: all hues have their own value. Yellow is a light color, and violet is dark one. So, making yellow dark may need some extra yellow ochre or brown to bridge the gap to black. But now we're moving from basic color theory to more advanced.


Saturation means, how much color is there in you colors? A cadmium or phtalo red straight out of the tube will be very saturated. If you use it pure, the other colors on your painting need to be very saturated too, to keep the balance. This is fine when you like bold colors - but if it gest to loud, you need to de-saturate. For de-saturating colors, you add grey, or a contrasting color and white. Mixing your own greys, from the colors on your palette, make better greys than just black-and-white.

Color balance

Color balance is about a sense of equilibrium. In realistic painting, colors need to be in balance. If the reds are strong, the blues should be strong too, unless you want the red to look artificial or fiery. Really strong blues in sky or water only look nice, if there's warm orange in the painting too - if not, it will look artificial. There's not fixed recipe for this - just try to look at your painting and "sense" if it's in balance. This is a matter of educated guess, but you can calculate a bit. If one color is too strong, you can either make the other one stronger too, or tone the strongest one down.

Basic color theory tutorial

Mastering Color - click here for more info.

Mastering Color by Richard Robinson

The most important thing in learning color theory is: learning to actually see colors. I found a good course that can help you in this. Before learning hue, value and saturation you'll first learn to actually see and define colors, and the way they optically interact.

This is done with the help of great visuals and a few seemingly simple but very effective tools. The course is in DVD and printables - both contain excellent and unique visuals and color exercises. With this course, beginners can get to semi-advanced in a limited timespan. This course is actually praised by people who have been painting for more than ten years. But due to Richard's teaching capacities, it's an entry level for beginners as well.

Richard was a graphic designer before he started painting, and graphic designers know color and photoshop like no other creative professions. When he started to teach painting, and develop his own lesson plans, he researched all the major color theory methods around, and composed that into his DVD course on color. Richard's paintings show that he really understands and loves the light, which gives his realistic painting style a very contemporary touch

The course is available in downloadables and ready-made dvd and printing. It consist of 2 hours DVD, text and pictures, and a very good set of tools, that really enable quick learning.

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