Intro to Color Theory

I'm a big fan of working with a limited palette. After spending several years improving my ability to see and draw, I was craving color. My early attempts to reintroduce it into my work came with mixed results. I couldn't always get the color I was aiming for, and even if I did I couldn't reproduce it. It felt like college all over again, when I neglected to take color theory because I didn't think it was important, and yet I kept mixing muddy colors - ah, youth! But this time I wanted to do things right. I took a few online classes and read a lot. I played with my paints and studied different palettes, figuring out what worked best for me, and I'm going to share some of that with you.


Let's start by discussing how color is constructed.


Color is composed of three parts: hue, value, and chroma.


Hue is the name given to a color to describe its location on the color spectrum owing to its particular wavelength.


Value is the relative quality of lightness or darkness in a color.


Chroma, or saturation, is the relative purity of hue present in a color.*


*These definitions come straight from one of my favorite texts, Color: A Workshop for Artists and Designers by David Hortung.


Now we can take those three components and apply it to my all-time favorite color model: the Munsell Color Sphere.

I like to imagine this as being a dissected planet. At the core, running from the North Pole to the South Pole is value. The North Pole is pure white, and the South Pole is pure black. Although this image shows the value scale broken into ten segments, there are actually an infinite number of grays.


Around the equator is our classic color wheel with all the colors of the visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and everything in between. Specifically at the equator, and on the outside of the sphere, this ring is where colors are most vibrant and pure. Let's choose a point anywhere along the equator, say for example, The purple-blue wedge shown above. If we travel north, the new purple-blues will remain saturated (strong chroma) but will get lighter since we're nearing the white of the North Pole. This results in tints, defined as the result of any color mixed with white. If instead we chose to move south from our starting point, the new purple-blues will still remain saturated but will get darker, resulting in shades, defined as the result of any color mixed with black.


That is a very cursory explanation of how color works. I really geek out at the mathematical beauty of this color model because it's logical and elegant. I've found over the years that I most enjoy teaching core foundational skills like drawing and color theory because once you have a firm grip on that, you can do anything.


Next time I'll talk a little about the science of color and how we perceive it.


If you're interested, I do offer color theory workshops, and please feel free to ask questions. I'll do my best to answer!


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