Thursday, May 13, 2021

T&T Thursday


By Alex Zonis

Part 1

Let’s have the good news first: color can be learned! Great colorists of the past – Turner, Delacroix, van Gogh – used the science of color. Their color is no accident or chance.

There are numerous theories and approaches to color out there. Many are helpful and can be used for practical purposes with great success. We will discuss one of them - Color Theory by Johannes Itten. Itten is regarded as a father of modern color theory. Some agree and some argue, but the bottom line is that Itten came up with a system to make using color manageable.

Going back to centuries past we want to mention Isaac Newton who discovered that visible light can be split in color bands using a prism and Count Rumford who discovered that those bands can be combined again to make something close to white light. (More on visible spectrum in Wikipedia) - 

Then it was discovered that an object appears a certain color when white light strikes it because the color of the object is reflected and the remaining light rays are absorbed.

These are fundamentals. More interesting discoveries were made, but what is important for us here is the discovery of subtractive primary colors: red, yellow and blue. This is big! Everything else flows from here. In ideal world adding any two of these primary colors produces a secondary color:

Red + Yellow = Orange

Yellow + Blue = Green

Red + Blue = Purple

Basic Theory, Color Equations and Triads

In basic color theory the primary color cannot be mixed or made from other colors. All other colors can be created from the primaries. Our color equations look like this:

Note 3 primaries, 3 secondaries, and 6 tertiary colors. They are organized into 3 basic types of triads (primary triad, secondary triad and 2 tetriary triads). These triads make a complete color wheel of 12 colors. If we take these colors and position them in a circle, we will get a simplified color wheel!

Now this begins to look like something we have seen before. How many of us have an object like this among our art supplies, probably stuffed in the back somewhere because it made irritatingly little sense?

Perhaps now it will make a little more sense! Dig it out and take a look - there is some really neat information on it!

If you are like me, you probably scrolled ahead, past the theoreticals, and are looking for good practical stuff.  This is the good practical stuff – color schemes!

Color Schemes

Leafing through your sketchbook you will likely note the similarity of colors on your various sketches. We tend to find something that works for us, satisfies our aesthetics to some degree, and we then run with it.

How can we expand our vision on colors, get out of out boundaries of habit? Regardless of the media we use - paint, markers, color pencils - we can use the logical relationships of colors on the color wheel to control and expand our palette. This is where color schemes come into play.

Color schemes are based on color similarities or differences, and usually feature a dominant color. 

  • Color schemes based on similarity are monochromatic (one color in different values) or analogues (colors that are neighbors on the color wheel). 
  • Color schemes based on difference are composed of complementary or triadic relationships, they are opposites or triangles on the wheel.

An exception is a pure color contrasted with a neutral – white, gray or black.

Here are some example sketches for each of the 8 color schemes:

Note how much variety of middle tones Don uses in this sketch. This variety creates the richness even though the drawing is monochromatic.

This is my sketch, I use an analogous color scheme from dark red-brown through orange to yellow. This set of colors creates harmony. One speck of green punctuates this harmony, but we will discuss this in the next chapter.

Complementary color schemes usually have an added benefit of simplifying the image, like here a fairly complex market scene depicted in yellows and purples appears calm and relaxed.

Many have seen this amazing yellow plane at Architectural Artifacts at our sketch crawl. What makes this sketch successful is its pure Triadic color scheme executed in primary colors. Yes, I made the brick wall more red and designs on the rug more blue to make the triad more obvious.

An interesting variety results when we can split a complement into two colors. The image become richer and more complex.

Notice how yellow, yellow-orange and orange are balanced out by blue-violet shadows and recesses give the eye a resting point.

When I teach color class, students find that this color scheme the most puzzling. That is until they realize that this is just two pairs of complements that are adjacent or next to each other on the color wheel. Like here:  yellow and violet is one pair, and yellow-orange and blue-violet is the second pair. That's all there is to it, complicated name non-withstanding.

See how the main colors of this sketch red-orange, yellow, blue-green and violet are positioned on a color wheel. They form a rectangle, this makes it a tetradic color scheme. Tetradic is a well balanced scheme, and this quality can be used to balance a composition.


  1. Thank You for this very interesting article!
    I particularly enjoyed discovering an example for each color scheme!!

  2. This was so helpful, thank you! I got out my color wheel and read along with the article, and examined each sketch. Really insightful information for me.