What Is Color? | An Introduction To Color For Artists

What Is Color? : An Introduction

Color is a fascinating topic in art and is fun to explore but color is seldom understood as well as it should be. Over the next several posts you’ll have a few mind-blowing moments as you gain a much better understanding of what is color and how to use it in your artwork.

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What is Color?

This is a question I get often and while my answer has gotten more refined over the years it’s still a complicated topic to understand. Most of us already have an idea of what color is but unfortunately we have been taught to think about color incorrectly.

An intelligent discussion about color will require us to delve into science just a bit, but I promise to keep the scientific points to a minimum and relevant to your understanding color. For all my student artists out there, I’ll attempt to define color in a single statement:

Color is your brain’s interpretation of light waves that have come into contact with your eye.

Yep, your brain makes it all up! There are many different types of electromagnetic radiation that our bodies come into contact with daily, but our brains don’t react to them equally.

Vision is our body’s reaction to electromagnet radiation of a certain wavelength (visible light spectrum). When we see something, it’s the combination of our eyes receiving the light and our brain fabricating the mental image. This is precisely why you don’t see a thing when you turn out the lights. If there is no light to strike your eye there is no vision to be made!

A Brief History of Color

As an artist you need to be able to mix colors in a predictable way and understand the colors that you are seeing in front of you. The history of color is an interesting one and one that took thousands of years to develop into our modern day understanding of color.

Throughout history each culture had their own theories of color that heavily depended upon the colors that were accessible to that culture at that point in time in their region of the world. For this reason many older cultures had a limited understanding of color and did not recognize or even have the vocabulary to describe the full spectrum of colors we have easy access to today.

The convoluted and often misunderstood discussion of color really started clearing up when Isaac Newton began publishing his discoveries regarding light science in the late 1600s into early 1700s. His work ultimately lead to the refinement of our modern day artist’s color wheel. Above all the color wheel functions as a prediction tool for mixing colors.

color wheel | helloartsy.com

How Do I Use Color in My Artwork?

To use color effectively you need to understand what color is, not so much the physical make up as we touched on briefly above but what is color to an artist?

How can you look at color and define it in a quantitative way? To an artist it’s extremely important to recognize that there are three properties of color. These are sometimes referred to as color’s three dimensions.  This breakdown of color into three properties will give you a good understanding for how to mix any color you see!  Whether you are painting or drawing an understanding of the following will be crucial to your artistic growth.

The 3 Properties of Color:

  • Hue
  • Value
  • Saturation

A color’s hue is it’s placement on the color wheel . Hue is largely what gives a color it’s name. For example, there are many different names for slightly different blues, baby blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, periwinkle blue, but each of these colors reside in the blue area of the color wheel.

A color’s value is how light or dark a color is. If you were working with paints the simplest way to alter the value of a color would be to add white paint or black paint to your existing color. For example, adding white paint to red paint makes it a lighter value of red.

A color’s saturation is how pure a color is. Not all colors are vibrant and some can be described as being “duller” than others. You have undoubtedly experienced duller colors in the world around you. These duller colors are simply colors that are not as saturated when compared to other more saturated colors.


A Review on What is Color?

This post was meant to be a brief overview for what color is just to give you a quick introduction to the topic of what is color and eventually how to use it well in your artwork. Looking forward, I’m going to lead a discussion taking color’s three properties and really elaborating on their applications in your drawings and paintings.

Free Color Wheel Download:

Color Wheel
Color Wheel

This is a standard 12-hue color wheel useful for predicting color mixing in drawing & painting.

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