The Elephant in the Room: Why Don’t You Understand Color Theory?

January 31, 2011

I’ve written a page about Color Theory so why bring it up again?

Because it keeps coming up. Because people keep asking me questions about it. Because I constantly run into people who come to my demos and classes and say, “I want to paint, but I don’t understand color theory—and it’s just science after all and I want to make ART.”

Well that’s exactly like saying “I want to live in France and be totally integrated into the social fabric, but I’m never going to learn the language, I’m just going to YELL in English at the top of my voice.”

Good luck with that, especially in France, as they have zero tolerance for people screaming in English (I saw some folks doing that when I was visiting and it was pretty scary!).

And you know what, the art world also has zero tolerance for not knowing color theory. Some people skate by and fake it with the discovery of some harmonious choices they continue to use in repeatable combinations, but ultimately their work seems stale and their own boredom shows through. (Note: there is a huge difference between skating by on a few color choices that work and developing a palette you keep returning to that helps you make your own artistic statement. As you learn more about color theory you’ll understand the difference and you’ll also be able to spot the difference.)

Also, if you really love something like painting, and you want to get better, how can you possibly afford to ignore one of the key components essential to improvement? This goes for all artists, whether or not they work in a representational way. Why would you spend the hours needed to sew a quilt with hideous colors instead of first spending a couple hours of study to understand color theory and then create a stunning quilt at the end of that labor?

I called this post “The Elephant in the Room” because people keep asking me about color theory, but aren’t interested in the answers. They keep complaining about color theory at me, as if I have a pocketful of Band-Aids I can stick on their fingers that will solve their ignorance.

Color theory is “that thing”  everyone wants to understand, but no one wants to study—as if study implied all sorts of horrible, back breaking work.

Well it does involve some thought.

Aren’t you already putting thought into your art?

And it does involve some work. But if you are an artist working to improve the skill and craftsmanship you bring to your art, then this is a no-brainer.

Color theory is not frightening or difficult. Our insecurities about our knowledge of color theory may make it seem so. (That “Twilight Zone” episode I saw the other night might keep me checking under the bed when I turn the lights off but that’s a legitimate concern compared to fear of color theory!)

Color theory is not whimsy either—though color in the hands of a master can produce a whimsical array that will delight your eye (think Wayne Thiebaud).

Remember this: in the late 1800s artists went down to the pub, excuse me, café, and talked endlessly about, you guessed it—color theory. It was as important and dynamic a conversation for them as the social ramifications of the newest book from Zola or the political and social fallout from the Dreyfus affair. Artists were thinkers and color theory mattered. They were passionate about it.

Today I know hundreds of artists and only one of them will go mano-a-mano with me to disucss color theory. She happens to be a landscape artist who sits outside in all seasons, observing the changing colors of nature—changing her palette accordingly. She experiments constantly to test her theories and refine and bolster her choices within her own artistic interpretation.

She also likes to claim that her color choices are intuitive and that she proceeds from a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants aesthetic. That’s really only so much conversational nonsense. When you watch her work you see actions that come out of the study, the experiments, and the practice, not from intuition. And it is this thoughtful basis on which she builds, that allows her to definitively and dramatically place that one bold stroke or passage of color people see as an intuitive epiphany. (She has trained her intuition.)

It is not an accident of mind that this painter is also my most politically involved friend.

How do you get to this point?

Well if you don’t have a local café where you can discuss color theory then reading and studying will get you part way there. Next comes practice—constant practice with a system that is built around repetition: a limited palette always arranged the same way; color studies to understand how all the pigments in your palette work individually and in conjunction with each other, before the inclusion of additional pigments; and finally a whole lot of looking, looking, looking, and painting, painting, painting.

You will be looking at things in nature and in the art world (to see the vocabularly of color used by other artists). You will always be taking things apart: does this yellow have a green cast to it; is this red warm or cool; what is meant by a warm or cool color; what color am I seeing in these shadows on the table, in the snow, or on the tile floor?

You have to be able to see these colors before you can even have any hope of painting them.

Once you see them the fun begins. Now you get to make the limited paints available to you reproduce those unlimited colors. Even if you had all the watercolors Daniel Smith produces you still wouldn’t have all the colors in nature. So how you go about mixing those colors you see in nature on your paper or canvas is the task. The Task (especially for representational artists).

But it’s also where you get to edit, refine, and present your own vision, using your knowledge of color to express your observations of the world—to set emphasis, mood, and meaning.

This is where the work starts. It takes a whole life time. It’s where the fun is.

Learning about Color Theory


Caveat—not all color theory classes are created equal. I’ve heard horror stories about color theory classes where instructors were clueless or confused and the students left in worse shape than they entered.

Select a color theory class based on recommendations of someone you trust. Make sure that the medium used in class to explore color theory is one that will suit your needs: will the teacher let you work in a medium of your own choice or will you work in a medium that isn’t useful for you (e.g., paper or fabric swatches, when you are a painter; oil paints when you have allergies)?

Just because you work in colored pencils and the teacher insists that everyone work in watercolor is not a bad thing—in fact I encourage you (as someone who works both in colored pencil and watercolor and who teaches color theory) to take a color theory class with watercolor as the medium. You will learn more quickly and readily about the realities of blending using single-pigment paints than you will learn blending multi-pigment pencils. Once you’ve got that knowledge, working only with your pencils will become more clear to you.

I also recommend that you find an instructor who knows something about the history of paint and pigments so that he or she can lead you through some historic paintings, explaining what is happening with the use of color.

It is also helpful to look at the work of your instructor. Do you like it? Does it speak to you? When I was young I signed up for a watercolor class at a prominent school. The first session the instructor forgot her slides and I never saw her images until 3 weeks into class. They held no appeal for me. They were abstract and lacked any insight into the use of color. I was horrified when she walked by my station one day and complimented me on my “scratch” block of paper on which I was essentially trying out colors and cleaning my brush. She said, “With a little bit of work that could be a great painting.” I waited until the break, packed up, made apologies about a family time conflict, and left, never to return (though her words have become a running gag for Dick and me). Always do your homework on the instructor!

Next, find an instructor who provides in-class demos. You will learn faster if you can see color theory in action—see the blending, see the choices, get a walk-through as it were. A qualified instructor should be at home working in front of others. You need to see what choices the instructor makes—when and how. Demonstration art isn’t about creating a stunning piece of art while students watch. Switching from verbal to non-verbal modes may inhibit a great final result made on the spur of the moment. But demonstration art, created by someone who knows his subject intimately, will always provide useful insight for the student.

And seek an instructor who is flexible. Someone who can only provide information on the colors he or she uses may give you an introduction to your study, but you will not develop any reasoning skills for selecting your unique palette.

A good teacher will help you find your path to a palette that works for you.

Books on Color Theory

Please see my Page on “Color Theory: related posts and recommendations.” In that post, besides listing my favorite books on color theory, I suggest a way to create a color theory-self-class that you can set up by yourself so that you don’t have to grumble, “I don’t live near a school or class with any teachers like you suggest.”

Ultimately you’re going to have to mix color. You can’t learn how to mix color by staring at swatches. I write about that in my page on color theory as well. But it is a good thing to remember when your internal critic is stalling you and suggesting you should look at the swatches a little more. Nonsense, squeeze some paint onto your palette and have at it.

Concluding Thoughts

If you don’t know as much about color theory as you would like to know, or as you think you should know, there is no better time than the present to get more knowledge. The shame of not understanding color theory really comes not from the lack of understanding but from your own failure to do something about your lack of knowledge.

Consider this post “tough love.”

I can’t make you study color theory. I really don’t care if you study color theory. My enjoyment of studying color theory, of wrestling with the choices in my own work, is not diminished one bit if you don’t study color theory.

It’s just that every time one of you comes up to me at a demo and complains about your own lack of knowledge of color theory I am reminded that YOU care.

So I’m simply pointing out that yep, that’s an elephant over there in the corner of this room.

He is way big, but majestically handsome. He’s initially unpredictable in temperament, but basically gentle upon further acquaintance. There are a lot of wrinkles in his skin and each fold deserves study and observation. If you look closely you just might not be able to look away again. You might feel a legitimate moment of fear about that. This is a point of choice in your life and it’s healthy to have that thought. (It’s unhealthy to let that fear stop you.)

If you walk over to that elephant you might find yourself on a path of study that will delight and frustrate you for the rest of your life. That choice will of necessity focus you and eliminate other choices from your path—but at the same time it will open and clear any path dealing with art.

I can’t make you study color theory. All I can do is tell you, “Yep, that is an elephant in the room; and he belongs to you.”

Now it’s up to you to do something about it.

Or not.

What’s it going to be?

  1. Reply

    Amen! I loved this (Loooooong) post. Roll up your sleeves and get doing. reading books won’t do it for you, looking at other people’s work won’t do it. Nope, just getting dirty. After you have some experience, reading and looking with help. But get dirty! I totally agree with you Roz.

  2. Reply

    Great article Roz….really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Reply

    Melly, glad you stuck with it even though it was long, I get going on my rants and the word counter disappears from view! Glad it resonated with you. But I know you are a big experimenter. I’m off to get dirty right now before a meeting!

  4. Reply

    Libby, what a thoughtful supervisor. I think even when you ask people if they are going to take your advice you can’t be sure, they aren’t even sure, but I like that she was upfront about it because she made you think and it’s a wonderful gift to give someone that thoughtfulness which has lasted for you.

    I tended to give people 3 pep talks and then the next time I just sort of nodded through the conversation and let it shift to a new topic as soon as possible. (I have to restrain my innate bossiness and “fix-it-ness.”) Now, without specifically stating what your supervisor said I am much more silent in person.

    It gives me way more time to work on my own projects!

    Good luck with taking care of that elephant! I’m glad you’re working on it.

  5. Reply

    Cynthia, glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

    • Jennifer
    • January 31, 2011

    Roz, this is a great post. While I am by no means an instructor in color theory, it’s been my job to understand it for many years (until recently that is). I learned some in painting classes. I learned some when I worked as a custom framer. And I have to keep learning it as I become a fabric artist. The point being, there’s no time when you know ENOUGH, the elephant (and many others like him/her) is always nearby. Thanks for reminding me of it. js

    • Amber
    • January 31, 2011

    Commenting on your recommendation that not all color theory teachers are equal: I got my color theory education during art college, where the start of the semester was learning about value first, then moving onto the color. Initially I didn’t understand why we’d study black and white in a color theory class, but once we got going it was clear that my ability to use color was enhanced by my understanding of value.

    It was a unique approach that I haven’t really seen elsewhere, but it was very beneficial!

    One of my favorite painters is James Gurney. You provided a review of his book “Color and Light”, which–in addition to his blog–has a wealth of color theory information (but it can feel overwhelming to those new to color theory).

    • Carolyn
    • January 31, 2011


    Excellent! Thanks Roz!

    Did you frame that piece of work? 🙂 I think I might, I’d get a kick out of it’s Symbolism.

  6. Reply

    Thanks for the great post! I experiment with color already but periodically get stuck and end up spinning my wheels for awhile, reaching out for random colors and not learning much along the way. You’ve nudged me to open up my Stephen Quiller book again and use it to take another step forward 🙂

    • Carolyn
    • January 31, 2011

    P.S. Wayne Thiebaud is written about in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine.

  7. Reply

    Jennifer, I think you are right that you have to constantly feed and care for and observe the elephant. That’s what makes the study of color interesting to me. And it is what makes the work of real color masters so interesting and compelling to me—they are always teaching me something new by the simple act of observation. Thanks for writing!

  8. Reply

    Amber, yes, that is key and important, starting with value. They work this way in the Atelier model of art instruction. You might work for ages in charcoal and then ages in monochromatic oils before bringing color to the party.

    Value is key. Also all my students who see value pick up color theory much more quickly than those who don’t.

    As you know from my review James Gurney’s book is excellent in my opinion as well. Much of the material (according to a note at the back) grew out of his blog posts so people can definitely continue to find great information on his blog. Other artists as well I would recommend are those that are on my color theory book list. Quiller being my favorite. But I’m also partial to Jeanne Dobie. (Sp? of her name, it’s not in front of me.)

    Thanks for writing.

  9. Reply

    Carolyn, thanks for the high marks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    I think the work you’re referring to is that scratch block I was using in the watercolor class I refer to? If so, sadly it was saved for years and then lost in the garage fire (our neighbors burned our garage down in 2000—long story, fireworks, went and hid, urgghh) and we both lost lots of stuff in the fire.

    It was way before the days when I scanned everything (or so it seems, that I scan everything these days), and I wish I still had it. I remember a lovely soft squooshy green, almost caterpillar like creature covering about 1/3 of the page.

    We still, as I mentioned, have many, many good laughs over its memory!

  10. Reply

    Carolyn, thanks also for the heads up about Thiebaud in the Smithsonian I’ll try to check it out.

  11. Reply

    I think in any long term study we hit plateaux and then have spurts which take us forward again. I think those spinning wheel or plateau times are great because it means breakthroughs are coming.

    I think Stephen Quiller’s books are always the best place to go to get back on track. I’m glad you’re going to have another look at it.
    Thanks for writing.

  12. Reply

    I fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, grew up being the daughter of a gifted artist, who chose his role models well. (Think Edward Hopper, the Renaissance Artists, Renoir.)

    Quite a few years back, I watched Itzhak Perlman on a late night talk show, and he was enthusiastically playing a bluegrass/fiddle tune. I realized then, that when one is able to understand how music is made, it is fairly easy to go anyway you want to go with it. A fiddler, who has not had that kind of training would be hard pressed to go to the Met and play as Perlman could.

    One of the first times I warped a loom, I’d learned warping with an “art” weaver. Not much thought was given to the technical aspects and my weaving, no matter how inspired would not have lasted very long. I then studied with a classical weaver, and was able to make a piece of cloth that could stand the test of time, and realized that now, it was easier to go back, and remove and add aspects of that classical training to construct a piece of textile art, that could also stand the test of time.

    Color theory is like that.

  13. Reply

    Suzanne, I think learning the craft is always a great thing. I know that I was able to develop my Roz-method binding because I was taught traditional binding by a master craftsman. Armed with that knowledge I was able to work out what mattered to me in the structure that I wanted to work with day in and day out in my journaling.

    So many people want to take short cuts and I feel badly for them—they miss out on all the fun and satisfaction, which continues to come back to them every day.

  14. Reply

    cool, or rather HOT post. i have no patience for people who want to “be artists” and are unwilling to do the time, or worse, the ones that make art badly over and over. even when they’re good folks. it hardly matters that, in my case i don’t paint (currently) i can paint and will if it suits me. color theory is amazing and working deeply with pigment like you do is “worth” every second invested. you might like to visit my blog to see what BEES make of color theory:

  15. Reply

    Velma, Nature seems to be the best color mixer there is. Is that bee photo doctored in any way? I don’t understand much about bees and pollen but they definitely seem to have a grasp of complementary color and pattern and arrangement. I wonder what it all means.

    Thanks for sending it.

  16. Reply

    roz- i was told no doctoring. i blogged about finding a book called the pollen loads of bees, and inside were all these wonderful “paint chips” of the different plants that produced the pigmented pollens the bees harvested in different seasons. dorothy hedges was the artist/bee aficionado who discovered the pigments were flower and season specific. and i thought all pollen was, er, yellow. (my friend carol blinn sent my post to her friend who set the photo.) and that book-fairly rare.

  17. Reply

    Velma, how wonderful is all that. Season specific pigments—it just keeps getting better and better.

    Well I knew at least some pollen was yellow—see me coming out of the tracking fields in my black Gortex pants in ragweed season! But it’s great to know how wonderfully beautiful this can all be.

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