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.
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.
What’s it going to be?