AP®︎/College Art History
Colors of the visible light spectrum (image: Meganbeckett27, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Artists can use colors for many reasons other than to simply duplicate reality including setting moods and highlighting importance.
The colors of the world can be divided in different ways. When we use the term “color” casually, what we usually mean is hue. Hues appear on the visible spectrum. On the spectrum, we see the pure hues. These can be divided into primary, secondary and tertiary colors, as on this color wheel.
Color wheel (image: public domain)
Primary, secondary and tertiary colors
Primary colors are, for most art media, red, yellow and blue (the exception is the additive color system, which is used in computer screens, theater lighting and the like, and has red, yellow and green as its primary colors). All the rest of the colors can be made from these.
Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors: Red and yellow make orange, and so on.
Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color.
Complementary and analogous colors
The colors opposite one another (like red and green or blue and orange) are complementary colors, which tend to stand out boldly next to one another. These are therefore often used for university colors and sport team logos. Colors next to one another (like red and orange or blue and green) are analogous colors, and these tend to blend together more smoothly.
Warm and cool colors
The colors on the left of this wheel are called cool colors and those to the right are warm colors. Using cool or warm colors in an image can create moods. Pierre Auguste Renoir used warm colors for his Mother and Child, 1886, creating a warm, cheerful, inviting scene. The oranges, pinks and yellows dominate the image.
Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mother and Child, 1886, pastel, 79.1 x 63.5 cm, (Cleveland Museum of Art); right: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasant Mother, 1962, oil on burlap, 249 x 180 cm (Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City) © David Alfaro Siqueiros
Diego Alfaro Siqueiros presents a similar subject in his Peasant Mother (1929), but through the use of cool colors, instead creates a sad, cold scene dominated by figures of blues and greens. Neither of these artists was worried about portraying the world as it really looked. Instead, they used color to inspire feelings in the viewer.
Value (tint and shade)
Color can also be considered in terms of value, which is the degree of lightness or darkness of a color. If we add white to a hue, we get a tint. If we add black, we get a shade. As we might expect, tints tend to be more cheerful — pastel colors are all tints. Shades tend to be gloomier. Indeed, our terms for moods are based on these properties, so that we say that we are lighthearted, or in a dark temper. There are many tints in the Renoir’s Mother and Child, and many shades in Siqueiros’ Peasant Mother.
Henri Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, oil on canvas, 180.5 x 221 cm (The State Hermitage Museum)
Finally, intensity or saturation is how bright or dull a color is. Henri Matisse tended to use very saturated colors, as in Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908), whereas in Peach Blossom Spring (1533), Zhou Chen relied on a much more muted palette with very little saturation of colors.
The landscape is almost entirely in shades of brown and beige. The grey-green of the trees is low in saturation, leaving the single splash of red on the child’s cloths the only moment of high saturation in the image. Therefore, we notice this tiny detail within this large painting. The Matisse painting, on the other hand, is a blaze of colors. The vibrant red of the wall and tablecloth dominates the image, in sharp contrast with the green grass showing through the window and the blues and purples curving throughout the image.
Zhou Chen, Peach Blossom Spring, 102.5 X 161.5 cm (Suzhou Museum)
Contrast is the amount of variation between the highest and lowest values in a work. This is perhaps most commonly used to talk about photography, but can be applied to any work. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Cliffs of Moher (1989) has very low contrast. There are no dark blacks, no stark whites; everything is in very similar shades of gray.
Left: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, 1989, offset lithograph, 24 x 31 cm (Art Institute of Chicago) © Hiroshi Sugimoto; right: Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1987, gelatin silver print, 17.94 × 17.78 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art) © Robert Mapplethorpe / The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
The low contrast conveys the soft and gentle feeling of a heavy mist over quiet water. On the other hand, Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, Calla Lily (1987) has much higher contrast, meaning that the difference in the whites and blacks is much greater. The effect is much sharper and crisper, making this simple flower appear grand and impressive.
Moving yet further, in Kara Walker’s silhouette image, Untitled (from Testimony), the contrast is absolute. We see only black and white (and here, some red).
Kara Walker, Untitled (from Testimony), 2004, cut black paper with pencil, pressure-sensitive tape, metal fasteners, and synthetic polymer film on paperboard, 52.7 x 38.1 cm © Kara Walker, (The Museum of Modern Art)
In this case, the artist is using the power of this contrast to draw the viewer’s attention to some of the problems in American race relations, and their origins in the institution of chattel slavery. Therefore, while visual elements produce visual effects, their implications can extend well beyond the purely visual.
Want to join the conversation?
- If I am not mistaken, the primary colors in lighting (in the aditive color system) is not Red, Yellow, Green. It is Red Green Blue! RGB. Or am I Wrong?(13 votes)
- You are correct - RGB is an additive color model that uses the colors of Red, Green, and Blue light to produce various hues. A practical example of this type of color model would be the hues created by computer screens.(4 votes)
- In the text above it incorrectly states that Red, Yellow, and Green are the primary colors in lighting and computers, rather than Red, Green, and Blue.
I believe that is why igor.uenf made the comment here already, so as to direct attention to the mistake and in order to correct the error.
Is there a way that this may be corrected in the text above?(13 votes)
- They should just add the existence of RGB for pixel lighting into the article.(1 vote)
- I don't know why, but I have trouble conceptualizing the difference between value and saturation...
Somewhere online it said to think of lowering of saturation as the adding of gray.
So, you could have a shade or tint of a hue at full saturation...meaning it doesn't have any gray in it?(6 votes)
- Saturation is how intense a colour is, value is how light/dark it is (perhaps how much white/black is mixed in with the colour could be an interpretation)(12 votes)
- So to summarise and check my understanding:
When we talk about colours, we're usually talking about hues. There are 3 primary colours/hues (red, blue, and yellow) and then secondary colours are made by mixing these two.
Hues on the left side of the colour wheel are known as 'cool', and those on the right as 'warm'.
Hues with white added to them are known as tints, and those with black instead are known as shades. The additional resources say a 'tone' is made by combining a hue with grey. These terms help us describe what is known as the value of a colour.
Saturation refers to the intensity of a colour. Tints and shades typically have lower saturation than hues, but not necessarily.
Contrast refers to the degree of difference in the values of given colours.
- You basically summarized the article. i would only remark that contrast is the degree of difference between the highest and lowest values in a work and how much these values dominate the work.(2 votes)
- It appears that David Alfaro Siqueiros incorrectly referenced as "Diego Alfaro Siqueiros" in the text.(5 votes)
- From the author:Thank you.(4 votes)
- Can a color be less bright and mean the same as a dark bright color?(2 votes)
- The term 'dark bright' is contradictory and could be confusing to others when describing the color. To communicate a color's intensity, it is best to use the term saturation.
A color mixed with white (creating a tint) or black (creating a shade) would look dull and would be described as having a low saturation, while a pure color would look vibrant and would be described as having a high saturation.(8 votes)
- When defining primary colors, the following exception is noted: "the exception is the additive color system, which is used in computer screens, theater lighting and the like, and has red, yellow and green as its primary colors".
Is this correct? The additive color system is about how light is perceived, and it is based on red, green, and blue and is often referred to as RGB.
- arent the primary colors magenta/cyan/yellow? Perhaps in terms of light?(4 votes)
- no basically the primary colors are the colors (red, blue and yellow) which you can use with black and white colors to get any other color. you can get the cyan by mixing the blue and green adding white where necessary) and you can get magenta by mixing the red and blue (also white). As such, magenta and cyan colors are secondary colors.(2 votes)
- It’s very interesting how Matisse uses saturation as a tool to provide depth in his Red Room. Many artists chose to use tint that way.(4 votes)
- Agreed. I think the use of tint as a means of depicting depth in a work is a way of achieving atmospheric (a.k.a. aerial) perspective.(1 vote)
- I know we need to practice almost everyday to get better at art and colouring but is there any faster way to get better, I see all of these younger kids they are drawing better than me and I can't help but feel like my drawings are poop compared to them(1 vote)
- Here is a useful trick to get started. First look very carefully at the thing you want to draw. Imagine how it might look on paper. Then start to draw. Try to be sure every line you add is related to what you actually see.(3 votes)