Printables Interactive

What is Color?

Color is the kind of light we see when objects reflect light back to our eyes.

While color is about the science of light, artists think more about hue, intensity, value and the creation of color through pigments.

Color Theory is the discussion, research and science around how color works. Artists often use a color wheel to help them better understand these color relationships.


Color is created by how light refracts, or bounces off of surfaces we observe. The color we see is the color refracted back at us while the remaining colors are absorbed. Every color of the light spectrum creates the color white, while an absence of all colors is black. You can use a prism to break up light into its many colors.

There are three colors that make up all the remaining colors of the spectrum. These are blue (cyan), yellow, and red (magenta). These three hues are called primary colors because you cannot create them from other colors and they are the basis of all other colors.

Artists generally work with color created by pigments. This kind of color is also called hue. Hue is how we name color; for example, red is a hue. Pigments are created by grinding up different substances of different hues and are then mixed with a binder, such as egg for tempera paint, linseed oil for oil paint, to create paint or other art materials.

Pigments were historically found in nature. Prehistoric cave art used red clay, black charcoal from their fires, and yellow ochre from the earth to create their beautiful artworks, like the work you see here in the Chauvet caves:

Chauvet caves

The difficulty of procuring pigment as well as the difficulty of manufacturing the powder for artists to use to mix art supplies like paint determined cost during times like the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, the color ultramarine blue was very expensive, which is part of why it was used to portray royalty or religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary. The history of color and producing pigments includes many fascinating stories like this one!

If you mix all the pigment based hues together, unlike mixing all the different hues of light, it creates a muddy color that is almost black. So mixing different colors of light is different from mixing colors created by different pigments.


Intensity is the saturation, or richness of a color. In today’s digital age it’s easy to use your camera app or Instagram to manipulate the intensity of a color with the saturation tool. Colors that are most intense often convey a sense of energy, happiness, or movement in art.

The Fauvist art movement was very interested in the use of color to convey emotion and used intense colors to explore this idea. They actively used complementary colors to help increase the strength of colors, which we will discuss more in a minute.

You can see this use of color by artist André Derain in his portrait of Henri Matisse.

 André Derain portrait of Henri Matisse


Value is the last of the three properties of color. It is the amount of light or dark expressed in a color. Colors that have more light in them have progressively more white pigment added to them. These colors are called tints. For example, pink is a tint of red.

Colors that have less light in them and appear darker have black pigment added to them. These are called shades.

All the tints and shades of a color from white to black are called a monochromatic scale. Monochrome artworks only use one color, but include it’s tints and shades to create form, dimensionality, etc.

Color Theory

Color theory is a means by which we understand colors, and their relationships.

A color wheel is one tool used by people trying to better understand color. A color wheel is usually a circle of different hues, arranged by relationship. The primary colors, cyan, yellow, and magenta, each have their own placement in the circle. They are arranged in a kind of triangle that leaves space between each for more colors. This trio of color is one example of a color triad, which is made of three colors equally spaced from one another on the color wheel.

Each primary can be paired with another in equal parts to mix an entirely new color, called a secondary color. These are placed in the color wheel between the two primaries that creates them. Magenta and Yellow create Orange, Yellow and Cyan create Green, and Cyan and Magenta create Purple.

color wheel

The next stage of a color wheel is to pair a secondary with a primary. These in equal parts create tertiary colors, which many of us know from our childhood in looking at a box of crayons. These are colors like red-orange, yellow-green, etc.

This process can go on in adfinitum. There are an infinite number of colors we can create, though with our eyes we can only see so many. We are restricted by the anatomy of our eyes and because each of our eyes are structured slightly differently, it is also argued we each see slightly different colors when observing different hues!

The color wheel also describes other color relationships. For example, colors opposite each other on the color wheel are called complementary colors. Red and green are complementary colors, for example. These colors, when paired next to each other, make one another more vibrant, something used by the Fauvists as mentioned earlier.

You can also see this in Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, where he has used the complements of cyan and orange:

Henri Matisse Woman with a Hat

When complements are mixed together they create the color brown. (Note: triads, mentioned earlier, mixed together in equal parts, create grey).

Colors next to one another on the color wheel are called analogous colors. Analogous colors work well together in harmonious, calm compositions. Orange for example, is analogous to yellow and magenta.

Colors can also be described as warm or cool. It’s the perceived temperature of the hue. At the most basic level, cyan, green, and purple are described as cool and magenta, orange, and yellow are described as warm.

As you begin to do more research into color, you will find there are warm (cadmium red) and cool magentas (alizarin crimson) just as there are warm (pthalo blue) and cool cyans (ultramarine blue).

Color Theory is described as a theory because research is constantly being done and we are always learning new things about color. It is an ever evolving field of research.



Create a color wheel using only primary colors. Then, create a portrait that focuses on using complementary colors like Henri Matisse or André Derain.


  • Tempera or another water based paint in cyan, magenta and yellow
  • White Paper, at least two sheets of paper
  • Pencil
  • Water
  • Paint brushes


Start with a review of the color wheel, primary, secondary, tertiary, and complementary colors. Using a piece of paper, have each student create a color wheel that includes primary through tertiary colors and label them. Check for understanding through their arrangement of colors, remembering that primary colors are arranged in a triangle, or triad, within the circle.

Once students appear confident mixing colors, give them a fresh piece of paper to work on. You can start younger students off by drawing a head for them to paint and fill in or you can look for a free template of a face online. Ask them to paint the portrait using only one pair of complements.


Students who are advanced can draw free hand or use their own photo references to work from when painting their complementary color based portrait. Encourage them to consider adding tints or shades of each complement to add more value to the artwork.


Students learn the many terms associated with color, as well as the relationship of colors through the study of color theory and the creation of a color wheel. Students then apply understanding through the creation of a complementary color portrait similar to the work of Matisse and Derain.