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This section on colour is to assist you to understand how artists have used it in their work, and what they might be seeking to achieve through the use and placement of colour. Matisse is considered one of the great masters in the use of colour, and from the Fuavism period onwards you will see a great deal more experimentation and the use of 'unnatural colour' to create effect, just as the Impressionists used the effect of light before them.

What is Colour?

Objects absorb certain wavelengths (light) and reflect others back to the viewer. We perceive these wavelengths as colour - those we (humans) see are the colours of the visual spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple/violet. As light changes, so will our perception of the colour of an object. The eye can process about five colours at one glance, although we can distinguish between over a thousand different variations of colour.


The colour wheel below shows how colours are mixed to achieve different colours.

Colour Wheel



Primary Colours  are the three colours that cannot be created by mixing other colours. These colours are red, blue and yellow. 



Secondary Colours consist of two primary colours mixed together. The three secondary colours are purple (also known as violet), green and orange.

  • red + blue = purple

  • red + yellow = orange

  • yellow + blue = green



Tertiary Colours  are made by mixing a primary colour with an adjacent secondary colour.  (The names for the tertiary colours always begin with the primary colour then the secondary colour.)

  • yellow + orange

  • red + orange

  • red + purple (violet) 

  • blue + purple (violet) 

  • blue + green 

  • yellow + green



Primary Colours
Secondary Colours
Tertiary Colours

Two key elements of Impressionism are  play on light and the use of unmixed pigments*


In Impressionism Sunrise Monet painted the majority of the painting in blue and violet, but the reflection of the sun on the water is painted in orange.


The ships in the background serve as a structuring element and create linear structures and the diagonally arranged boats create the impression of the spatial distance.


The aim of Impression, Sunrise is the accurate reproduction of the actual impression of the scene at this time of day and its resulting mood.


The atmospheric effect dominates and marginalizes the importance of the object's shape. In order to capture the constant change of light and the flicker of the air clearly, Monet painted with small, short strokes.


How well do you think that Monet has succeeded in creating a sense of light? What mood do you read in this painting?


Pigment is the substance or powder that makes up the coloor of a paint. Pigments are either organic (derived from plant or animal sources, e.g. ivory black, indigo) or inorganic (derived from salts or metallic oxides e.g. ocher, cobalt blue).

Claude Monet Impressionism Sunrise 1872

Claude Monet, Impressionism Sunrise, 1872

Complementary Colours

Complementary colours  are those opposite each other on the colour wheel (for example: red and green).




The high contrast of complementary colours creates a vibrant look especially when used at full saturation (see below). 

In this lithograph Calder has used red and green, and blue and yellow, outlined by black.


This is a very strong, vibrant image, with all parts having equal "weight". 


Do you think that the Calder lithograph  works harmoniously?

Alexander Calder, Lithograph, (Stabile) c1960

Analogous colours are colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. They usually sit well together visually and create serene and comfortable designs.



Analogous colour schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye.

Analogous Colours

Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, c 1887

The French artist Paul Cézanne, who lived from 1839 to 1906, is widely considered to be the father of modern art.


Cézanne used blocks of strong colour, prominently outlining forms such as the tree trunk and the fields in dark blue. In this painting you can see the use of an analogous colour palette. 


His interest in form and line is emphasised in the shape of the branches and the way in which they perfectly echo the outline of the mountain behind.


Cézanne’s simplification of the landscape could be interpreted as a leap towards Modernism: the structured parallel brushstrokes that fragment the surface of the composition, as well as the bold colours, appealed to younger artists and paved the way towards abstraction.


Can you see how Cezanne sought to paint the landscape as we might actually perceive it, using blues and mauves to represent distance and shadows? 

Triadic colours are colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.



Triadic colour schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even when used with pale or unsaturated versions of hues (see below).

Triadic Colours

Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920

Stanton Macdonald - Wright was an abstract artist who belonged to a group called Synchromists (working in the 1910's). In this work he has used triadic colours  from violet through to red and then yellow.


The Synchromists' work was based on the idea that colour and sound are similar phenomena, and that the colours in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony.


Their paintings typically have a central vortex and explode in complex colour harmonies.


The Synchromists avoided using atmospheric perspective or line, relying solely on colour and shape to express form.


Does the use of colour in Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920 work support this theory? Does it appear to 'explode in colour harmonies'?






The colour wheel can be divided into warm and cool colours.  Whilst there is no substantive evidence supporting general effects of colour confirmation or mood - 


Warm colours are vivid and energetic, and tend to advance in space.


Cool colours give an impression of calm, and can create a soothing impression.


White, black and grey are considered to be neutral.


Warmer colours tend to be used as foreground elements and cooler colours for background elements.


Grey is often used for grouping elements without competing with other colours.


Whilst much has been written about how people respond to colours,  there is no universal symbolism for different colours – different cultures attach different meanings to colours



Terms used to describe Colour variations



Hue is how we describe each of the twelve colours in the colour wheel, that is, the 


                             Three Primary Colours (blue, red, yellow)

                             Three Secondary Colours (green, orange, purple)

                             Six Tertiary Colours ( yellow + orange, red + orange,red + purple (violet), blue + purple (violet),blue + green and yellow +                                green


A hue will not have white, black or grey added to it. 




Value is the lightness or darkness of a colour. The more white you add to a colour or hue, the more high key the value.


When you add white to lighten a colour, it is called a tint.







The more black you add to a colour, the more low key  the value.


When you add black to a colour to darken it, the resultant colour is then called a shade.







If you add grey to a colour, it results in a tone.








Chroma  tells us how pure a hue is. That means there is no white, black, or grey present in a colour that has high chroma. These colours will appear very vivid,  with lower chroma being less pure (more washed out, as in pastels). There is no intrinsic upper limit to chroma. Different areas of the colour space have different maximum chroma coordinates. For instance light yellow colours have considerably more potential chroma than light purples, due to the nature of our vision and the physics of colour stimuli.


Chroma is sometimes used interchangeably with Saturation. Colour saturation refers to the intensity or strength of colour in an image. In technical terms, it is the expression of the bandwidth of light from a source. 

Munsell Colour System

Albert Munsell, an artist and professor of art at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, wanted to create a “rational way to describe colour" that would use decimal notation instead of colour names (which he felt were “foolish” and “misleading”), which he could use to teach his students about colour.  


The Munsell colour system specifies colours based on three colour dimensions: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (colour purity). It was created by Professor Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century and adopted in the USA as the official colour system for soil research in the 1930s.


Several earlier colour order systems had placed colours into a three-dimensional colour solid of one form or another, but Munsell was the first to separate hue, value, and chroma into perceptually uniform and independent dimensions, and was the first to systematically illustrate the colours in three-dimensional space.


Munsell’s system, particularly the later revisions, is based on rigorous measurements of human subjects’ visual responses to colour, putting it on a firm experimental scientific basis. Because of this basis in human visual perception, Munsell’s system has outlasted its contemporary colour models.

The Munsell Colour System

Munsell Colour System

Michel-Eugène Chevreul Colour Theory

Michel Chevreul developed his colour theory on the basis of knowledge gained while working beginning in 1824 as director of dyes for a company that produced elegant tapestries, the Royal Manufacturers at Gobelins. Chevreul analysed complaints lodged by customers who were displeased with the tapestries they purchased. Joen Wolfrom, author of "The Magical Effects of Color," states that Chevreul came to the conclusion that troublesome colour interactions were to blame for the bulk of these complaints. Thus, Chevreul attempted to identify abiding principles that could help him and others to avoid making unpleasant color combinations.




Optical illusions are sometimes created when bold colours are placed in close proximity to one another, creating pronounced differences between each colour. This effect, described by Chevreul, is called simultaneous contrast. Simultaneous contrast may create an optical illusion that appears to lighten or darken the hue of a given colour depending on whether it is placed beside a second coloor that is darker or lighter in hue.


Chevreul also advanced the concept of optical mixing, which explains the manner by which two individual colours blend together to suggest a third colour. An example of optical mixing occurs when the two primary colours red and yellow are overlayed upon one another, appearing to create the secondary colour orange.


right - Chevreul's 1855 "chromatic diagram" based on the RYB color model, showing complementary colours and other relationships.

Michel Eugene Chevreul colour theory
Michel-Eugene Chevreul Colour Theory

Goethe Triangle

Colours available to Modern Artists

The vibrancy in paintings produced by Modern artists was not available to the connterparts prior to about 1850.


The colours used by artists changed dramatically with improvements in chemistry (and the introduction of paint tubes during the 19th Century). This painting below,  by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brunn, from the National Gallery of London, gives you an idea of the palette that was available to artists prior to about 1850.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” (after 1782)

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” (after 1782)

The pigments (powders) used to make colours  prior to then had come largely from nature (for example, from gemstones, insects, soot, clay, rocks, plants, eggs etc). Not surprisingly, many pigments turned out to be unstable over time, with many beautiful works fading, or changing colour, particularly in reaction to light and humidity. As you can see from the palette above, green was a particularly hard colour to replicate, and pure orange pigment was not only hard to find but one mineral that yielded it, Realgar, contains the poisonous chemical arsenic.

However, in the second half of the 18th Century both France and Germany, in particular, were centres for innovative chemical technology, including the search for, and production of, pigments used by artists. Some issues with toxicity arose, for example with lead white and chrome yellow. Synthetic dyes also began to be developed in about the 1860s.

The appearance of a painted colour depends partly on the pigment, but also on the ingredients used to bind them. Pigments mixed with oil produce a glossy finish while  pigments mixed with egg yolk, to make egg tempera paint, will have a flatter, matt appearance.

The use of a glaze or varnish to seal an oil  painting will also impact the colour of a painting over time, with some varnishes yellowing as they age.

Suggested Videos & Reading

Tate - How to spin the colour wheel

 a site on the history of pigments

Information from the National Gallery in London's Journey through Colour exhibition provides some useful background on the making of colour pigments.

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