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The Elements of Art - COLOUR

A Guide for Teachers

Colour. What is it? It’s all around us and we use it every day -- even outside of art! Whether we use it to coordinate our outfits or to organize our documents, colour is an unavoidable aspect of our lives, and another important fundamental from the elements of art. Understanding this element and how to use it can be a confusing task -- especially when you dive deep into the world of colour theory -- so today we’ll be expanding upon what colour is and how to use it within your artwork!

Not a fan of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short video on Colour: The Element of Art by yours truly!

What is Colour?

Upon Googling the definition for colour, it’s pretty complex and wildly scientific. None of us have time for that! Luckily, I’m here to shorten that down for you. Colour (also known as color) can be defined as different kinds of light that we’ve put into categories to understand them better. However, how we understand colour can differ depending on the context we attach to it.

Additive Colour is made with Light

An image of an additive colour venn diagram. Underneath, it's captioned "additive colour made with light (AKA RGB)". Jessie's drawn avatar is in the bottom right corner.
You may not have seen this set of colours before!

When it comes to light, we’re using something called additive colour. All additive colours put together make white, which is why when you aim light through certain prisms, a rainbow comes out the other side. You interact with additive colour every day, even though it’s not taught as heavily in school. In fact, if you’re reading this right now, you’re interacting with it as we speak! RGB (red-green-blue) colouring is most notably used in screens and other electronic devices, which combines the additive primary colours to create what you see on your display right now.

Subtractive Colours are made with Pigment

The colour wheel for subtractive colour. Underneath, the caption reads "Subtractive colour made with pigment". Jessie's drawn avatar is in the bottom right corner.
You're probably familiar with this one!

When we use physical colours -- also known as pigments -- we’re using something called subtractive colour. These are the colours on the colour wheel most commonly learned in art class. All subtractive colours put together make black or brown, which is why when you mix all of the primary colours (red, blue and yellow) you get brown.

All primary colours can be mixed to get secondary colours (orange, purple and green), and all secondary colours can be mixed to get tertiary colours (yellow orange, red orange, red purple, blue purple, blue green, and yellow green). However, you cannot mix any colours to get primary colours.

We use these colours to evoke emotion, create moods, and give artworks certain aesthetics depending on the combinations used and the values applied. These colour combinations are called colour schemes or colour palettes, and knowing how to use them is when colour theory comes into play. Let’s go over three different schemes -- monochromatic, analogous and complementary.

Monochromatic Colour Schemes

The monochromatic colour scheme is arguably one of the easiest schemes to work with. The scheme is made up of all the shades and tints within a single hue.

For instance, The Tragedy by Pablo Picasso is a great example of a monochromatic colour scheme. It came from Picasso’s blue period -- a point in Picasso’s career where he painted using nothing but blue for around four years. The scheme used in this piece is nothing but the same blue made lighter and darker, creating this somber looking piece. But why does this blue colour scheme feel quite sad rather than calming or soothing? Let’s take a peek at another blue colour scheme to compare in the next colour scheme.

Analogous Colour Schemes

Arguably the second easiest to work with, the analogous colour scheme is a scheme that takes three or more colours next to each other on the colour wheel. You could almost say that this scheme is like an evolved monochromatic colour scheme.

Water Lilies (1906) by Claude Monet has a very soothing blue-green-purple-pink palette, though it’s primarily blue. The Tragedy and Water Lilies side by side give off completely different moods -- while Water Lilies is very calming and soothing, The Tragedy is incredibly depressing. This has to do with another element of art that branches off of colour -- value. Picasso used a lot of darker, high contrast colours, while Monet stuck with a lower contrast and instead utilized a lot of light to mid range values.

A side by side comparison of Monet's Water Lilies and Picasso's The Tragedy. Jessie's drawn avatar is in the bottom right corner.

Value is how light or dark a colour is. When there’s a ton of variation with your values, or when very similar values are used, the image has low contrast -- a principle of design, not an element. When picking values, these can add to your emotional takeaway when it comes to your artworks. These choices changed the mood of their pieces, even though their colour schemes are fairly similar. Let’s move on to the final colour scheme -- this one’s a hefty one.

Complementary Colour Schemes

A scheme that can be slightly tricky to get the hang of is the complementary colour scheme, where colours on opposite ends of the colour wheel are used to create palettes. Blue and orange, yellow and purple and green and red are the main three combinations, however you can use any colours across from one another on the colour wheel. Why this scheme can be so tricky to deal with is because of the heavily taught rule that can cause controversy between traditional artists and experimental artists.

Your complementary colours should not be the same saturation or value, and should instead be on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Your saturation is how bright a colour is. For instance, the ocean would be considered to be a highly saturated blue, while your washed out jeans would be a low saturation blue.

An image of concept artwork for Detroit Become Human by Wotjek Fus. Jessie's drawn avatar is in the bottom right corner.

With concept artists especially, blue and orange tends to be a popular colour choice -- blue generally stays muted, dark, and used the majority of the time, while orange stays bright and minorly used as highlights or focal points. As a more traditional colour theory rule, games that are more “mature” or “serious” stick with the complementary colour rule to create moody and more realistic atmospheres.

Traditional artists also tend to stick with this rule, where one colour stays muted and majorly used while the other remains bright and as a highlight. However, more experimental artists love to break this rule and create pieces using super bright colours at the same saturation and value.

An illustration drawn by Jessie Chang. Jessie's drawn avatar is in the bottom right corner.

This creates something called eye strain, which, as the name implies, creates very harsh contrasts that aren’t very easy on the eyes. Experimental artists love to break the rules, and create very striking colour schemes that bring strong attention to the piece as a whole. How you intend to use complementary schemes in the end is up to you, however just like any other rule of art, make sure you know the rules first before you decide to break them.

There you have it! While this is just a very small fraction of the colour schemes you can work with, play around with your artwork to see what kinds of colour schemes you enjoy seeing and working with!

Wanna get more in depth with colour? In our Cartooning and Anime classes, the colours we work with tend to be flat and simple, whereas in Realistic Drawing, our colours have to appear as though they wrap around a surface and account for reflected light, which is much more complex. Our Digital Art students use RGB colours with their digital programs of choice, while our Acrylic Painting classes study how to mix subtractive colours to create their pieces. If you’re ready to break some of those rules, come to Art Mentorship where we learn to take our artwork to the next level!

If you'd like a more advanced and extensive explanation of colour theory and colour itself, check out this related blog about Understanding Colour Theory!

If you're a teacher and you'd like more resources for your classroom, be sure to check out our art resources for teachers section on our website!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s interested in colour content for your classroom, visit these easy and accessible resources!

If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we cover art history and more!

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