Color Theory Basics for New Artists

A lesson in color theory from Julie Maida

Color theory is pretty important. Especially if painting is your thing. Color mixing can be learned, just like any artistic endeavor, so I am going to teach you the basics. This is kind of a long post, but you can refer back to it when you want to remember something about color theory. 🙂

Color schemes that just “look right” are usually carefully considered and intentional. By learning the basics of color theory, anyone can gain a grasp of why certain hues and palettes work well together.

When describing or identifying colors, these terms (below) form the foundation of understanding in the world of color theory.


Simply put, “hue” refers to the color of the pigment. That just means the basic color, tint, or shade as defined by the color wheel. As in “that has a yellow hue” or “that has a blue hue”.


This means “lightness” or “darkness”. If the hue of a color is “blue”, then the value determines if the color description could be “light (sky) blue” (high value) or “dark (navy) blue” (low value).


Chroma is more commonly referred to as “saturation”. In other words, if it is very high saturation or chroma, it is bright and bold or rich in color. Lower chroma or saturation results in a more subtle, dull color.

The Color Wheel

Isaac Newton created the first “color circle” all the way back in 1666. The color wheel breaks up color hues into primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Look, I have a downloadable color chart for you!

Primary Colors

The defining element of primary colors is that they cannot be created by combining any other pigments on the color wheel. They are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors can be created by mixing two primary colors together. They are green, orange, and violet.

Tertiary Colors

There are six main tertiary colors on the modern color wheel. They are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green. They have hyphenated names because they are created by mixing one primary and one secondary color together.

Color Harmony

Harmony just means “different color combinations that can be utilized in an aesthetically pleasing way”. This is where color theory is finally put into practice through design and composition. This is how you make things looks good and why some colors just seem to work so well together.

Complementary Colors

Two pigments that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. By using two colors with the greatest visual contrast, each hue is made more vivid. For example, red makes green pop, and visa versa. The basic complementary combos are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. You can figure out the exact opposite of a color simply by looking at a color wheel.

Triadic Colors

Color triads use three colors that are equidistant to one another on the color wheel. This just means they are a triangle of colors that are an equal distance apart.

Analogous Colors

These colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Usually you choose one main “root” color and two or more colors that are close in proximity on the color wheel. Like blue, yellow, and green for example. This is a very basic and reliable way to create a visually appealing composition and probably my favorite because analogous colors often feel “peaceful” together.

You can also combine the various color combos to make lots of interesting and dynamic color combinations. The best thing you can do is get a sketch book and just experiment and play!

This is my favorite watercolor sketchbook, by the way – no, they don’t pay me for that – it really is my favorite one :).

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