(This page is for the UK.  For a US version click here: US Colour Theory)

Why do we learn about Colour Theory?

Colour Theory is a collection of guidelines on the use of colour for artists and it can really help any creative person make intelligent decisions when thinking about what colours to use in an artwork.

A 12-section colour wheel can be used to help describe the relationship between different colours when they are viewed together.  Artists use these colour relationships to achieve different effects such as dramatic contrast or colours that are visually appealing together. Below are described some of the most common definitions used to describe these colour relationships.

Colour Theory Definitions

a colour or shade.

Primary Colour
Red, blue and yellow. All colours can be created by mixing primary colours.

Secondary Colour
A colour resulting from the mixing of two primary colours.

Tertiary Colour
The resulting colour formed when an equal amount of a primary and a secondary colour are mixed.

Complementary Colours

Colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. For example, purple and yellow. Complementary colours will contrast greatly.

Van Gogh used blues and oranges in his painting ‘Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles’, 1888, below. Because he uses complementary colours the colours contrast and are vibrant.

Harmonious Colours

Any three colours which are side by side on a 12-section colour wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange.

Below, Claude Monet uses Harmonious Colours in his tranquil painting ‘Water Lilies’, 1904. He mainly uses dark green, light green and yellow.

Split Complementary
A colour and the two colours either side of the complementary colour.

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

Containing or using only one colour.

The watercolour painting below, ‘Stripes and Ceramics’ by Britanny Cartie is an excellent example of monochromatic painting as it uses only green.  Also find Cartie on Instagram.

Colour Temperature

Colour temperature refers to the level of warmth contained within a colour.  Colours can be categorised as warm or cool.  Warm and cool colours will contrast well with each other.

Warm colours — such as red, yellow, and orange; evoke warmth because they remind us of things like the sun or fire.

Cool colours — such as blue, green, and purple (violet); evoke a cool feeling because they remind us of things like water or grass.

The painting below by Erin Hanson uses all warm colours. From dark brown, through every shade of orange and through a variety of yellows, it’s warm colours describe the landscape of the American west.

The Arty Teacher is home to high-quality art resources for Art Teachers.

For teaching resources for colour theory please click the picture below.