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The Theory of Colors – Introduction

We are immersed in colour. From the very beginning of our lives, color determines how we interact with the world, helping us identify objects around us and move from place to place. It is part of how we express our identity and therefore is intimately linked to the story of human life and understanding our place in the world. Yet colors are infinitely variable in form and meaning. 

I’m Clelia and today we discover together the basics of color theory and the emotions we associate with them. 

Along with the shapes and textures of objects, colors can be used to alter a person’s mood. And the decisions made by many artists throughout the history of art in choosing colors may seem random, but they are in fact often studied in detail and based on the color wheel and its associations. 

Color theory and the wheel

We were taught as children that there are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Combining them in specific proportions you can get all the other colors we see around us. Someone also probably told us that the secondary ones are born from the combination of the three primary colors: orange, green and purple. These make up the traditional color wheel, which was created by Newton and helps us understand how different colors work together.

And to get a complete color wheel we also need tertiaries, each born from the combination of a primary and a secondary. Thus we will have 12 basic colors on our color wheel. But if color theory stopped here it probably wouldn’t explain the infinite shades we see around us. 

In reality, today there are also other groups of colors that are used in many fields such as graphics or printing and I am referring to the RGB combination (red, green and blue) and the CMY (cyan, magenta and yellow) combination. But the theory based on Newton’s traditional wheel is the one that can help us the most to understand the partly involuntary, largely unintentional choices of many artists. 

The 4 main characteristics of colors

Each of these colors that we see on the wheel brings with it four main characteristics or qualities: hue, saturation, value and temperature. But let’s try to understand what it is. 

Hue is the pure color that we find on the wheel. So red, blue, green are technically called tints. 

Saturation, on the other hand, defines how bright and vibrant a color on our wheel is. Any desaturated color will always get closer to gray, while the same saturated color will always be bright and vibrant. 

More white or more black can then be added to pure color to modify its composition and increase the nuances. This is called the color value.

Finally we have the temperature. We can divide the color wheel into two sections, warm colors and cool colors, and within each color we can in turn also have warmer shades by adding more yellow or cooler shades by adding more blue. 

When these four characteristics of color are combined together, the infinite shades we were talking about before can be obtained.  

Color harmonic groups

Now let’s try to understand how artists in history but also today, use the color wheel to create harmonic and aesthetically pleasing groups to our eye. 

In fact, there are 6 combinations, also called color groups that allow us to obtain interesting results. 

Monochromatic colors

The first group is that of monochromes. Super simple, you take a single base color and changing its value then adding more white or more black to change its hue creates a harmonic palette.

Complementary colors

The second group is that of complementary colors. Probably the most used when you want to create a contrast. In fact, we take two colors that are located at the exact opposite of our color wheel. Red and Green or Blue and Orange are the most popular. But the funny thing about complementary is that it’s the oldest color match in the world. Arisstotle already talks about it, but St. Thomas in one script wonders why purple goes better with white than with black and even Leonardo in his studies comments how red and green go well together but without really understanding why. In fact, we will have to wait for Newton in the 18th century to make the studies on color born in the Renaissance evolve. 

Split-complementary colors

Let’s go back to our harmonies, the next group is in fact that of the complementary splits, which in this case take 3 colors. It is always about opposite colors on the wheel but on one side we will have one and on the other its two opposites close to each other. 

Colors of the triadic combination

The fourth group is that of the triadic combination, therefore of 3 colors found on the wheel in the three points of an imaginary triangle. It seems a little more complex as a choice, but it is a group that is often used when you want to give a strong contrast

. Colors of the tetradic combination 

Still on the subject of geometric shapes, the next group is that of the tetradic combination, therefore with 4 colours. The 4 colors found at the corners of an imaginary rectangle built on the wheel are chosen. 

Finally, we probably have the most intuitive group together with that of monochromes and that of analogues. Analogous colors are simply 2 or 4 colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. This is the best group if you want to use more than one color but not give too much contrast. 

The meaning of colors in works of art

Like music, color is a language that goes beyond words and directly addresses our emotions. Color is a major part of what art was meant to express: from religious works to political authority, from realistic and symbolic images of the natural world, to glimpses into the inner life of the artist or his subjects.

But let’s try to understand how everything we have said so far can be linked psychologically or due to our culture to the emotions and meanings behind the colors. In my opinion, the simplest experiment to do is this. What comes to your mind when I say blue or yellow? Although it is possible that you immediately think of color per se, of its essence, it is also much more probable that an image of an object or a landscape has come to your mind. For example, I immediately think of blue for the sea and yellow for the sun. But let me know in the comments what you thought so let’s try to understand if there are any recurring elements between us!

Whether we like it or not, therefore, our relationship with colors and with objects, graphics, works of art of every different color can arouse similar reactions. And often some colors are chosen in our society for this reason. 

Red – Meaning of the color

Red is associated with passion and love and thus for example the red heart, but also with danger such as in road signs or for Alice’s Queen of Hearts. 

Orange – Meaning of the color

Orange is often associated with energy, strength and creativity. But even yellow can have a positive meaning more towards happiness, outdoor activity. 

Black – Meaning of color

On the contrary there is obviously black which is often associated in our culture with death, but also with the idea of ​​power, in some ways with elegance and formality.

Green – Meaning of the color

Green is an immediate association with nature and therefore with well-being and is often used in the representation of healing. 

Blue – Color Meaning

Similar in some ways to blue, which is often used in relation to health, but more in that it induces calmness and tranquility. And it is also often considered the color of wisdom and trust. 

Purple – Meaning of color

The color of power and ambition is purple. The meaning in this case is closely linked to our tradition. As it was difficult in the past to be able to create the purple pigment so it was considered exclusive to the rich and powerful. 

White – Meaning of color

Finally, white has always been considered the color of purity and often also used to represent peace. 

Some of these meanings may be shared by a group of people born in the same country or accustomed to interacting with the same media or educated in the same religious faith or in the same environment. But it is also true that a color can have an infinite number of different associations beyond these depending on how and where it appears and who sees it, especially when the different shades of color come into play. 

The particular hue that comes to mind when I say red will be unique to you, it will be the product of your personal experience, imagination and memories. The fact that a color can be both evocative of something specific and so infinitely varied makes the study of color in human history a fascinating way to think about what it means to be human.

History of color in the history of art

The use of color in paintings of the past is as broad and complex as human history itself. Exact same color used by different artists in different paintings can express divinity, wealth, or the artist’s innermost feelings. The raw pigment used in the manufacture of the paint is itself a window into the economic and political contexts, encompassing the history of trade, exploration and exploitation of certain populations. Our understanding of a color is tied to our particular context, so for example we see reds of the past differently than those who saw them first. 

Since the beginning of human history people have wanted to communicate using color, trying to reproduce it in lasting material forms for this purpose. The oldest pigment we know of, a red color in the powdered form of iron oxide known as red ochre, has been found in cave paintings and burial sites around the world. Since then, natural colors – from minerals, stones, shellfish, clay, plants and insects – have been prepared through a process of drying, grinding and mixing with a binding agent to produce a substance that can be applied to walls, panels or canvases. like paint.

For Western cities, trade relations and colonial expansion introduced new and exotic pigments, the use of which in a work of art then articulated the wealth and power of the place or person who had commissioned it.

Revolutions in the History of Color

The revolutions in manufacturing and transportation that characterized the birth of the modern world left their mark on the invention of industrially produced pigments.

New forms of image distribution – photography, cinema, television, computer screens, the Internet have further expanded the spectrum of colors present in our daily lives and available to our imagination. Because color is a mirror of how a society sees itself, through it we can trace a path from the distant past to the living present.

And ultimately in the works, even the colors themselves aren’t quite what they used to be, as the chemical transformation of the paint over time, and the altered environments and lighting in which they are seen, alter what we see. And as our relationship with color is ever-evolving, our experience of works of art changes accordingly. But this should remind us that meanings change over time. On the other hand, learning what a color meant to the artist who used it transforms our understanding of both color and the artwork.

And if you liked or found this blog post on color theory and its meanings useful, take a look at the YouTube channel so you don’t miss the next videos on art, travel and the market. The next one I recommend is the one on the elements of an artwork. 

Thank you, see you soon!

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