Understanding Color

Understanding Color

  1. Why is color so important?
  2. Saturation and Value
  3. Color Harmonies

Colors, when used correctly, can guide the eye to what’s important.

It can help to tell a story. Or change the mood of the scene.

When used incorrectly, it can break the scene. Even to non-artists, anyone can see when something is wrong with the picture/drawing. A more advanced artist can point it out, whereas anyone else could see there’s something off but may not be able to point.


Intensity or purity of the color


Brightness/Darkness of the color

Biggest mistakes; most amateur artists use highly saturated colors believing it will make it look like their work look better.

Always using highly saturated colors not only makes it look fake but using it everywhere in the picture gives the eye nowhere to rest.

But using saturated colors is not bad of course. They can help paint key parts to a picture, directing the eye.

It can also help tell a story. In older history paintings, Jesus is usually wearing red because, when saturated, the color stands out most among the rest, brings attention to him and makes him look more powerful and mighty.

In cartoons, there’s usually a lot more saturated colors. Hinting to the viewer that it’s fake but still pleasant to look at.

In the movie UP, the beginning was very saturated and colorful, showing happiness and joy. But as the story went on, it took a change and with it the colors desaturated. A good example of setting the mood and scene.


This trick is used a lot in movies.

Saturation and Value:

  1. Don’t overdo it
  2. Use it to quite the viewer
  3. Use it to tell the story
  4. Use it to change the mood
  5. Drawing attention to something

Color Harmonies:

Why some colors look better together than others.

Color schemes, complimentary colors, color harmonies…



  1. Using only one color
  2. Best for single subjects
  3. Atmospheric


Example painting was done in only red by changing the saturation and value:



  1. Colors adjacent on the color wheel
  2. Easy on the eyes
  3. Peaceful, comfortable mood
  4. Seen in nature



  1. Using colors equally distant on the wheel
  2. Hard to pull off
  3. Best for cartoon/surreal scenes



  1. Opposing colors on the wheel
  2. Very popular
  3. Naturally pleasing to the eye
  4. Use one color predominantly (don’t use %50-50 of each color, generally best to use the weaker color. So between Red and Green, you’d use green the most).


Note: Cool and warm colors are naturally complementary.

Split Complementary:

  1. Similar to complimentary, but one end extended
  2. More creative freedom
  3. Feels lively joyous


Tetratic (double complementary)

  1. Two pairs of opposing colors
  2. Best used for foreground/background (best used with one set in the foreground and the other in the background)
  3. Never use 25% of each
  4. Hard, but pleasing



  1. Saturation: Don’t overdo it. Best for highlighting areas of interest, or telling a story.
  2. Value: Use values if high contrast to draw attention

Use Color Harmonies for pleasing combinations

  1. Monochromatic: One color
  2. Analogous: Adjacent colors
  3. Triadic: Equally distant colors
  4. Complimentary: Opposing colors
  5. Split-Complimentary: One complimentary end extended
  6. Double-Complimentary: Two pairs of opposing colors
Author: artbynoelle