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Easy color theory for the absolute beginner

In my years as an artist, I’ve devoured dozens of books, courses, and hundreds of videos about anything that had to do with color theory. Some books were hard to understand, while others repeated the same information.

In this article, I’m going to teach you color theory that even beginners will understand. But I’ll tell you this: color theory is simple but complicated.

With that, I mean that the rules are simple. But, sometimes these rules all happen at once which makes it complicated. Luckily you can always go a step back and reevaluate.

Let’s start!

The fundamentals of color theory

The fundamentals of color theory all start with… you guessed it, color. What makes up a particular color? How can we manipulate it to our liking?

What is a color?

A color exists out of 3 components:

  • Hue
    • The root color or color name
  • Value
    • Also referred to as brightness
    • How dark or light a color is
  • Saturation
    • Also referred to as chroma
    • How intense a color appears

The slightest change to any of these components will get you a different color. Understanding these components is super easy, as you can read in this article: Hue Value and saturation easily explained.

However, sometimes people interchangeably use the terms hue and color. But they are not the same as you can read here.

Colors on the color wheel

Using a color wheel comes in handy when mixing colors. It’s very useful to have a visual representation of how hues relate to each other.

This is how hues sit relative to each other on a color wheel:

color wheel

The important part to realize is that the hues above do not show any value and saturation variations. Just hues. Some color wheels do, though.

The orientation of the wheel doesn’t really matter. I prefer it yellow side up. To make a color wheel yourself you need 3 primaries that make up secondary and tertiary hues.

More on which primaries to use later.

Manipulating colors

To turn a color into a different color is no news to you. But did you also know it’s super easy to manipulate its two other components? Here’s how:

How to manipulate hue

To manipulate hues you need to mix one hue with another. Primaries, which are blue, yellow, and red, cannot be created. Mixing primaries with each other creates secondary colors. Mixing primary colors with secondary colors creates tertiary colors.

However, mixing tertiary colors with secondary colors or other tertiary colors will often result in what we call muddy colors. This is because second and tertiary colors have more than one hue.

As you will learn in about a minute, when some hues are mixed together they will become gray. A grayed-out color will look muddy. So, the more hues are mixed, the grayer it will become!

color wheel

Tertiary colors are what I like to call ”in-between colors”. It’s either a primary or secondary, leaning towards the hue sitting adjacent to it.

In the table below I show you how the secondaries and tertiaries are made:

Hue 1+ Hue 2=
Yellow (primary)Blue (primary)Green (secondary)
Blue (primary)Red (primary)Purple (secondary)
Red (primaryYellow (primary)Orange (secondary)
Yellow (primary)Green (secondary)Yellowgreen (tertiary)
Green (secondary)Blue (primary)Green-blue (tertiary)
Blue (primary)Purple (secondary)Blue-purple aka Violet (tertiary)
Purple (secondary)Red (primary)Purple-red (tertiary)
Red (primary)Orange (secondary)Red-orange (tertiary)
Orange (secondary)Yellow (primary)Orange-yellow (tertiary)

Did you know that a blueish purple is called violet? Violet and purple are often interchangeably used. But there is an important difference between the two.

Sometimes people will say red-orange instead of orange-red. Both are correct. If the hue is orange that leans red, I say orange-red. If it’s the other way around I call it red-orange.

How to manipulate value

Value is the most important part of a painting/drawing. If your values aren’t clear, your painting won’t read well.

Luckily, value is the easiest one to manipulate. You simply add white or black. That’s it! You use white, of course, to create light values and black to create dark values.

When using digital art and you need to change your value, all you need to do is use a slider. This value slider, which in digital art is called the brightness slider, represents black as 0 and white as 100.

color theory

Any digit between 0-100 represents its accompanying value. This is not only a handy tool for digital artists, but also for analog artists!

Analog artists, and with analog I mean artists that physically mix their own colors using art mediums that contain pigments (paints, colored pencils, etc.) can also use these numbers. Why?

Well, to visualize in your mind how dark or light something is. If we talk about a value of 50, you know that this is a mid-gray. Because it is exactly in between black and white.

If we talk about a value of 35, you know it is a dark gray, as it lies in between black and mid-gray. Smart, right?

Values are also the reason why they say black isn’t a color. Or is it?

How to manipulate saturation

There are two options when it comes to manipulating saturation:

  • Add the opposite hue on the color wheel
  • Add gray

They both do the same thing: decreasing saturation. By adding the opposite hue you essentially create your own gray. Depending on how saturated you want your mixture to be, you add more or less of the opposite hue.

Adding gray speaks for itself. The more gray you add, the more desaturated your hue will become.

Unfortunately, you cannot increase saturation. The only way to do it is to change the ratio of your mixture. This means that if you desaturated your blue too much, you simply add more blue so that the ratio of blue to gray becomes bigger.

Just like with value, we can classify saturation with numbers too. A saturation of 0 would be completely gray. A saturation of 100 would be 100% pure and intense.

If I were to ask you to imagine a saturation of 25, where would the slider be set to?


Let’s circle back to hue. Just like with the two other components, we can classify hue with numbers. But since we often visualize hues in a circle, we classify each hue from 0-360.

Digitally, instead of using a circle, they use a bar as well. But still, the number go from 0-360:

Here’s a handy scheme:

HueIts digit

Red, Blue, and Yellow VS Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow

But which primaries should we use?

Red blue and yellow are the standard primaries to create other hues because that’s what we get taught in elementary school. But, cyan, magenta, and yellow are very popular among artists and designers. Why?

Because they produce brighter secondary and tertiary colors.

Technically, cyan, magenta and yellow are variations of the same hue. Do you know the difference between blue and cyan?

color theory

As you can see, the BRY colors look darker and more desaturated. However, the greens on the CMY color wheel are less saturated than the BRY ones. So now what?

When using primaries there are two things you want:

  • To get the most vivid colors (meaning the saturation has to be as high as can be)
  • Light colors

The reason why you want light colors is that when you work with pigments, you work with what’s called subtractive color theory. This basically means that any pigment + another pigment results in a darker pigment.

So: color + color = darker color.

Your secondary and tertiary colors will always be darker. You can lighten them up with white, but adding white does not only lighten the value, it also desaturates your color a bit. Which is not what we want.

So, is there a chance we can combine the best of both worlds? Yes, we can! In comes split complementary color wheels. ;)

How to make a Split Complementary Color Wheel

A split complementary color wheel is a color wheel that uses 6 primaries instead of the classic 3: Red, yellow, blue, magenta, (a cool) yellow, and cyan.

Using 6 primaries gives you optimal colors all around. That’s why these are my go-to primaries.

split complementary color wheel

As you can see in the image above, each primary is now divided into two hues: a warm version, and a cool version.

It’s only logical to mix warm primaries to create warm hues. And cool primaries to create cool hues, right? More on the importance of color temperature later!

Mixing colors and predicting the outcome

Okay now that you know how to manipulate each and every component let’s do something difficult: predict the outcome of mixing two colors.

So, if you were to mix ready-made colors, let’s say burnt sienna with a hooker’s green, what does happen? So you probably won’t mix these colors. As I’ve said earlier, you want to avoid mixing secondary or tertiary colors.

But perhaps you want to use these colors as gradients.

These are the colors I’m talking about:

color theory

What happens when these two are mixed? How do we predict what will happen?

Predicting the outcome by backtracking

Let’s remember a color’s components. What is the hue of each color? It’s easier to imagine where it would sit on a color wheel:

color theory

That’s right, Burnt Sienna is a reddish-orange. And Hooker’s Green is a blueish-green.

The above image might throw you off because the hue wheel only shows hues and not value and saturation. But try to imagine what those hues would look like in a different value and saturation and you’ll see it’s easier to place the colors on the wheel.

We can already tell that the hues green and orange lie far from each other. They are nearly opposites. This tells us that mixing these hues will result in a very desaturated color.

Remember how digital artists use saturation and value bars? Let’s guestimate how much percent each color’s saturation and value is. Just for predictability sake:

Burnt sienna =

  • Hue = red-orange
  • Value = Dark, about 60%
  • Saturation = Relatively saturated = 70%

Hooker’s green

  • Hue = blue-green
  • Value = dark about 35%
  • Saturation = Kind of saturated = 60%

Hue-wise, what will happen? Orange and green, which are the main hues of each color, are almost opposites. This means that the outcome will be very desaturated (very gray). But not 100%, there will still be a hint of a hue.

So saturation and hue-wise know what’ll happen. What about value? Well, the colors are both mid- to dark. So the mixture will also have a similar value.

This means that my guestimate is that the new color will be a dark, greenish, or brownish gray (depending on the ratio of your mixture).

color theory

Yup, a pretty close match! And yes, I predicted this before mixing, I promise :’).

Avoid mixing tertiary colors with secondaries

Does this sound too complicated? As I’ve said before, the rules are simple but all at once it can get complicated.

And luckily, you do not need to know this each time you mix colors. But it helps with planning and predicting.

To avoid situations like these it’s better to use single colors (primaries and secondaries) and don’t start mixing tertiary colors with secondaries.

Mixing tertiaries and secondaries will almost always result in a desaturated ”muddy color” simply because there are multiple hues involved which will gray each other out, at least a little bit.

Just something to keep in mind.

Every component adds to the equation

Keep in mind that every component adds something to the equation. How strong that component is present, is up the the color’s characteristic.

For example, mixing a lot of yellow with a hint of red results in an orange that is lighter in value than red. That’s because yellow has a light value.

A hint of yellow + blue doesn’t only result in a green, but the green will be darker than the yellow because the blue’s value is dark.

Fortunately, when mixing colors you don’t have to think this deeply each time you mix. But it comes in handy knowing how to dissect colors to create any color you want.

Plus, knowing this theory is important because that’s how you avoid muddiness.

How to avoid muddiness in your paintings

To avoid muddiness in your painting the previous paragraph explains it. However, a color’s muddiness is relative.

In one painting the color we previously mixed may look muddy. But when placed in the right context, the ”muddy” color isn’t all that muddy anymore.

If the ”muddy” color is light enough, it is basically a pastel color.

With the theory you learnt so far you already know how to avoid muddiness. But I have made a separate article that goes into depth about avoiding muddiness.

Skin tone colors

The most popular articles that I write are about creating skin tones. My articles have been seen hundreds of thousands of times. And for good reason: my secret formula for creating skin tones works every time!

Even when making skin tones with colored pencils. And the secret is not so secret: I’ve already explained it in this article. Now, skin tones seem intimidating because it’s not really an ”easy” color like green.

Skin tone color is basically a desaturated orange. That’s it. Okay, there is some finetuning in there but honestly, that’s pretty much it.

You just need to adjust the value: dark skin tones require a dark value and light skin tones require a light value. Pretty straightforward, right?

If you are a realistic portrait artist or a stylized character artist and you never want to look up a skin tone tutorial ever again consider getting my e-book. It’s called ”a pocket guide to how to make skin color” and it’s all about skin tone. Including my skin tone formula.

I promise it works every. single. time.

how to make skin color

How to mix black

You mix black by adding all of your hues together. This will completely get rid of any hue: the mixture will become gray. To lower the value you need to mix all of your dark colors. That’s how you get a black.

Or at least, close to a black.

That’s also why when you’re using a CMY (cyan, magenta, and yellow) based color palette your mixed black will come out lighter than if you were to use an RBY( red, blue, yellow) based color palette. Simply because the latter are colors with a darker value.

In my opinion, you should get a ready-made tube of black paint.

How to mix white

To mix white you add all colors together. But unfortunately, this only works when you work with lights. This is called additive color theory. When working with pigments, (subtractive color theory) adding all colors together will result in a gray mixture. This means that you cannot mix white with paint.

If you want white paint you should buy it ready-made.

Warm vs cool colors

Did you know that every color has its temperature? As you might know, reds are warm and blues are cool. But blues can also be warm. And reds can be cool!

Color temperature is important because it helps you avoid muddy colors. It also comes in handy when you want a warm version of a color in certain lighting and a cool version in the shades.

Color harmonies

With all of these colors, how do we mix and match them? Well, in comes color harmonies. Color harmonies are simply hues that complement each other by a rule. These rules are called harmonies. You can apply them to any color.

color harmonies

Here are the color harmonies summed up:

  1. Complementary
    • This harmony involves two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors will make each other pop!
  2. Analogous
    • Analogous colors are adjacent on the color wheel and naturally blend well together.
  3. Triadic
    • Three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel
  4. Split-Complementary
    • This harmony uses one base color and the two colors adjacent to its complementary color (see image)
  5. Tetradic (Double Complementary)
    • Two pairs of complementary colors with one or two hues in between (see image below)
  6. Monochromatic
    • Variations of a single color by adjusting its lightness or darkness.
color harmonies

Keep in mind that these color harmonies only talk about hues. You can adjust the saturation and value of any of those hues and it will still be in harmony!

The value of value

Do you find it hard to come up with a color palette? Well, perhaps it’s not choosing hues that are tricky, choosing colors is tricky. You just learned what color harmonies there are, that’s why your hues are covered.

But, what about their value and saturation?

Well, in order to get your values right, you should think of your painting in black and white. Light plays a massive role in this. Where is your light source? What areas are in the light? What are in the dark?

To practice this you take a reference picture that is in color. Now paint this picture in grayscale. If your painting reads well it means that your values are correct.

Choosing a (limited) color palette to determine saturation

What about saturation? Well, making use of a limited palette helps us with that. With a limited palette, I mean choosing 3 to 4 colors to mix every color that is in your painting (excluding black and white). These chosen colors function as the primary colors that make up your full palette.

The benefit of using a limited color palette is that your painting’s colors will look cohesive. That’s because the secondary and tertiary colors these chosen primaries make relate to each other.

Even though the hues of your chosen primaries have nothing in common.

You can make your colors relate to each other by doing a technique that’s called gamut masking. First, you pick out 3 to 4 colors for your painting.

Then, you place these colors on a tonal color wheel. After that, you connect these colors. Now you have a shape.

Every color that sit within that shape are the colors you can create with your chosen primaries. Both their hues and saturations are now determined. But remember, each of these colors have an additional value range.

This means that if you add black or white to those colors, you can create a painting with the correct values. But, the colors will always look like they belong!

For more information read my article on how to create a color palette.

Lighting affects color

Every painting you make you should think about lighting. A light source has a certain intensity plus a color. This color can be cool or warm.

Keep in mind the following rule:
The base color + the intensity of the light + the color of the light = the new color.

color theory

But there’s more.

The one thing that really ups your painting is… Reflective lighting. This is something SO MANY people forget!

And it really takes your painting to the next level.

Almost every object reflects light. This light may hit your subject when it sits close together to that object. Although very subtly, the color, and intensity of that light will show up on your subject.

Since this is a color theory guide I’m not going into depth about lighting and shading but I still wanted to mention it.

In the example below (a picture of my bed sheets + a questionable-colored shirt of mine) you see reflective light.

reflective light

The rules are the same: local color + light = the color of the area that has the reflective light. But, the intensity of this light source is much much weaker than if it was a lamp or the sun.

So it’s basically the color of the bed sheets + the color of the shirt + a tiny bit of intensity.

Can you tell the difference between the pictures below? Which picture looks more interesting to you?

reflective light

Trust me, start adding reflective lights.

Color psychology

And lastly in our color theory for beginners guide: color psychology!

Color evokes emotion. You as a creator can use this to your advantage. All colors have a negative and positive meaning. Use this to tell your story!

You can let your subject lead with emotion or you can lead with color. The choice is up to you :)

What is color theory in simple terms?

In simple terms, color theory is the theory behind how colors work together. This theory covers how certain colors are made and what combinations look great together. Having color theory knowledge allows you to put together color palettes and it helps you avoid making accidental muddy colors.

It’s like a toolbox of knowledge for making things like paintings, designs, and even outfits look good.

Can I teach myself color theory?

You can teach yourself color theory by reading articles and watching YouTube videos. You do not have to sign up for a class or go to college although it might be easier to understand it that way.

Without tooting my own horn, reading my articles about color theory gives you a great start in your journey to becoming a color theory master.

I hope this article helped you learn color theory. Feel free to sign up for my monthly art letter to receive articles like these directly to your inbox at the end of each month. You can also follow my weekly art tips on Instagram! If you have any questions leave them down below. I’m happy to answer them :)

See you next time!
Love, your online art bestie

♡ Laura

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