What's with all this color theory?


Have you ever read one of those “____ for Dummies” (you fill in the blank) books? You know the ones; they usually have a yellow and black cover. Their books cover a wide range of subjects where the author breaks down a complex subject into short easy manageable bits of information for the reader.


I bet you are asking yourself what does that have to do with my article. Well, it hit me, maybe they have published one of their Dummies series books on color theory. If so, what I’m about to write will have been distilled down in such a way I could never improve upon it.

So, I took a time-out here to head off and do an internet search. Nope, couldn’t find a Color Theory for Dummies book.

If you’ve read any of my prior articles, you know that I am not a classically trained artist. I’ve fallen into this by simply having the passion for realist art sparked when taking Copic coloring classes about four years ago. But, because my nature is to learn all I can about something that interests me, I dig and dig to find information to help me understand all I can about my art.

It should be no surprise that the words "color theory" came up time and time again. So much so that I felt it was a sign that I had to investigate what I was missing. Well, there is a lot there one can dig into. People have been studying and defining color theory long before Sir Isaac Newton translated his theory into the first color wheel in 1666. Amazingly, the color wheel lives on today.

I felt incredibly stupid when I finally learned that colors are all generated from three primary colors, yellow, magenta and cyan (in my case I’m using the CMY color wheel not a RGB wheel). And, after some time spent studying my color wheel I realized that it was like having a color recipe book in my hands that would allow me to create color.

Once I identified the primary colors on the color wheel, the wheel was telling me what secondary colors I would get if I mixed two primaries together. Yes, I know, I learned in elementary school that yellow and cyan make green; yellow and magenta make orange; and, cyan and magenta make violet—I just had no idea how or that this information related to the color wheel back then.

So, going a little further, the color wheel tells me what tertiary color I will get if I mix a primary color with a neighboring secondary color.

The color wheel also tells us a lot about how colors interact. If you want to darken a color, you can use the wheel to get a couple of ideas. First, you can use its complement. A complement is simply the color that sits directly opposite of your color on the wheel. So if I’m coloring with a green and I want to find its complement, I hop directly across the wheel and see the complement is red.

If you place your color wheel with yellow at the top (12:00 on a clock), the colors to the right, until you reach the bottom (6:00 on a clock) are all getting progressively darker. From the bottom back up the left side of the wheel to the top, the colors get progressively lighter. Knowing this, another possible way to darken a color is to select its darker neighbor. By example if I want to darken a red-orange color, I would go down a step on the wheel and see I need to add red. Or, if I want to darken a blue-green, I would step up a color on the wheel and add a green. Note: this information assumes your wheel like mine has warm colors on the right (yellow orange, orange, red orange, red, red violet) and cool colors are on the left (blue violet, blue, blue green, green, yellow green). If your color wheel has the colors on the opposite sides. flip the direction you step find the darker neighbor.

As a side note, as you move up the wheel from the bottom (from either side) you are warming up a color; and conversely, when you move down the wheel from the top (from either side) you are cooling down a color.

Knowing more about colors and how to mix has really helped me select colors for my projects. I can make smarter choice from the start, instead of placing a color and going “oh my that is not what I thought that color would be”.

What has really helped me the most after I created my CMY/Color Pencil color wheel and CMY/Copic color wheels was the time I took to understand what family of colors my markers and pencils belong in. Knowing this is critical for me when selecting the marker or pencil that I need to lighten, darken and/or desaturate my colors. My projects are starting to have much more dynamic colors due to my color selections.

After doing all that work, I separated and now store my pencils into the 12 color families that I have on my color wheel. When I’m working, it is so much easier to pull from the selection within a specific color family. I don’t have to guess whether the color I’m swatching is a yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, etc. I’ve already done that work. If I want to bend a color a little lighter, or even go darker, I know which bin to pull from as it matches my color wheel.

I probably know enough about color theory to fill a thimble. However, what I have learned has really helped me improve my coloring. I hope it can help you too. If not today, soon!


It amazes me that I had a number of color wheels for quite some time that I didn't know how to use, so I didn't. Now I can't imagine sitting down to color without it.


I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go make some beautiful colors.


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