Ask the Art Prof: What is the Practical Meaning of Color Theory?

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Edward Hopper


“What is the practical meaning of color theory? Granted, I’ve seen the theory, the contrasting colors, complementary colors, cold ones, warm ones, etc. etc. But can’t quite make a connection with practical uses, what one can actually do with this knowledge? As my own works use rather vibrant colors, I thought that it’s not too good to go years making them, and not knowing what’s going on with the colors ‘behind the scenes'”

This is the challenge with information and practice: it’s one thing to gain knowledge and information, it’s another thing to practically apply that information to one’s studio work.  I see the same issue with people who are trying to learn anatomy. People spend all of this time learning about the anatomical structure of the human body, they learn all of the muscle names, and yet when it comes down to actually sitting down and drawing, they don’t know how to actually use that information in their drawings.

When I was learning color in art school, I initially didn’t understand the point of complementary colors.  Sure, complementary color pairs like red and green are across from each other from the color wheel, but really, why does that matter? The way to find out why that matters is to see how other artists take that information and to analyze how they put that theory into action successfully.

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For complementary colors, I think one of the best artists to look at is the American painter Edward Hopper. Hopper consistently used complementary colors to create dramatic contrast in many of his paintings.  You may not necessarily notice it right away, but if you’re looking for it, those complementary color pairs are definitely there. In this painting of a gas station below, Hopper uses a large quantity of a dark green for the background and gets the relatively small gas station pumps to pop out of the page by using a highly saturated red.  The same thing happens on the right side of the painting with the dark crimson roof of the building against the bright green of the tree. Even the base of the pole with the sign on top us painted red at the bottom against the background of green trees.

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Edward Hopper

Once you’ve taken the time to notice and deconstruct the color strategy behind several paintings, it’s time to implement that knowledge into your own work. The most effective way to see results is to do a series of hands-on exercises which highlight each specific color theory idea you’re trying to understand.

I had a painting teacher my sophomore year at RISD who completely transformed my ability to understand color. My grasp of color had previously felt aimless and random, and after taking his class, things finally started to make sense.  When we started his course, he set up a series of three still lifes which were intentionally limited to objects within one complementary color pair.  For example, the red/green painting would have a lime, a red apple, green grapes, with a pink cloth in the background.

By isolating this complementary color pair, this exercise got me thinking about the relationship between red and green, and got me to understand how red and green could work together in a painting to create various effects. For example, I never knew before I did this exercise that mixing alizarin crimson and viridian green created a deep purple that appeared to be black when painted opaquely. I always just used a straight ivory black for anything that I wanted something to look dark.  This new mixture had a richness and vibrancy to it that the ivory black could never have, and it’s a combination that I continue to use to this day.

On a fundamental level, color theory is all about relationships between colors, and understanding what those relationships are is key to implementing color theory into your work. Doing these color exercises sharpens our eye for color and teaches us to create color strategies for our future works.

Ultimately you will segue out of these color exercises and move into your own work.  While one may develop a more intuitive approach to color eventually, that essential foundation of color theory will always be there, and will continue to influence your decisions. Armed with that color theory information and experience, you will be able to find reasons behind why you make the color decisions that you do, and your actions will feel less arbitrary and scattered.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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