Color Theory: Basics

Paint in History

The very first paint was made of “charcoal” or earth pigments ground up into a paste and mixed with binders of spit, blood, urine, vegetable juice or animal fat.

Humans applied this paint using twigs, feathers, or animal hair – often they even blew the paint through hollow bones to produce an “airbrush” effect.

The Greek & Romans discovered the use of wax, resin and eggs as a binding vehicle, Egyptians discovered and used earth pigments sur as malachite (green), azurite (blue), realgar (red-orange) and carmine lake (red).

The Middle Ages brought the discovery of ultramarine (blue), which was used extensively in representations of the Virgin Mary’s garments as a symbol of purity. By the 15th century, walnut and linseed oil began to replace egg as a binder, paving the way for a far more versatile medium: oil paint.

The 19th century brought both the inventions of watercolor and the collapsible tin paint tube, revolutionizing the painting world and leading to a new era of color. No more bound by grinding their own pigments, artists founded color-based movements such as Impressionism and Fauvism. Starting 1900 brought the invention of water-based paint (acrylics) and synthetic pigments.

What is color

In the late 1600’s, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) conducted and published a series of experiments involving prisms, light and color, which for the basis of our current understanding of color.

These experiments involved refracting white light through a prism – a simple triangular glass object that separtes light waves into individual colors. The result revealed that light could actually be broken down into 7 invididual colors: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.

Light and reflected colors

Light is made of eletromagnetic waves produced by a light source (candle, electric light bulb, or the sun). These waves exist in varying lengths which correspond to the differen colors we see.

For example: red is the longest wavelenght and violit is the shortest. The colors we see when light strikes an object are the result of certain wavelengths (individual colors) being absorbed by the object while other wavelengths are being reflected back to us. Those reflected back to us are the colors that we see.

Because physiology differs from one person to the next, we each perceive color slightly differently. This makes our perception of colors somewhat subjective.


The Color Wheel

We have now some knowledge about the science behind color, how do we use our knowledge of light and color to organize a visual system that we can use to achieve our artistic goals ?

Fortunately, much of this organization has been done for us. The easiest way to view color relationships is through the circular diagram called the « color wheel » – a visual organization of color hues that follow a logical order around a circle. Hereby also a link to a few useful online color wheels and color pickers:


We have 3 Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors (I use reference color wheel of Stephen Quiller below):


Best primary color wheel of Quiller Color Wheel Coloring Page Blog Color Wheels


3 Primary Colors: Yellow, Red and Blue (YRB)
In traditional color theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colors are the 3 pigment colors that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 colors (=hues) and considered the building blocks for the painter.

3 Secondary Colors:

  • Orange, Purple and Green (OPG)
    These are the colors formed by mixing the primary colors.

6 Tertiary Colors:

  • Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green & Yellow-Green
    These are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color. That’s why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.

Analogues Colors: are any colors lying nex to each other in between the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colors on the color wheel.

Complementary Colors: are OPPOSITE to each other on the color wheel. Don’t mistake the word “compliment” and “complement”. The colors DO NOT go well together, as the true meaning of commlement is “to make complete” or “to perfect something”.



Complementary Colors

Complements sit directly opposite to each other on the color wheel. For example, red sits opposite to green, blue sits opposite to orange and yellow sites opposite to violet.

These colors are considered “opposites” in their hues and hold the maximum amount of color contrast possible. Just as white is considered the opposite of black, red is the opposite of green. When mixed together, they form a dull gray, brown, or neutral color.  Remember this:

  • To lower the brightness or intensity of a color, add a little of its complementary color.
  • When next to each other, complementary colors appear brighter and more intense.
  • The shadow color of an object often contains the object’s complementary color (the shadow of a green apple contains some red).
  • Complements are often used in a painting’s color scheme; one complement serves as dominant color, and the other serves as secondary or focal point color.


The 3 attributes of Color: Hue, Saturation and Values

To be able to mix any color you must first learn how to see into a perceived color in order to identify the 1) Hue, 2) Saturation and 3) Value

Hue (= color)

  • The beauty of the color wheel is that it shows us the relationships between the various Hues. The term “Hue”, which is often used interchangeably with the world “color”, refers to the family to which a particular color belongs.
  • For the purpose of simplification and logical organization, the color wheel features 12 basic Hues.
  • You also have Grey-scale hues called Neutrals or Achromatics but let’s leave them aside for now as not heavily referred to in the miniature painting world.


  • Most frequent terminology used for Saturation: Intensity, Chroma, Chromaticity.
  • A color’s saturation (also called it’s “intensity” or “chroma”), refers to its level of brillance or dullness. A highly saturated color is very vibrant (phthalo blue or codmium lemon yellow). These very bright colors stand in contrast to colors that have a much lower saturation level (yellow ochre, burnt sienna, red oxide).
  • As each color competes for the viewer’s attention, an effective way to use saturated colors is in conjunction with unsaterated colors, so that some parts of your painting demande the attention while others fade back and play a supportive role.
  • This is a very easy way to intensify your colors, simply surround them with neutral, grayer hues.

Values (= white to black scale)

  • Most frequent terminology used for Value: Tints, Shades and Tones:
    • A tint is a color + white paint
    • A Shade is a color + black paint
    • A Tone is a color + black & white (or grey) paint.
  • The value refers to a color’s lightness or darkness. A yellow hue is a light value, sometimes called “high key” value, whereas purple is darker or “lower key” value. As you paint, be aware of the values of your colors in order to create dynamic constrasts of light and dark within your miniatures.TintToneShade-56c243135f9b5829f867fe93

Color Temperature

Painters often call colors “warm” or “cool”. This refers to wheather a color lies on the Red/Orange/Yellow half of the color wheel or the Blue/Green/Purple half.

Warm colors appear to come forward while cool colors appear to recede: many painters use this idea to create a sense of depth on their miniatures, by pushing and pulling details using cool tones to push back and warm tones to pull forward to the eyes of the viewer.


Color Relativity

While colors are generally classified as warm or cool, they can also be relatively warm or cool within their hue. Although Red is considered the warmest color, there are cool Reds and warm Reds.

  • A cool Red contains more blue (such as megenta)
  • A warm Red contains more yellow (such as coral)

This leads us to the importance of color relationships. The way we perceive a color’s characteristics is relative to its surroundings. By using contrasts in Temperature, Value and Saturation, we can make colors appear warmer or cooler, lighter or darker and brighter or duller simply by the colors we place next to them. To summerize:

  • How do you make a color appear warmer ? Place a cooler color adjacent to it
  • How do you make a color lighter ? Place a darker color adjacent to it.
  • How do you make a color appear brighter ? Place a duller color adjacent to it.


Color Schemes

Over time, certain color combinations have been established as especially agreeable to viewers. Those combinations consist of two or more colors that have a fixed relationship on the color wheel. This includes Tints, Tones and Shades of the colors within a scheme, simply be aware of the balance of warm to cool hues, as well as saturated to neutral colors.

The following color schemes are most commonly used as a basis for a successful paint job:

  • Monochromatic Scheme: uses a signle colorthroughout, along with variations of the color’s Shades, Tints and Tones.A monochromatic palette is elegant, easy on the eyes and soothing. This is the easiest color scheme to create, all you need is your color of choice, black and white paints.


  • Analogous Scheme: is made of colors that sit adjacent to one another on the color wheel. Most often, one color serves as the dominant color, with others used to accent and enhance the overall scheme. Although the lack of contrasting colors yields as simplistic look, this scheme has a simple elegance that is pleasing to the eye.


  • Triadic Scheme: uses threee colors equally spaced around the color wheel (example; Red-Orange, blue-Violet and Yellow-Green). Many painters enjoy using this scheme because, unlike the previous two, there is ample color contrast and a natural color balance. One color serves as the dominant color, while the other two act as subordinate hues.


  • Complementary Scheme: offers the most visual contrast because it is made up of two colors that site opposite to each other on the color wheel. Most successful when one color acts as the dominant color with the other in a supporting role. The two colors should not be the same saturation intensity and must be visually balanced.


  • Split Complementary Scheme: uses a color and two colors adjacent to its complement. There will be less tension than with the Complementary Scheme.


  • Analogous Complementary Scheme: combines both the Anaolgous and Complementary schemes, incorporating three side-by-side hues plus the complement of the center color (example: Red, blue-green, Green and Yellow-Green).


  • Tetrad Scheme: uses two hues that are separated by one color on the wheel, plus the complement of each hue. Because this can overwhelm with visual tention, it’s a good idea to choose one dominant color and accent with the rest.


  • Saturated Scheme: uses the brightest possible colors with very few neutrals and greys. While this creates a very lively paint job, the scheme makes creating a focal point on your miniature very hard. All colors compete for attention.


  • Neutral Scheme: as the opposite of the Saturated Scheme, the Neutral Scheme uses colors that have been greyed down. This is perfect for ghosts, white-on-white subjects and zombies.


  • Saturated and Neutral Scheme: this pairs highly saturated colors with various shades of grey. Because much of what we see in life is actually some form of grey, this scheme is often the most accurate way to depict color.



Tinting your colors


Harmony in colors

What constitutes harmony in color ? It is generally defined as a pleasing arrangement of colors, but the definition tells us nothing about how to achieve color harmony. We can make the general statement that all complementary pairs, all triads, whose colors form equilateral or isosceles triangles in the twelve-member color circle, and all tetrads forming squares or rectangles are harmonious.

Let’s finish the basics by diving into the symbolic meanings of colors. Please note there are no hard-and-fast rules about color meanings, and while experts generally agree on bread meanings, there are many disagreements about the credibility of specific meanings. That’s because nearly every color has both positive and negative connotations, an ambiguity that does not fit well with scientific inquiry. With that caveat shared, let’s present some current opinions:

Red: is the color of blood, fire, passion and aggression, the color that is the most violent and exhilarating. Red is associated with the Devil, but on a softer note, in many cultures red is used as burial color. Red can mean love, action, dynamism and power !

White: evokes contradictory interpretations. White often symbolizes innocence and purity but in many other cultures it represents the color of death. A white flag of truce signals an honorable intent to surrender peaceably. In the ancient symbolic meaning of colors in dreams, white meant happiness in the home, which brings to mind all of those detergent commercials taht shout the importance of white (Mr Propre !).

Black: would typically connotes death, mourning and evil, and a liberal use of black ahs negative overtones as the color of ill omen, hell and damnation. Black has always been associated with the night and for this reason is allso associated with unknowing, mystery, and intrigue. In the Western world, black became the color of the clergy and the color worn by widows and graduating college students.

Green: is the color of balance and harmony and symbolizes spring and youth, hope and joy. In the Muslim world, green signifies the Prophet Muhammad and therefore represents the entire religion. In England, the color « Lincoln Green » has a heroic connotation because of its connection with the folk figure Robin Hood. In the Western world, the « Go » sign is green. But green has also negative connotation and symbolize illness (think green of bile) or loss of the healthy skin color. It is also the color of envy and jealousy, but think also about « Little Green Men », « The Incredible Hulk » or Kermit the Frog saying « it’s not easy being green ».

Yellow: certainly one of the most ambiguous color. It is the color of sunlight, gold and happiness, of intellect and enlightenment, but it is also the color of envy, disgrace, deceit, betrayal and cowardice. In Islam, golden yellow is the color of wisdom and during the Chinese Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1912), only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow ! Yellow is full of contradictions; desire and renunciation. Dreams and decadence. Shining light and shallowness. Gold here. Grief there. Modern law enforcement in the USA uses bright yellow tape to mark a crime scene, another good-versus-evil sign. Gentelmen are said to love blondes, but women with blonde hair were called (by those same gentlemen) « dumb blondes ».

Blue:evokes the void or vast distances, as in something disappearing « into the wild blue yonder ». In its darker versions, blue represents authority (official’s dark blue suits – police uniforms). In its paler versions, blue means happiness. In Christianity, the Madonna is usually clothed in blue, symbolizing fidelity, as reflected in our modern phrase « true blue ». Yet, blue is ambiguous and mysterious. Blue connotes reverie, sadness and melancholy (think about the « blue period » of Picasso Depicting the lowlife of Paris with its sadness and poverty).

Orange: seems to carry little symbolic meaning, though it is often used as an identifying color for sports teams, as Oranje’s team in the Netherlands.  Curiously, there is little mood or feeling connected with the color orange, that is, there are no phrases in our language about feeling orange orbeing orange, as there are phrases about feeling blue, being in a black mood, being yellow (cowardly), or thinking green. Orange is related to heat and fire, but without the intense feelings ascribed to red and, as red becomes more re-orange in mixture, it loses its meaning of danger. Orange is connected to the fall season and to Halloween, it seems to carry some connotation of frivolity, lack of seriousness, or mischief, but on the positive side, perhaps, energy without aggression.

Brown: is the color of the earth’s soil probably explains also why it is one of the few colors named in early languages. It is a low-intensity color made by mixing blue or black with orange; often regarded as a dreary color. It freqently symbolizes misery or gloominess, as in the phrases « in a brown study », meaning in deep thought or meaning loss of focus or ability to concentrate. The color of uniforms is often brown but on a positive note, the Brownies in folk literature were small brown elves who helped with housework, and the sobriquet « Big Brown » now humorously identifies the UPS delivery vans.

Purpole/Violet: is a dark color, the closest in value to black and some of its symbolic meaning stems from the fact that it reflects so little light. Purple’s complement, yellow, is the palest of the color wheel hues and the color that reflects the most light. Thus, the two together form something like sunlight and shadow. Purple is a color assocaited with deep feeling, as in purple passion or purple with rage. It is a color associated with mourning of the death of loved ones. In early cultures, purple dye was extremely difficult and expensive to produce. Therefore, « royal purple » quickly came to symbolize the ruling class, dignity and power. Purple connotes bravery (the « Purple Heart »). Violet, in color theory, is interchangeable iwth purple. Both are made from red mixed with blue. In common usage, however, the term « violet » calls to mind a somewhat paler, softer hue, without purple’s connection with authority and power. It has a connotation of sadness, fragility, and vulnerability.

Pink: although it is made from red mixed with white, it has none of red’s violent connotations. Pink is quite benign and generally symbolizes light moods. It’s associated with girl babies, femininity, and cotton candy.

Grey: is the color of gloom and depression. Stormy winter and coldness. It is the color of indecision and uncertainty, of « grey areas » that defy direct action. It carries the connotation of lack of strong feeling and an abdication of self. In nature however, grey is a common color that provides camouflage (think grey wolves), whales and elephants, which may explain the otherwise puzzling popularity of non-commital grey clothing in the business world.


You should watch the Basics Color Theory video below:






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