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What are the color relationships in art?

Colors play an important role in art. The colors an artist chooses and how they are used in a painting can affect the mood, draw attention to certain elements, and convey meaning. There are several important color relationships that artists consider when composing their works.

Primary Colors

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These are the 3 pigment colors that can’t be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues. Primary colors are the most basic colors.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green, and purple.

Secondary Color Formed By
Orange Red + Yellow
Green Yellow + Blue
Purple Blue + Red

Secondary colors are lively and high-contrast. They are made up of a primary color and its complement.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by combining a primary color with a secondary color. They are more complex and subtle than primary and secondary colors. Some examples of tertiary colors are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are pairs of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed next to each other, they create the highest contrast. Some examples of complementary color pairs are:

Complementary Colors
Red and Green
Yellow and Purple
Blue and Orange

Using complementary colors together makes both colors appear more intense. Complementary color schemes are bold, vibrant, and high-contrast.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are groups of 3 colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They always contain one primary color and two secondary colors. For example:

  • Red, red-orange, orange
  • Yellow, yellow-green, green
  • Blue, blue-purple, purple

Analogous color schemes are harmonious and pleasing to the eye. They are often found in nature and are used to create serene, comfortable compositions.

Warm and Cool Colors

Colors can also be categorized into warm and cool:

Warm Colors Cool Colors
Red Blue
Orange Green
Yellow Purple

Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow evoke energy, passion, and excitement. Cool colors like blue, green, and purple are associated with calmness, peace, and tranquility.

Monochromatic Color Schemes

A monochromatic color scheme uses different tones, shades, and tints of a single color. This creates a minimalist, elegant look. For example, a painting may use various shades of blue.

Triadic Color Schemes

A triadic scheme uses 3 colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. This creates a bold look with strong visual contrast. For example:

  • Red, yellow, blue
  • Purple, orange, green

Tetradic/Rectangular Color Schemes

This scheme uses 4 colors in a rectangular shape on the color wheel. It’s a complex scheme that offers plenty of variety. For example:

  • Red, yellow, blue, green
  • Purple, orange, blue-green, red-orange

Split-Complementary Color Scheme

This scheme uses a color plus the 2 colors on either side of its complement. This provides a good balance between contrast and harmony. For example:

  • Red, yellow-green, blue-green
  • Purple, yellow-orange, blue-green

Color Temperature

Color temperature refers to the warmness or coolness of a color. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow have longer wavelengths and lower color temperatures. Cool colors like blue and green have shorter wavelengths and higher color temperatures.

Using color temperature helps create mood. Warm colors feel active, passionate, and energetic. Cool colors feel calm, tranquil, and relaxed.

Hue, Saturation, and Value

Hue refers to the pigment of a color (red, blue, etc). Saturation (chroma) refers to the intensity of a color. Value (brightness) refers to how light or dark a color is.

Changing any of these three aspects can dramatically shift the look and feel of a color:

  • Decreasing saturation mutes colors and makes them appear gray, faded, or pastel.
  • Increasing value lightens colors and makes them appear brighter or lighter in tone.
  • Decreasing value darkens colors and increases contrast with lighter tones.

Color Context

The context and interaction of colors is important in art. Certain color combinations evoke different responses:

  • Complementary colors heighten contrast and vibrancy.
  • Analogous colors create harmony and visual comfort.
  • Warm colors feel active while cool colors feel tranquil.
  • Using saturated, bright colors together makes them compete for attention.
  • Combining muted, dark colors creates a moody, subtle look.

Color relationships are complex. Mastering color combinations allows artists to set a mood, establish a focal point, and communicate ideas.

Symbolic Meaning of Colors

In addition to their visual effects, colors can symbolize ideas, emotions, and associations. Some symbolic color meanings include:

Color Symbolic Meaning
Red Love, passion, excitement
Orange Energy, joy, enthusiasm
Yellow Happiness, optimism, idealism
Green Nature, growth, renewal
Blue Calm, peace, stability
Purple Royalty, luxury, spirituality

Artists sometimes use color symbolism to visually represent ideas, set a mood, or send a message to the viewer. This allows color to take on meaning beyond just the aesthetic.

Color Trends and Popularity

Color palettes and preferences have gone through shifts over the centuries. In medieval times, rich blues, reds, and gold were popular due to the expensive pigments. The Impressionists brought new colors like emerald green and cobalt blue. Modern art saw the rise of brighter, bolder colors.

Color trends continue to evolve today. Colors increase or decrease in popularity over time depending on technology, discoveries, economy, politics, and culture. For example:

  • Avocado green and harvest gold were popular in the 1970s.
  • Neon colors became fashionable in the 80s and 90s.
  • Rose gold has been a popular trend in the 2000s.

Being aware of current and historical color trends allows artists to use color associations to evoke certain eras, ideas, and styles.

Using Color Purposefully

Masterful artists use color with intent and purpose to create desired effects. Some techniques of purposeful color use include:

  • Dominance – Using one color throughout most of a painting establishes it as dominant.
  • Balance – Balancing warm and cool colors creates a sense of visual equilibrium.
  • Emphasis – Using a bright, intense color draws the eye to key focal points.
  • Harmony – Analagous, triadic, and tetradic harmonies please the eye.
  • Movement – Progressively varying a color directs the viewer’s eye throughout the artwork.

Truly skilled colorists carefully choose each color and understand how it interacts with other colors. This allows them to use color relationships to bring their artwork to life.


Color is an integral element of visual art. The colors used and their relationships create associations, symbolism, harmony, vibrancy, mood, and emphasis. Mastering the nuances of artistic color relationships takes knowledge and practice. From primaries to complements to color symbolism, the possibilities are endless. Color gives power and depth to artwork, allowing artists to bring vibrancy and life to their creative visions.