Paint the Rainbow: Exploring Color Theory in Painting

Paint the Rainbow: Exploring Color Theory in Painting

While the sheer spectrum of colors available to painters might seem infinite and complex, there’s actually a definite and, at its core, fairly simple order to the world of color.

In exploring color theory, you’ll start to understand the inner workings of the rainbow, which can increase your understanding of tone, color relationships and creating custom colors with paint. This knowledge can help inform your color choices in painting, but can be applied to any type of art you do, be it drawing, quilting or cake decorating.

In this post, we’ll introduce some basic color theory concepts, from the color wheel to types of color relationships, as well as several exercises to try at home to assist in your practical application of color theory in painting.


A good place to start in exploring color theory is the color wheel. Why is it a wheel? Well, think of it this way. You start with a triangle of the primary colors: red, blue and yellow.

These are the colors that are the basis of all others — they can’t be mixed.

Note: White is also a color that cannot be mixed, but we’ll talk about that later, when we discuss value.

Then, add in the secondary colors. These are the ones that can be mixed, directly from the primary colors. For example: red and yellow make orange; blue and yellow make green.

Now, add in the tertiary colors, which are more faceted variations made by combining equal parts of a secondary and primary color (yellow-green, red-violet, etc.). Colors can become more specific from here.

While the below color wheel shows 12 colors, you could increase yours to a much grander proportion.

All of a sudden, you can see why it’s considered a wheel! This wheel provides a powerful guide which can inform our painting by teaching us about color relationships, which can in turn help us choose color schemes for our work.


When discussing the color wheel, there are some key terms:


Hue is, simply speaking, the color in question. The colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet — are all examples of different hues.


Chroma is the saturation or intensity of a particular color. In general, the more pure the color, the higher the chroma. This can be confusing, as it sounds similar to value, but while value refers only to the lightness or darkness, chroma is the saturation or color intensity.


Value refers to the intensity of a color based on a sale from light to dark. White and black can make a color much more muted or deep, respectively. While value is easy to see in a black and white photo, it is harder to discern with color because the colors surrounding one another can create the illusion of value.


Analogous colors refer to the colors which appear next to one another on the color wheel. Typically, one of them will be a more “dominant” color, either primary or closer to it. Using analogous colors in a piece can help you attain a more dimensional look within a color scheme.


If you look at any triangle of colors in the color wheel, you have a triad. Choosing a triad of colors can be a fantastic way of choosing a basic color scheme for a piece of artwork. Move beyond primary colors and choose a triad of secondary or tertiary colors for a unique look.


This is a tighter triangle on the color wheel, in which you choose a color and then the hue on either side of its complement. It combines aspects of triad colors and complementary colors, and will yield a slightly different color scheme which can prove quite compelling in a painting.


It’s hip to be square when you choose colors from the wheel. Choose colors evenly spaced from one another (in a color wheel with 12 different hues, that would be every third hue). On a professional color wheel, this will form a perfect square, where it is slightly looser in the more illustrative image above.

You probably get the idea by now, but by choosing colors within a grouping that follows geometry, you can often find a great way to create a color scheme. You can expand your color wheel to have as many slight variations between shades to create complex color schemes.

Now that you have a basic understanding of color relationships, it’s time to get painting.