Colour Theory

Colour theory seems a bit of minefield. There seems to be something of a received wisdom that has grown up within painting education literature. While what emerges has a connection to those within physics in the field of optics, there are clear differences. I’m writing this blog to try to get a steer on what’s going on and to see colour theory as in terms of discourse (within which there is diversity). Colour theory is then sited and applied depending on context. For painters working in paint, with pigment and binders, colour is a different beast to what it would be if one was working in a digital context (on screen or in print with CYMK or RGB). To confuse matters it doesn’t matter if you work with pigment and binder, or RBG/CYMK in print, or with optics (either in a Physics context or as a lighting designer), this is all work with light. But each has different conditions and properties.  I will focus here on paint (even though I am tempted to look across all these different areas).

Key terms obviously change and shift as in any form of language. Some have sought to universalise language and currently it is the terms used by Adobe that seem to predominate in terms of colour saturation, hue (and shade of hue) and brightness (this triad formulation is based on the hexadecimal organisation of colour in RGB computing contexts); but other key texts use other terms – differences and perspectives do however yield from the different terms and I am not advocating the monolith of a universal language – even though in terms of teaching a shared vocabulary to suit context is helpful to the learning process. Alternative common terms that are current are: chroma (hue), shade, and value or tone (brightness). Opacity and transparency scales also apply to digital as well as pigment-based contexts, albeit achieved in different ways. So there is a broad if not terminologically unified of what is important in colour manipulation and it’s interesting how Adobe Photoshop terminology has consolidated the use of terms at least for some [for general critical analysis of the cultural place of Photoshop, see indicative essays in software studies such as (Lesage, 2014) (Manovich, 2011)].

Things get more deeply subjective and individuated when it comes to talking about colour harmony. This is not the place to talk in any depth about the sociology of taste, but it does need to be on the table! While some authors and artists have made colour harmony central to their way of seeing the world in aesthetic terms, others stick to the more utilitarian perspective focussing instead on colour mixing. I may add to this post at some later to talk about different palettes and how they related to colour manufacture and availability – as is most obviously the case with Impressionism such that (Bromford, et al., 1991) can cite a generic palette for the movement.

(Bromford, et al., 1991)

In terms of colour mixing, there are of course disagreements as well as some more widely applied principles. Concepts of complementary colours, primaries, secondaries and tertiaries are in common currency – particularly in grasping the sense of how colours can be mixed or juxtaposed on the canvas to enhance or diminish saturation, hue and brightness thereby extending their range.

Chromatic legacies: Setting the Scene





On the Colour Wheel: Wheels keep turning

TBC Compare colour wheels

French guy

Making things round – binary thinking

On the Poetry of Colour

Very different approach to the ‘categoric’, binary and a taxomonic/database-friendly use the visual schema of the colour wheel is where the discourse shifts back into language, and the type of language that is by nature slippery and unanchored. Winifred Nicholson takes a far more poetic approach (Nicholson, 2016). She advocates making up colour names and assigning names that accord more with feeling or what Lacan calls ‘LaLangue’ (Lacan, 1998) about the sound of the word as well a capacity to trigger imaginative flights than the type of description that sees language in terms of one-to-one correspondences.

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In making things round: Example of common warm/cool colour wheel in generic painting tutorials


Bromford, D., Kruby, J. & Leighton, J. R. A., 1991. Art in the Making: Impressionism. London: The National Gammery with Yale University Press.

Lacan, J., 1998. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-1973.. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Lesage, F., 2014. Reviewing photoshop: Mediating cultural subjectivities for application software. Convergence, 22(2).

Manovich, L., 2011. Inside Photoshop. Computational Culture, 1(1), pp. 1-12.

Nicholson, J., 2016. Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour. NY: Philip Wilson.