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Jenlo262 Presents: The Basics of Color Theory

Jan 16, 2008

by jenlo262

When winter is in full swing, there is no better time to consider color! Even in winter, color is everywhere. It jumps out at us from a group of children playing in the snow with their brightly colored hats and scarves, and it falls deep into the background of the soft lavender hills in the distance. It weaves itself throughout our homes, our landscapes, and city streets. But how do we use these colors in our creative processes – be it painting, weaving, sewing, or decorating? How can we make colors come to life in the middle of winter?

The artist’s basic color wheel (which differs from the subtractive wheel used by printers which has magenta, yellow, and cyan as its primary colors) helps us define what we are seeing, and how to make a world of color work for us. The idea behind the color wheel starts with three primary colors (red, blue, yellow) evenly spaced around the wheel. These colors are considered primary because they can not be created by mixing other colors. Historically, for artists, they were considered the building blocks for all other color choices.


As you most likely learned in your kindergarten class using glasses of colored water (although you may have forgotten by now), mixing two primary colors together creates the secondary colors of purple, green, and orange. Then, by looking across the wheel, this establishes your complementary color combinations: red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. Artists consider these complements to encompass the whole spectrum of colors, since when they are mixed together (e.g. red mixed with green) they produce grey. (Or what we used to call in art class – “mud,” at which point we knew it was time to go clean our brushes!)

If you need a little (and I mean little) science to back this up for you, consider the effect of the complementary colors on your eyes (more specifically the cones and rods inside your eyes).


Take 20 seconds to stare at the orange square, and then stare at the white space to the right of it (or a blank white wall or white sheet of paper) for 20 seconds. What do you see?

You are likely to see a faint blue square shape – the complement of orange. If it doesn’t work for you, it works best if you color in a red or orange square with markers on a plain piece of paper, so feel free to try it again. And remember: I said a little science! It’s also fun to note that the faint square your eyes produce is the same shape as the original colored shape at which you were staring. For more information (and another more complex eye test), go here.

But what can these complementary colors do for you?  For early artists it was a great way to deceive the viewer. When blue pigment was scarce (i.e. expensive), an artist could make a grey sky look more blue by using an orange color next to the sky. A color complement is just that: it brings out its complement in surrounding colors, making it brighter and more vibrant.


So, if you want those colors to pop off the page, you can place complementary colors next to each other. Or if you want to hint at a color, you can use a complement to bring out color from something more neutral. It is also a great way to help a viewer travel through your painting, your quilt project, or even your room! Watch your eye travel from an orange pillow, to a blue vase, to an orange and blue quilt lying across your favorite chair. Using even a little bit of color complements can brighten any home!

Going further into the color wheel, we can mix primary and secondary colors together to give us a broader range of colors (tertiary colors) from which we can create color schemes – color combinations that work well together (e.g. using colors that are side by side on the wheel with one or two complements).

Another way to do this? Shop by COLOR! Choose two or three colors near each other in the Etsy color chart, and then venture out to find a complement! It’s a great way to look at a variety of colors to find your color scheme and also get to look at the items that go with them. Understanding your color wheel will make the process of finding colors that work together easier, but as you create your color combinations for your painting, your room, your afghan project, and more, it is important to realize that there are other factors at play as well (lights and darks, warms and cools, the emotions of color – more on that later). However, understanding your color wheel will be a great start to any project!

Look for the next installment in Jenlo262’s series on color theory, coming soon! 

23 comments

  • Caprichos

    Caprichos said 11 years ago

    Great Article! Color theory is so important in design...and something that we sometimes overlook, but it can help us so much to make our products jump out at the customer... also... the photographs are great... another reason why I'm addicted to the Storque!

  • JCBeadedKeepsakes

    JCBeadedKeepsakes said 11 years ago

    This article is well written and informative. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the lesson. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

  • alkemystic88

    alkemystic88 said 11 years ago

    The color of art.

  • pollyannacowgirlbags

    pollyannacowgirlbags said 11 years ago

    very helpful! thanks.

  • BKMHattitude

    BKMHattitude said 11 years ago

    Great article thanks!

  • santokivintage

    santokivintage said 11 years ago

    Ah so helpful. Thank you for sharing. :)

  • ErinHaldrup

    ErinHaldrup said 11 years ago

    Wow! That was fun.. can't wait for the entire series.

  • jenlo262

    jenlo262 said 11 years ago

    Thanks all! I love the images that Vanessa chose to include too!

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa said 11 years ago

    That was totally Alison's doing. She's the queen on prettifying!

  • jenlo262

    jenlo262 said 11 years ago

    Then you're both awesome!

  • thedot

    thedot said 11 years ago

    I love Ornamentea! I'm glad you featured them :)

  • clothcat

    clothcat said 11 years ago

    Great article - very helpful. I'll have to try and remember it when I'm picking backgrounds to photograph on.

  • SilverShadow

    SilverShadow said 11 years ago

    Well written and nicely illustrated. Didn't go into tertiary colors and the various combinations of colors: monochromatic, etc. but well done.

  • meredithdillman

    meredithdillman said 11 years ago

    Great photos!

  • katelynjane

    katelynjane said 11 years ago

    I have a new bag in my store with green and yellow as it's main colors. Weirdly enough, it's gotten more hits in one week than any other item in my store...I wonder if that has to do with the color attraction... (: Thanks for the article!!

  • ChiChiBean

    ChiChiBean said 10 years ago

    what was I thinking? your right. it's all about the color!!!

  • TheGemstoneGarden

    TheGemstoneGarden said 10 years ago

    I could stare at that orange mug all day... and I don't even like orange! haha!

  • FireBearDesigns

    FireBearDesigns said 9 years ago

    There's that thin line between science and art - remember that it's just a line! Great article on making color work for you.

  • yotldesigns

    yotldesigns said 9 years ago

    Thanks for such good advice about color theory.I've been thinking about this all week.

  • SilkMari

    SilkMari said 9 years ago

    The color wheel is one of the most valuable tool, for me, in painting...I love this article...thanks Jenlo... for explaining the theories ....experimenting with the complementary color is very exciting and the neutral colors that are created are most beautiful.I rely heavily on the color wheel for each of my projects as it keeps me in the "safe zone" ...that I know the color combination that I choose will be...in harmony...

  • SweetiePieCaketopper

    SweetiePieCaketopper said 8 years ago

    Thanks so much.

  • MissMaryElliott

    MissMaryElliott said 8 years ago

    another awesome store on etsy-just beautiful :)

  • Bases para una teoría del color | Etsy habla Español said 4 years ago

    […] será un gran inicio para cada proyecto. Próximamente otro artículo sobre color. Traducción de Jenlo262 Presents: The Basics of Color Theory de jenlo262, por Paula […]

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