How Do Artists and Designers Use Color?

Since the colors we see have significant impacts on our moods and behaviors, unlocking just a little scientific and historical understanding of color can help anyone enhance their daily experiences and thought processes, whether they’re decorating their homes or developing their brands as novices or professionals.

Interestingly, when we see colored objects, we’re actually sensing electromagnetic waves of reflected light on the visible spectrum, part of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can see.

The visible spectrum of color
The visible spectrum

This is because, when white light containing all colors hits an object, that object absorbs some wavelengths and reflects others. For example, when we see a red object, its red wavelengths are reflected. The most common version of red has the longest wavelength, while violet has the shortest.

Creating values from dark to light with color requires shades (the pure hues, or original colors, mixed with darker colors) and tints (hues with added white). A tone is a color mixed with gray, but it may also informally refer to any value range of one color.

Examine Your Tool Set

There are so many tools that can add color to fine art. They include but are not limited to:

  • Colored pencils
  • Water-based pens, which create solid strokes and can vary in width
  • Pastels or pastel pencils; these are very soft and are great for illustrating smooth textures. Some are soft and waxy, while others are hard and have the consistency of charcoal.
  • Watercolor, acrylic, or oil paints

Industry-standard graphic design programs, such as InDesign and Illustrator within Adobe Creative Cloud, utilize multiple formats of color.

  • CMYK is short for a set of four colors of ink — cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) — that are used for printing. It is referred to as process color, meaning that the printed result of one CMYK color consists of many layers of the four standard ink colors.
  • Pantone (PMS) colors are also intended for print; however, they deliver more accuracy and consistency due to using exact, premixed spot colors. They also offer swatches specifically for coated (glossy) or uncoated surfaces, as well as specialty colors such as metallics and pastels.
  • Digital colors are produced not with ink, but with combinations of red, blue, and green (RGB) light emitted from screens.
  • Hexadecimal codes, also known as hex codes, are sets of six-digit codes — each beginning with number signs — that are shorthand versions of each RGB color.

Colorful Combinations

Not sure where to start when combining colors? Keep these concepts in mind while envisioning the color wheel, which shows relationships between colors.

  • Red, blue, and yellow, which are primary colors, can be mixed by artists to create all others, like the secondary colors: orange, violet, and green. Here is how those basic combinations are made:
    • Red + blue = violet
    • Red + yellow = orange
    • Yellow + blue = green
  • You can of course create subtle variations of each color by layering it with another, too.
  • Yellow, red, and orange are considered warm because they remind us of warmth, while blue, violet, and green are cold colors. However, this can change depending on their context and nearby colors.
  • An analogous color group — like that containing red, red-violet, and violet — contains colors close to each other on the color wheel.
  • Complementary colors like red and green are on opposite sides of the wheel. Split complements are the two colors on each side of a direct complement.
  • Color triads are groups of three colors equally spaced across the color wheel.

Colorful Conventions

Each color has symbolic significance, which may vary between individuals and across cultures. Here are some of the most popular associations, explained in more depth through the video above.

  • Yellow: hope, happiness, and energy; cowardice and jealousy
  • Orange: enthusiasm, encouragement, creativity, warmth, and abundance
  • Red: strength, love, and passion; urgency, anger, and danger
  • Violet: royalty, power, wealth, and luxury; the mystical and supernatural
  • Blue: calmness, trust, loyalty, and confidence; sadness — “feeling blue”
  • Green: liveliness and freshness; decay, envy

Watch the video below for a visual summary that can strengthen your understanding of these combinations and the tools used to create them, a long with a more in-depth look at common associations with colors.

What’s next in your exploration of color?

There is so much more to discover! You’re welcome to subscribe for future updates and resources, get feedback about the colors you’re using, or receive custom visual media from a creative expert.

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