(excerpted from A Pigment of Your Imagination: An Introduction To Color,
by Fred B. Mullett © 1995)

Color is probably the most personal of preferences when dealing with issues of the visual or graphic arts. What is visually exciting to one may be garish to another. What is subtly pleasing to some may be boring and tedious to others. Or maybe you just want to complement the colors of the sofa. Who's to say which is better when addressing such evaluative questions. And just as surely, mastery of color may be intuitive, and more of nature than nurture. It could come in a minute or it may take a lifetime, if it ever comes at all. But what should not be disputed is that the range of color possibilities can be made less intimidating by studying the elements of color in a reasonable, logical format. We can then begin to understand the whys and hows of the myriad of color "situations" that surround us. And then, hopefully, we may begin to bring more of the magic of color into our lives.

In order to use color well we must have a familiarity with how color works. We do that by addressing some fundamentals of color theory; value, hue and intensity.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. Another name for this is tonal quality. Think of a series of grays that move from white to black, passing through light gray, middle gray and dark gray. Colors have a corresponding value, or quality of lightness or darkness. Yellow, for example, is an inherently light color, much like light gray. Purple is a dark color, much like dark gray. So what would a dark yellow look like? Are you sure? I place this definition first because I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding that all color is subordinate to the notion of value and the importance of being able to see it.

Hue in another name for the color properties that help us locate its position on the standard color wheel. Yellow, red and blue make up the primary hue families and are named primary because they are used to make the other color families and cannot be created by mixing other colors together. Next we find secondary hue families such as orange, green and violet (or purple). These are theoretically midway between and equal mixes of each of the neighboring primaries. Then come tertiary (meaning third position) hue families: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green. Remember, these are families of color. The color you might recognize by one of the names used above is only a single member of that particular family. For example, light blue is in the same family as dark blue; it's just lighter in value. But into what family would we put the color brown?

Intensity refers to a color's strength or weakness, somewhere between bright and neutral. A majority of colors in the world around us are not pure, intense color. Most are subdued, tending toward a gray of equal value. Bright colors have a tendency to stand out more than grays, but a bluish-gray or reddish-gray can be of the same tonal value as the blue or red from which they are derived. How is this accomplished? Do we have any use for such colors and how would we use them?

To better understand the structure of Value, Hue families and Intensity, I would suggest obtaining a copy of the Liquitex® Color Map (see an unauthorized version) . Rather than a color wheel, it is laid out in chart form. This lends itself to looking at the various members of the families and their respective values.  Look for it in the Liquitex® book How To Mix & Use Color book at your local art supply that carries Liquitex brand paints.

There are several books that I would also recommend on the structure and use of color:

Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green, by Michael Wilcox (1987). North Light Books. Cincinnati, OH.

Painting by Design; Master Class, by Charles Reid (1991). Watson-Guptill Publications. New York.

Light; How To See It, How to Paint It, by Lucy Willis (1988). North Light Books. Cincinnati, OH.

Color Choices, by Stephen Quiller (1989). Watson- Guptill Publications. New York.

Color, by Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher (1989,1994). Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, NJ

There are some books don't have anything to do with hard color theory, such as Theroux's The Primary Colors.  This is a wonderful book!  It is about how color affects the world and the cultures of man. His prose is powerful and poetic.  I can't recommend it enough if one wishes to read about the impact of color on the human condition. And the reviews have been equally meritorious for his follow-up offering, as well, though I have yet to read it.

The Primary Colors: Three Essays, by Alexander Theroux (1994). Henry Holt and Co. New York
The Secondary Colors: Three Essays, by Alexander Theroux (1996). Henry Holt and Co. New York

And do yourself a favor by enthusiastically heading over to Maggie Maggio's Blog For The Color Curious.  She does a marvelous job of examining the theoretical and the practical components of the Color Theory, especially focusing on the polymer clay crowd.  She is "constantly revising the tutorials since (she) learn(s) new things, both about color and about how to teach it, every time (she does) a workshop."  Well done!

(Click here Adirondack Color Wash chart.)

And remember, despite what everybody says, "mud" is a viable color to use as it makes everything else look good!


copyright © 2011 Fred B. Mullett

  color wheel

a conversion...of sorts