The Role of Color in Art (or, How to Use Color to Enhance a Painting)

Published Dec. 30th 2008

The ever-intriguing question, “What color is that?” is a very common one among human beings. Colors are important in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes, cars, even our pets. . . and while the colors in a painting might be the first thing a viewer notices, there’s a lot more to color than meets the eye.

So it’s up to us, as artists, to delve beyond just recognizing and naming colors to using colors for their inherent qualities, towards a specific end.

The role of colors in a painting

In a recent tutorial we looked at the roles of value in our paintings, and how these roles are independent of color. Today I want to take a look at what we can make color do that value cannot do.

You’ll notice that just like value, color has two roles: describing and composing.

Colors can describe a scene in ways value cannot

There are actually four different ways that colors describe things:

1. Hue: the location within the color spectrum


For example, the hue of lemons could be spectrum yellow or they could lean a bit towards orange or towards green.

yellow lemons

This depends upon whether the light source is cool or warm. No matter which, it is still in the yellow family.

2. Saturation: the degree of spectrum purity

Saturation changes toward neutral when complements are mixed together. For example, when purple gets mixed into yellow, the yellow becomes less pure and more neutralized. Look at this example.

yellow rose compare

The hues are yellow in both roses, but the right rose is more neutral than the left.

3. Temperature: warm to cool

Colors within the yellow, orange and red families tend to be warmer than colors in the blue, green and purple families. In our lemons example, the lemon half on the left is warmer than the half on the right which contains a bit of the cooler color blue.

See this article to learn how to find the correct color temperature while painting.

4. Value: light to dark

The hue of a color is not the same seen in light as seen in shadow.

blue ball

I have sampled from this blue ball five areas to show how the hue is different depending upon to what degree it is in direct light. One rule of thumb: cool light produces warmer shadows; warm light produces cooler shadows.

Here, the purplish shadow is cooler than the warmer blue in the light, where we can even see a bit of yellow. (Your monitor colors may vary.)

Colors can also affect the composition of a painting

The five major composing roles of color are as follows:

1.To harmonize (or the opposite, to contrast)

2.To unify a scene

3.To set forth a visual path

4.To produce rhythm

5.To create emphasis

In the Richard Schmid oil painting below, color functions in all five roles.

schmid pansies

The overall warm tones create harmony along with repetition of orange and warm green. Blues in the background and foreground give contrast or counter-harmony.

While dominance of warm colors unify the painting, a visual path is created with the repeating of the brighter oranges. The repeated smaller green shapes in the foliage create a rhythm within that path.

The emphasis in this painting is from accents of yellows, yellow-oranges, that one little pink flower in the lower right and that tiny little yellow note in the lower right.

Now look at a totally different painting by Robert Genn.

genn falls

The overall bluish tone unifies, while purplish-red accents bring harmony throughout. Repeating greens set the visual path and give rise to rhythm. Emphasis results from the highlights in the water contrasting with the surrounding blue and dark gray rocks.

Finally, look at this portrait by John Burton.

burton shepherd

Repeated golds and warm browns harmonize the piece. That warmth receives emphasis from the contrasting cooler blues in the sky. A dominance of warms unify as the viewer’s eye is led throughout the painting with the repetition of orange-yellows.

When we observe and use the descriptive characteristics of color as composing tools, we discover a world of opportunity for creative and fresh uses of color.

Try taking your paintings this one step further—plan some of your color choices ahead of time—and see how it opens up an entirely new door to creativity.

Did you like this article? Share it!
Then check out the related posts below.
Understanding the color wheel and using color theory in your artwork is a good idea for any artist, and especially for oil painters. In this article I'll go through the basics of color theory (using a traditional artist's color wheel) and explain ways that oil painters and other artists can m. . . read more
As much as some people would like to paint by specific formulas and rules, real painting doesn't work like that. It's more important to see what you're painting than to follow the traditional rules of painting. Here are 8 "rules" of painting that artists don't always need to follow. 1. To make. . . read more
Today I'm going to demonstrate the “color wheel method” of painting for watercolor artists. I will be using the light and dark values inherent to the colors in my palette to create value and form in a simple still life painting of an orange. While other painting mediums (like oil and acrylic) . . . read more
Understanding color when painting may feel like confusing subject, but it really doesn’t need to be. By using just a limited number of colors, and learning how they behave when they are mixed together, you can learn everything you need to know! I like to paint with a split primary palette, mys. . . read more
It's all too easy for beginning artists (and many experienced artists as well) to undervalue the importance of understanding color theory. When I was first starting out, I bought many tubes of paint and relied heavily on "convenience" mixes in lieu of mixing my own colors. Mixing just seemed s. . . read more
Stay current.
Subscribe to EmptyEasel's free weekly newsletter for artists. Sign up today!
Art Contests
More art contests. . .
EE Writers
Cassie Rief Niki Hilsabeck Brandi Bowman Michelle Morris Lisa Orgler Adriana Guidi Carrie Lewis Aletta de Wal

If you'd like to write for EmptyEasel, let us know!

We love publishing reader-submitted art tutorials, stories, and even reviews.Submit yours here!