An introduction to colour

Colour is the range of visible light. Colour can be seen when light strikes an object. The light is then reflected into the human eye, from there a message is sent to the brain and the information is processed and interpreted – telling us what colour we see.

Colour can be broken down into three parts:

  • hue, which is colour in its purest form;
  • intensity, which is the vividness of a colour;
  • tone or value, which relates to light or darkness of a colour.

Different values are created by tints and shades. A tint is created when white is added to a colour, while a shade is created when black is added to a colour.

The Colour Wheel, which was invented by Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726), is made up of three types of colours:

  • Primary: red, yellow and blue. No two colours can be used to make these colours; they are created through the use of pigments.
  • Secondary: orange, green and purple. These colours are made by mixing two primary colours together.
  • Tertiary: red-purple, red-orange, blue-green, yellow-green, blue-purple and yellow-orange. These are made by mixing a secondary and a primary colour together.

Some colours are known as ‘warm’ colours and some colours are ‘cool’. Which colours would be cool? What do these colours remind you of?

  • Complementary colours are those opposite each other on the colour wheel.
  • Harmonious or (analogous) colours are next to each other on the colour wheel.
  • A monochromatic colour palette consists of variations (tints and shades) of one colour.

Hear from Dr Lisa Slade as she discusses how and why artists use colour.

Investigate the meaning of colours. How have these meanings changed over time and what do they signify in different cultures? Did you discover any colours with multiple representations? For example, the colour red is often associated with love AND anger. What other meanings can you find for the colour red? Research other artists throughout time who have predominantly used red, or another singular colour, in their works.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the colour field painters emerged in Britain, Europe, the United States and Australia. These artists did not depict recognisable subjects; instead colour was the main subject of a work of art, in which stripes, targets and simple geometric patterns were painted. Create a collage with coloured paper that is inspired by mathematics and the colour field painters.