Color!  What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams. Paul Gauguin

Color is fundamentally important to a work of art.  It can do almost anything:

  • Describe the object
  • Decorate the space
  • Express emotion or mood
  • Create the illusion of space
  • Be symbolic

An artist spends a lifetime learning about color.  I hope this introductory lesson will get you thinking about the influence of color in art and in life.

Color has three properties.

  • Hue, which is the name of the color.  For example, red, yellow or blue.
  • Value, which refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.
  • Intensity, which refers to the brightness, purity or saturation of a color.


This is simply the name of the color.  Colors are often organized in a circle:

What are  the primary colors?  Why are they called that? Why would an artist use them?

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43
Jacob Lawrence, Brownstones, 1954

What are complementary colors?  Why are they called that?  What do they do for a painting?

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning
Andrea Del Sarto, The Virgin and Child with a Saint and an Angel, 1514
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise 1872
Walter Sickert, Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892
MGP Andersen, Nap, 2010


This is just the lightness or darkness of a color, or of the overall work of art:

Henri Martin, Serenity, 1899
Gwen John, Young Woman Holding a Black Cat, 1920-25
Maurice Utrillo, Marizy Sainte Genevieve, 1910
Wayne Thiebaud, Around the Cake
MGP Andersen, That Pool, 2012

Why would an artist chose to paint like this?

What does a light value or key do for a work?

Wayne Thiebaud
John Sloan, The City from Greenwich Village, 1922
Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653

Why would an artist prefer a darker value or key?


This just refers to the saturation, or purity of color.

Contrast these works:

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, The Kiss, 1892
Paul Gauguin, The Miraculous Source, 1894
MGP Andersen, Her Guest is Furious, 2011
Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913
Lord Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, 1895

With these:

Caravaggio, The Young Bacchus, 1591-99
Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, La Toilette, 1859

What does intensity of color do for a work?

Why would you have to be careful with this effect?

Non-local Color

Artists like to play with color.  One of their tricks is using non-local color. This is just color used for effect – it doesn’t really belong there.  It’s from out of town.  But sometimes color can surprise you:

Look carefully!

Jan Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-66
Edgar Degas, Morning Bath

Analogous Color Schemes

This refers to colors next to each other on the color wheel.

Why would fashion and interior designers find these attractive?

Monet was crazy about color:

Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Dawn 1894
Monet, Rouen Cathedral, 1894
Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Harmony in Blue, 1894
Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Harmony in Full Sunlight, 1894

Monet liked to “slash and dab” the paint.  Often, when viewing his works, to get the full effect you need to stand back a bit.  Your eye needs to blend adjacent colors.  Some artists took this optical mixing even further.

Optical Mixing

This is when spots or dots of pure hues set beside each other are mixed by the viewer’s eye.

If the dots are discreet and pretty small it’s called pointillism.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86
Georges Seurat, Eiffel Tower

Chuck Close is a modern artist who likes to do this:

Color can create depth:

We’ve already seen this in atmospheric perspective.

  • Cool colors recede
  • Warm colors project
Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte Victoire, 1885-87
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23

Color is important in almost all the arts.  For instance, in the film Far from Heaven:

And in the film Do the Right Thing:

When I decided to make my drawing into a painting I made certain choices.  Why did adding color change it so much?

MGP Andersen, Bedroom, 2006
MGP Andersen, Nap, 2010

And finally, advertisers as well as artists know the power of color:

Red:  Why –

  • Are there often red checked tablecloths in restaurants?
  • Stop signs?
  • “Buy Now” buttons on internet?
  • Red nails?  Red light districts?
  • Red Bull?   Sports cars?
  • Is light red (pink) considered feminine or passive?

Blue:  Why –

  • Are there very few blue restaurants?
  • Is it often used to promote cleanliness?  Travel products? Technology?
  • Is it the most popular “favorite color”?
  • Do men especially prefer it?
  • Is it rarely used to promote food products and cooking?
  • Why do we “feel blue”?

Yellow:  Why –

  • Are taxicabs yellow?
  • Do babies cry more in yellow rooms?
  • Is it connected with cowardice?
  • Is it used to promote children’s products?
  • Is it used to promote leisure products?
  • Will no one buy a yellow suit?  Yellow luxury car?

Green:  Why –

  • Is green used for “healthy” products?
  • Is it used for medical or safety products?
  • Is  jealousy green?
  • Are novices “green”?

Purple:  Why –

  • Did my son’s friend tell him his parents would “disown him” if he wore purple?
  • Do the majority of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors?
  • Is it associated with mystery or magic?  Purple haze?

White:  Why –

  • Is it used for products associated with safety, cleanliness, purity?
  • Is it also used frequently to advertise high tech products?
  • Is there so much white in “futuristic” movies?
  • Do good guys wear white?

Black:  Why –

  • Do villains wear black?
  • Is it considered both formal and cool?
  • Is it associated with death in western culture?

So much to think about!  So little time!  Keep your eyes and your mind open when it comes to color…