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Why Understanding Colour Theory is Important For Artists

A close up painting of a light filled dahlia flower.

Colour theory as a study is fascinating. We are surrounded by colour, and it can have a tremendous impact on our mood, behaviour, the choices we make, and how we perceive the world.

Marketing firms have been using colour theory for decades to influence what we buy, how much we eat, and how long we stay in a restaurant. For instance, orange, yellow, and red are known to make us feel hungry and many fast food restaurants have capitalized on that with their logos and interior decorating.

Think McDonald’s!

A fun fact is that supermarkets use colour theory to make their meat appear redder than it is. Since colours cast their complement onto whatever is next to it, green placed between rows of meat will cast a red hue onto the meat. If red were placed between the meat instead, it would cast green onto it, making the meat appear grey, and no one would buy it.

And, artists who understand colour theory, can use colour to influence how their paintings are perceived. One of the goals of a representational painting is to create depth, and the colours an artist chooses for the foreground, middle, and background will influence how 3-dimensional a painting appears. (If you are a non-representational painter—with the goal to reject a sense of depth—this theory still applies to you, and you can choose your colours deliberately to support a more 2-dimensional effect).

As far as representational art is concerned, however, whether you have a shallow or deep depth of field, (think still life vs landscape), here is some key colour information to encourage a sense of depth in your paintings:

  • Intense colours come forward. Dull colours recede
  • Dark colours come forward. Light colours recede
  • Warm colours come forward. Cool colours recede

Keeping these colour theory rules in mind will create depth in your paintings and encourage the viewer to move into and around the composition. And this will lead to a more successful painting!

As you go about your daily life, it’s fun to notice how colour theory is used to influence how you feel, what you choose, and how well you perceive a sense of depth in paintings you view or you create yourself.

Happy painting!

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