What is Colour for Art?

Centuries before the principles behind colour could be explained by science, colour was used as an essential element of communication and expression, dating back to the cave paintings of the Stone Age. Colour has been used as a symbolic art of society, associated with the cultural evolution of humanity, as the use of colour in different prehistoric environments has been linked to the artistic and cognitive development of individuals. Some experts believe that colour was associated with a symbolic system spread and shared by many societies over different periods. (Ardila-Leal, Poutou-Piñales, Pedroza-Rodríguez, & Quevedo-Hidalgo, 2021)

The Artistic Perspective

The majority of colour systems explain colour relationships in terms of visual categories of like and unlike elements. There are no one-to-one physical equivalents of colour measurement that create these visual colour orders. Rather they assume that all human observers with so-called normal vision will be able to group colours in scales of order – the most fundamental being the achromatic or grey scale of brightness (value) from white to black. Another order common to all normal observers is the hue scale which is circular in arrangement so that alike colours are close together and colours least alike are opposite each other on the circle. The third dimension of colour, which is commonly called saturation, or what Munsell refers to as chroma, defines the relative purity of a hue measured by its amount of difference and therefore distance from the achromatic scale of grays on the Munsell model. Ostwald’s system differs by organizing colour in this dimension according to the relative degree of whiteness (tints), greyness (tones), or blackness (shades) contained in colours of specific hue. (Nassau, 1997)

Main Contributors and Their Views

Most current artists derive their notions about colour order systems from the theoretical work of Albert Munsell (1916) and Wilhelm Ostwald (1931). These colour scientists started developing their two different colour systems over one hundred years ago, just at the time that artists were beginning to experiment in the development of abstraction in painting. Ostwald devised a three-dimensional colour system in the shape of a double cone. He constructed his symmetrical model based on colour relationships that one would discover through colour mixing particularly by using a rotating disc containing variable area sectors of hue, black and white. Munsell devised an irregularly shaped colour model based on the visual parameters of how the human eye/brain system sees equal increments in discriminating the differences between colours. (Nassau, 1997)

Our present understanding of colour order, when considered in the larger context of the history of art, is fairly recent. One of the earliest documentations of colour ordering to predict mixtures for artists was by Franciscus Aquilonius, in 1613. But our modern conception of a colour order system starts with Isaac Newton’s colour circle published in his Opticks, which established the basic laws of the additive mixture of colour. (Nassau, 1997) In contrast to Newton’s theory that colour is a part of the physical world, Wolfgang Goethe argued that the physical world is merely light and dark, with colour arising from within the human soul, connected with emotional elements of the soul. He chose the triadic system for his basic colours in which red was associated with imagination, yellow with reason and blue with understanding and empathy. Artists seized upon this connection with enthusiasm because it offered a way to symbolize emotions in the same way imagery symbolizes ideas. (Burton, 1984)

The first example of a reproductive process that makes use of both optical mixing and pigment mixing principles was J.C. Le Blon’s method of three colour printing in the eighteenth century. Later in the century Moses Harris in England devised a colour circle overprinted by progressive densities of black lines, thus making use of the principle of optical mixture in order to show gradients of each hue toward dark. (Nassau, 1997)

Using Thomas Young’s trichromatic theory of vision (refer Article 1) as a basis, by the end of the 19th century, Charles Lacouture in France had published a complete colour atlas based on the principles of optical mixture from three primary hues and black on a white ground. (Nassau, 1997)

All this led in this century to the colour solids of Munsell and Ostwald which have become well known tools for the artist to understand the possible mixing of colour both optically and in pigments, since mixed colours could now be envisioned as occupying positions in the colour solids between the parent colours. (Nassau, 1997)

Colour Theories 

Historically, the artistic view was that red, yellow, and blue were the primary colours. This has led to the fact that some colour wheels begin with these as primaries and mixing these yield secondary and tertiary hues which are usually characterized as RYB (Red Yellow Blue) colour wheels. The RYB colour wheel was originally described by Isaac Newton in his 1704 treatise on Opticks. The use of this colour wheel as a model for complementary colours and as a basic tool for art and printing became well established. Two documents, Goethe and Chevreul, became the handbooks for colour theory. Even today the RYB colour wheel is used to describe complementary colours in art and photography. (Wegman & Said, 2011)

A colour wheel which is based on RGB (Red Green Blue) as the primaries is usually known as HSV (hue, saturation, and value) colour wheel. A simplification showing only fully saturated hues can be used for purposes of colour design.

By investigating colour, the abstract artists discovered new possibilities for stimulating more complex visual experiences in order to further contest the physical limits of the canvas and thus to alter the nature of their expression. The development of three-dimensional models of colour was partly in response to one of the most basic of artistic problems: the need to predict and control colour mixture, whether in pigments or optically. Artists needed to understand how to predict the possible variety of visual colours they might make from the limited palette they had available. By learning from experience, they were able to formulate simple pragmatic rules of colour mixture. (Nassau, 1997)

Contemporary Colour Design Principles

In general, colour design principles suggest a number of different strategies for using colour. The simplest strategy would be to choose a monotone achromatic scheme. Such a scheme would not employ any colour at all, but use black, white, and shades of gray. This kind of colour scheme is sometimes used by interior designers, but while it can be dramatic, it also risks being boring. A related scheme is a monotone chromatic scheme. Here, a single hue is chosen, which is varied in lightness and saturation. Again, this type of scheme can be boring. Another scheme is an analogous hues scheme. In such a use of colour, two or three hues close together in colour space are used. For example, shades of green or blue greens can be used effectively. A more daring use of colour is a complementary colour scheme. Here complementary colours on the colour wheel are used. An example using the RYB colour wheel would be blue and orange or the Christmas colours of red and green. Another colour scheme is the split complementary colour scheme. Instead of choosing the exact complementary colour, choose colours that are adjacent to the complementary colour. So that opposite to orange would be blue, but a split complementary scheme might choose blue–green and blue–violet. Usually, one would want the split complementary hues to be also different in brightness and somewhat desaturated. A final strategy is a triad colour scheme. Here one can choose three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel. As with the split complementary scheme, two of the hues should be desaturated. (Wegman & Said, 2011)

We have all experienced colour to some extent, even those who have limited colour vision, but sometimes we ignore the social-historical phenomenon that made colour an essential element of expression and communication for human beings. Colour has influenced people’s perception and has played a crucial role in social and natural environment acceptance. This article has tried to systematically lay out the history and principles of colour theory and design with the goal of appreciating the exceptional role of colour in art. (Ardila-Leal, Poutou-Piñales, Pedroza-Rodríguez, & Quevedo-Hidalgo, 2021)


Ardila-Leal, L. D., Poutou-Piñales, R. A., Pedroza-Rodríguez, A. M., & Quevedo-Hidalgo, B. E. (2021). A Brief History of Colour, the Environmental Impact of Synthetic Dyes and Removal by Using Laccases. Molecules.

Burton, D. (1984). Applying Color. Art Education, 40-43.

Nassau, K. (1997). Color for Science, Art and Technology. Elsevier Science.

Wegman, E., & Said, Y. (2011). Color theory and design. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Computational Statistics, 104-117.