How to colour

How to: Colour

Colour is one of the most influential and permeating qualities of the universe. It makes life and art more interesting, supports our survival, and affects our moods. It is fascinatingly subjective to our senses and development. And for something many of us can take for granted, the science and art behind how it works prove awe-inspiring. ‘How to: Colour’ dually explores how colour exists and serves in the universe, its value and diversity in art, and how artists can source and play with colours in their creative endeavors. Giddy-up, let’s learn how to: colour!

The utility of colour

When first opening our creativity or experimenting with art supplies, considering colours tends to be one of the first steps. And reasonably so, so much artwork, no matter the style, time, or culture, employs colour with value and purpose. The utility of something thing refers to a measurable evaluation of its usefulness and value. Within and well beyond art, the utility of colour is revealed in its great purpose and power in every aspect of life. The science of colour is surprisingly fascinating and uncoincidentally beautiful to understand – especially as an artist. Let’s find out how and why!

Colour brightens the world we live in.


Perception

Perception is one of the major three facets of the philosophical aesthetic triangle: Artwork (object)-Creator (artist)-Observer (preceptor) (Darwish, 2016). This aesthetic idea is founded upon a major key theoretical truth about art and perception: that both art and beauty are subjective to perceptive interpretation. This implies that every person, or being for that matter, will perceive aspects of nature and art, including colour, differently and just as validly as the next.

For artists and an exploration of how to: colour – this is exciting. Colour does brighten the world we live in, and, learning how it works, its utility and its potential for artistry can open up worlds of creative confidence.

In the 15th Century, Sir Isaac Newton observed that colour is not inherent in objects. Since light is made up of different wavelengths radiating hues and frequencies, it will be reflected or absorbed by matter. The matter that absorbs all light will present black, and white objects those which reflect all wavelengths that reach it. There are many colours and frequencies of light that we are unable to perceive based on our human development and survival needs, such as ultra-violet light. We have observed that some animals, such as insects and crustaceans can see this spectrum of light beyond our own, having their survival advantages.

A little deeper dive into the science and facts here, before bouncing back into the utility of colour for art… After all, can we prove that butterflies may appreciate a Picasso…?

See the world beyond black and white.

Survival

As human beings have developed, our eyesight and brain power has evolved to support our greater survival. We have three colour receptor cones in our eyes, red, green, and blue. These allow us to observe the array of light frequencies commonly seen in our understanding of a rainbow.

Interestingly though, being able to perceive a wide spectrum of colours does not prove essential for survival across the animal kingdom. Many human beings are born partially or completely colour-blind. This alteration may restrict our driving potential, but not our essential survival needs. Dogs for instance only have two receptor cones, blue and green, which we infer implies that they lack a spectrum of perception of warm colours ranging between red, orange, and yellow.

Furthermore, thanks to this article in The Oatmeal (a piece of art, itself), I learned that butterflies have five cones, and the mantis shrimp – has sixteen! Looking at this creature below only invites our limited mind’s eyes to wonder: what more can they see, and could they very well be even more stunning than we can see!?

Peacock Mantis Shrimp (Source: National Geographic)

Thinking about colour’s service in our survival, the human eye can perceive more shades of green than any other colour. This supports us to distinguish plant medicines, poisons, distances and depth perception, and other markers along our way through woods and marshes (Briki & Majed, 2019). We also have refined skills for determining water’s depths based on how light, dark, or “deep” blue or green it appears (Marshall, 2017). Another common mentionable include how certain shades of red may spark our fight-flight response resembling blood and injury.

And while this may all sound valuable for avoiding threats, colour evidently impacts us beyond our essential needs. Let’s explore how colour affects mood and emotion, and segue them into artistry.

Lead a colourful life.

Mood

In the English language, there are many common metaphors referencing the influence of colour on mood, personality, weather, and more. Like someone can “see red” in anger, feel down with the “blues”, or look “green in the face” when ill. Beyond the abstraction of language, we can experiment ourselves with how much or little colour influences our mood. It’s springtime here on the west coast, and as greens grow vibrant, flowers bloom, smiles, outdoor activities and moods boost!

These are all considerations to keep in mind as artists consider their use of colour, the message and energy they intend to convey in their creative work, and how colour can influence mood in art.

Create in colour.

Colour in Art

Color makes life, and many works of art, more interesting. To use color effectively it can be very helpful to understand the three dimensions of colour:

  1. Hue depicts the basic aspect or qualities of a colour.
  2. Value reflects how light or dark a colour appears. A light color is a tint. For example, pink is a tint of red. A dark color is called a shade. Forest green is a shade of green.
  3. Intensity refers to the brightness or dullness of a color, such as a bright yellow or a dull yellow.
Color Wheel with Hues, Tints, Tones, and Shades. Image source: beachpainting.com

To learn more about how to use colour, I recommend this article for a thorough and clear overview of these concepts and how these concepts can enhance one’s artistic process.

Materials

Modern-day artists can source materials for employing the spectrum of colours available from natural and man-made sources. There has never been a more abundant nor connected economy to source creative materials than we have today. The first artists naturally sourced colour pigments from nature’s gifts – soils, plants, blood, foods, and more. Consequently, for more inspiration on getting started with and deciding on art materials, see this article.

It’s becoming more popular to see artists promoting and sourcing themselves from natural materials. This also tends to support the detoxification of pigment and general art materials, a concern plaguing artists for centuries and most certainly in the ever-industrializing modern era. Nature’s pigments are abundant and, if sourced gratefully and sustainably, can help us get outdoors a bit more in a highly modernized, indoor, virtual world. Read more on the history of natural pigments and art supplies here. In addition, I highly recommend this artist’s page with great tutorials on how to source colour pigments naturally, including flowers, tree bark, stones and leaves, and more!


Styles of art

After materials, the style of art may be something to consider when contemplating how to employ colour in your art. For instance, the following examples of styles of art throughout history, each reaching for colour with various intensity and emphasis. Try noticing which styles speak most to you. Perhaps some are more inspiring or eye-catching for you. Some may put you off or draw you more in. All of that information is invaluable for reminding us that no art is for all people. Remember how subjective art and observer are in the perceptive evaluation of art. And, as you connect to various styles and techniques of these artists’ use of colour, consider how you may experiment with it in your creative process.

Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Impression, Sunrise – Claude Monet (1872)
Backyard Chicken – Laurie McNee (2021)
Marilyn (hot pink) – Andy Warhol (1967)
Lake George Reflection – Georgie O’Keeffe (1922)

Conclusions

How to colour has explored the science and art of using colour to enhance one’s artistry and creative process. Before skipping over the colour as an element of art and the universe to take for granted, we’ve touched the surface of ways in which colour can be understood and put to best use. From the physics of frequencies and perception to our survival, mood, and creativity – the colour goes far beyond staying within the lines! For more creative inspiration, see our articles on Creativity and Fine Arts, and stay tuned for what’s more to come from Bohemian’s Minds!

I am passionate about making the best of life through cherishing relationships, exploring worldly experiences, and cultivating a creative lifestyle of art, music, dance, and fitness. I am a self-taught painter, inspired by the sublimity of nature, consciousness, love and universal transcendence that binds all of humanity and nature, together.

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