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The subject of colour theory can seem daunting and a bit dry but it doesn’t need to be. Just learning a few basic principles of colour theory and values can help you to set an easy to remember structure in your head that can really make a difference to your painting.

In this blog post I am going to briefly cover the basics of colour and values and some tips on how you can apply these basic principles to your painting.

The Colour Wheel


Above is a simplified colour wheel. The colour wheel contains three primary colour blue, red and yellow and three secondary colours orange, green and violet. When any two primary colours are mixed together they make a secondary colour, so red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green and blue and red make violet.

When these colours are arranged on the colour wheel a primary colour is always opposite a secondary colour and are known as compliments or complimentary opposites.

  • Blue is opposite to orange
  • Red is opposite to green
  • Yellow is opposite to violet

So why is this important?

If you want to desaturate a colour you can do this by mixing its complimentary opposite as the two colours will cancel each other out. In this manner you can create some neutral greys and browns especially when combined with white.

Complimentary colours also look good next to each other in a painting, for example greens often look more harmonious in a landscape if there are some reds amongst the mix or colours that contain red. If you look closely in nature, you’ll see naturally occurring complimentary opposites everywhere.

In the painting below you’ll see that I added some colours that contain red in the grass. This not only adds interest and texture to the grass but it helps to harmonise the green by having it’s complimentary colour opposite there.

Tucker Beach Queenstown - oil on linen panel - Samuel Earp landscape artist.jpeg

Colour Theory Terms

Hue: This refers to the main attributes of a colour and is dependent on its dominant wavelength, irrespective of how light or dark the colour is. For example, the colour is discernable as blue or a red etc.

Saturation or Chroma: This refers to the purity or intensity of a colour. You can reduce the saturation of a colour by adding a neutral grey or an opposite colour on the colour wheel.

Value: This is how light or dark a colour is. Getting your values correct is one of the keys in the success of a painting.

Tone: This is a broad term for describing a colour that is not a pure hue or black or white. It is a widely misunderstood term.

Tint: a colour plus white

Shade: a colour plus black

The Value Scale

Value is how light or dark a colour is and is perhaps one of the most important concepts in painting. The success of a painting rests on the relationship between the values in the painting. If they are not working and not in harmony then the whole painting can lack any kind of depth.

Values in art work are represented on a scale with the highest value being white and the lowest value being black. The greys in between are known as mid or half tones.

Tonal Scale.jpeg

In general, you will find your darkest darks and lightest lights in the foreground of a landscape. However, as landforms recede into the distance darks are not quite dark and lights are not quite light as the tonal scale narrows.

If you are unsure of where your light and dark values are in the scene you are painting, switch the reference photo you are using to black and white and you’ll be able to clearly see where your light and dark values are.

For example


Here you can see in the black and white photo that the darkest values are in the trees and the shadows in the foreground. The lightest values are in the sky on mountain snow.

In general, you’ll find that the sky is often one of the lightest values in the landscape. Grass is also generally lighter in value. Rocks and mountain faces are darker in value and often occupy the mid-tone range of the value scale. Trees are generally some of the darkest values in the landscape.

Art Tip

Personally I think getting the values correct in your painting is the most important thing and perhaps more important than getting the right hue.

Colour Saturation

Colour saturation is another important element along with values to get right in your painting. If your colours are too saturated the likely won’t recede well which means you could end up with a flat looking painting.

In landscape painting, and as with values you’ll find your lightest and darkest values in the foreground. You are also more likely to find saturated colour in the foreground of a landscape and as landforms recede into the distance the colours become desaturated.

For example the for the grass in the foreground of this painting I used a saturated green. You’ll notice the green on the distant mountains is desaturated. If the saturation of the green was the same as the grass in the foreground it would come forward in the painting and the illusion of depth would be lost.

Paradise - Mt Chaos - New Zealand - Samuel Earp - Oil Painting.jpeg

Art Tip

Whilst you’ll find your most saturated colours in the foreground of a painting, many elements that you would find in a landscape naturally display desaturated colour, for example dead straw coloured grass or rocks and stones.

Example: In the painting below the grass in this salt marsh painting naturally displays low chroma colour and so this must be taken into account when painting. You’ll see that the darkest values are in the foreground shadows. The distant landform is lighter in value precisely because it it far away.

Salt Marsh - Ruakaka - plein air painting - Samuel Earp.jpeg

Thank you for reading 😊