Artwork by Monica Gunderson

Artist Thoughts

Understanding the Use of Color

September 15, 2015 at 8:26 PM

Color Wheel

Working with Colors in Painting

When painting, I only use the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow and mix them to create secondary and tertiary colors instead of buying specific colors or hues such as violet, cyan, or chartreuse. When looking at a color wheel, there are all sorts of different colors or hues, but what are these color terms, and what do they mean when creating art especially that of painting? To get a grasp on the idea of colors, let's begin with primary colors.

Primary Colors

Primary Colors

Primary colors consist of the paint pigments of blue, yellow, and red. These pigments cannot be created from any other hues, hence why they are named "primary" which is defined as first or of highest rank.  No matter how hard you try, there is no possible way to create primary colors. In reference to paint hues, blue, yellow, and red are unique, but mixing two of the primary colors can then create a secondary color.

Secondary Colors

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are those pigments that can be mixed and create new colors. Combining two of the primary colors creates something new. For example, mixing red and yellow paint together will make orange, while blue and yellow mixed together makes green, and red and blue combined creates purple.  Then we can take this a step further to the tertiary colors.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors or intermediate colors are created by combining a primary color with a secondary color or two secondary colors. For example, green mixed with blue makes a teal or blue-green color, while purple mixed with blue creates a magenta or red-purple color.

How About Brown?

Brown can be created by mixing all primary colors, which as mentioned earlier, is red, blue, and yellow.  Once all the primary colors are mixed together, it creates a brown hue and depending on the type of brown desired, more red, blue, or yellow paint can be combined to make different hues of brown. Add more yellow to create a goldenrod color, or add more red to get a maroon color. Secondary colors can be added to the brown as well to create other brown hues such as adding orange paint to brown can create a cinnamon color.

How to mix paint colors to make brown

Black, White, and Gray? Where Do They Fit In?

Black and white in painting terms or color theory, are not considered as "colors", instead they are defined as "light" (white) and "shade" (black). Thus white paint "lightens" a color creating a tint or the mixture of a color with white.

Tints - Painting


When white paint is added to any given color whether it is a primary, secondary, or tertiary, it will increase the lightness. This lightness then desiderates the hue, making it less intense. Tints are commonly referred to as "pastel colors" and create a soft or calm color. Only a tiny bit of white needs to be used in order to tint any color, too much white may create a color that is lighter than expected. If so, just add the color desired to "darken" it to the desired hue. For example, when trying to create pink, mix white paint with red. If it turns out too light, add more red until it is the adequate hue.

Shades - Painting


Shade is the mixture of black with any given color reducing the lightness. Shading a color intensifies or darkens the color, but be careful when experimenting with adding black to a color too much will darken it into a muddy color. All you need is just a dab of black to shade a color. Another method of darkening a color is by adding another dark color other than black. Experiment and see what colors or shades work best.

Tones - Painting


When mixing black and white paint together, it creates gray. When gray paint is mixed with a color, this is defined as a tone.  Depending how much parts of black and white are added to a color, tones can appear to be either darker or lighter than the original color. Adding more black to the white/black combination will intensify the hue whereas adding more white will create a saturated appearance. Tone can be used to add depth and form to a painting or drawing by adding more white to provide lightened areas, and then adding black to slowly shade an object. Think about drawing a ball with the light hitting it on one side, and shade on the other. The process of creating the darker and lighter areas to create the illusion of a 3D ball in drawing or painting form is tone. When adding this idea to colors, tone represents how light or dark a color appears to be, creating an illusion of depth.

When mixing different colors, or adding shades, tints, or tones, think about the world of colors that surrounds you daily. Use these techniques to help bring your painting to life.



Hue: a term used for any color on a color wheel.

Primary Color: red, yellow, and blue.

Shade: when black is added to any color on the color wheel. Adding black will create a darker and more intense color.  

Secondary Colors: colors created by mixing any two of the three primary colors. Example: mixing red and blue makes purple.

Tertiary Colors: colors created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. Example: mixing yellow with green creates chartreuse or a yellow-green color.

Tint: created when white is added to any color on the color wheel.

Tone: created when white and black are mixed and added to a hue, or when gray is added to any color on the color wheel. Depending the ratio of black and white that is mixed to a color creates the hue to appear darker or lighter. Tone is the how dark or light a color appears to be.


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Monica Gunderson Fine Artist

Modesto CA