Colors & Vocabulary

Jackie Stacharowski

©2008 - 2015

Learning about colors will help you with your painting.

Your choice of colors, their intensity and their temperature

will have a major impact on how well your painting will turn out.

Color Vocabulary

All fields have their own jargon and art is not an exception. If you learn a few basic terms it will help you when you read, talk, or discuss colors.. These expressions are used in our class, as well as throughout the world of art.

Hue - the basic color, such as blue, green, yellow, red…

Primary Colors -RED BLUE & YELLOW the three colors that cannot be created from any other colors.

Secondary Colors - PURPLE GREEN & ORANGE the three colors created by mixing two primaries:

Color Wheel - a circle with colors arranged so that the colors created by mixing colors are display between the ones mixed.

Complementary Colors - the color and its exact opposite - across the color wheel: Red - Green, Blue - Orange, Yellow - Purple

Why and When to use complementary colors? If you want a color to be less intense then it is, you can mix into it a small amount of its complement into it. This will tone down the intensity.

If you are painting a flower, or anything for that matter, and part of it is in direct sunlight - that part should be the most intense color. The part that is not in the sunlight should be less intense.

If you are painting a landscape that has several blue buildings in it, the closest one should have the most intense blue. The ones going back into the distance should each be less intense as they get further away.

Local Color - the basic color of an object or area - the red apple, the blue sky, the green grass….

Color Field - the size of and shape of the space on the canvas for the value you are applying.

Pigments - the actual chemicals used to create a paint. Most paints contain just one pigment, but some paints are a combination of two or more. The pigments give the name to the color within a tube. If the pigment is modified before being mixed into a paint, that is also reflected in the name, such as Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber, Cadmium Red, Lamp Black…

Some pigments are natural, just grounded up dirt, stone, and clay… Some pigments are elements found in nature, such as cadmiums or oxides. Some pigments are man-made (synthetics). Some natural pigments are dangerous and poisonous, such as lead and other heavy metals, so they have been replaced by synthetic pigments. These give the same color, but may have different properties. (See the handout on Oil Paints and Their Properties for more information).

Temperature - there are two temperatures used to describe color: warm and cool.

Warm colors - think of fire or the sun - warm colors are those that are, or lean towards red and yellow.

Cool colors - think of ice and snow - cool colors are hose that are, or lean towards blue and purple.

Although at first it seems simple, red and yellow are warm and blue and green are cool …however:

Any color can be either warm or cool.

There are orangey reds that are warm and purplish reds that are cool. There are purplish blues that are cool and greenish blues that are warm. There are lemony yellows which are cool and orangey yellows which are warm. There are bluish purples that are cool and reddish purples which are warm. There are reddish browns which are warm and greenish browns that are cool. There are bluish grays that are cool and pinkish grays which are warm. There are bluish whites which are cool and yellowish whites which are warm. There are yellowish greens which are warm and bluish greens which are cool….

Why is it important to understand what the temperature is of the color you are using?

One reason has to do with perspective. Our eyes see warm colors as being closer to us and cool colors as being further away. So to fool the viewer's eyes and to give depth to your painting, use the right temperature and you'll succeed.

Another is in color mixing. You will achieve better results if you mix two warm colors together to get a third, or two cool ones, otherwise the resulting color could come out muddy.

Value - how dark or how light a hue is: light blue, dark red, pale yellow… The human eye can distinguish a very large range of values. Typically, a range of nine or more values will be found in any one painting. However, you only need to concentrate on getting five in your paintings, the rest will follow. If you save black and white just for mixing, the five values illustrated below will be the ones you use the most. A way to 'see' values is to make a series of blotches of color from black to white and getting the different shades of gray in between.

Black & White & Five Different Values In-between

Think of looking at a black and white photo, the contrasts among the different shades of gray help to give form to the objects in the photo. An easy way to judge if you have enough contrast in your paintings is to look at your canvas through a red filter. Although there are red photographic filters you can buy, you can use a transparent piece of plastic, or several layers of red plastic wrap. Red is strong enough to hide the other hues in the painting to give you a 'black & white' or 'monochromatic' version to review.

Use different values give the illusion of 3-Dimensions to your flat painting.

Rectangles - To make a box look 'real', you need to use at least 3 values: one side needs to be a medium value- towards the light, one side a dark value - away from the light in shadow, and (usually) the top a lighter value - getting the most light. To make a box look 'opened' you need 5 values.

Round or Curved Stuff - To make a ball (or apple, or egg, or tree trunk, or arm, or eye, or…) look 'real', you need to use at least 5 values: the lightest part (usually the highlight), one step darker, one medium, one medium dark and the darkest is where the object casts its shadow. The five different values make our eyes see the curving surface.

Distance - To make an object look further away, the differences between the values within that object and those around it, is less then the values for the objects which are closer.

Lighting a Scene - To create a more dramatic look to your paintings, you can increase the differences in the values of the stuff within the painting. To paint as if it were noon, with summer sunlight, you will need to use more contrasts then if you were painting an interior lit by candlelight.

Contrast is the difference between two things - color, texture, size ... the more contrast a painting has, the more interesting it is. The greatest contrast should be saved for the focal point - your center of interest.

How to get a value: A very general rule is to use the color from the tube as your medium value. Then add different amounts of white to get lighter values and different amounts of black to get darker values. There is a temptation to use white and black straight from the tube for the lightest and darkest values, but except for very graphic renderings: DON'T DO IT!!! Use white and black just to add to other hues.

Exceptions - like most rules, there a few very important exceptions to mixing different values for certain colors.

If you add white to red, you get pink and not light red… so use the red from the tube as your lightest value and add different amounts of black (or brown) to make the darker values. You can add a little yellow to red - making it organier and lighter, but this has to be done with care.

If you add black to yellow, you get green and not darker yellow… so use the yellow from the tube as your darkest value and add various amounts of white to get your lighter values. You can add a little brown to yellow to make it darker, but this had to be done with care.

You don't need to mix your batches totally, by leaving the paint variegated, it will mix on the canvas - and if it doesn't, that's OK variety within a color field gives more interest to the painting.

You cannot really judge a color while it is still on your palette! What matters is how the color appears when it is on the canvas, related to the other colors there.

Don't get discouraged if you don't get the color you want on the first try, most of us don't - just adjust it until you get the color you want.

As you are mixing, if your paint puddle becomes large, it is OK to separate out just some of the paint and keep mixing from there, the unwanted color can be saved to be used at a later time - within this painting or another. Any airtight container can be used to save oil paints - old 35 mm film canisters work great!


You can use these formulas to get colors to use. These are suggestions only! It is best to play with the paints you have and mix them together in different ways to get the color that you really want. It is best to add a little at a time - you cannot un-mix a paint.

Black - mix equal amounts of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber. Check the result, if too blue add more umber and if too brown add more blue until you get the black that you want.


Most summer skies are Ultramarine Blue, other seasons usually Cerulean Blue. To make a grayer sky add a very small amount of burnt sienna - it is better to add a little at a time - you cannot un-mix a paint.

If you want to add yellow into your sky, first paint the area white - let it dry, then glaze the yellow over it. This way you won't wind up with a green sky.

Sunrise and Sunsets - add a small amount of Alizarin Crimson to your blue to create a purplish blue.


Most water reflects the color of the sky. For Oceans - add a little Chromium Oxide (or Sap Green mixed with Burnt Sienna) to the sky color.

Trees and Grass

The best colors to use for leaves are Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna. By mixing these in different amounts you will get many shades of natural looking greens. Then add white and black to change the values of these greens. The best color to use as shadow areas within leaves and grass is purple. Mix Alizarin Crimson with your sky color and use this as the lightest value of your shadows.

Tree Trunks

Most trunks are more gray than brown. The umbers are your best choice. Use Raw Umber if you need a cool greenish brown. Use Burnt Umber if you need a warm reddish brown. If it is still too brown, add some gray or purple, a little at a time.

Rocks and Stones

The colors of stones vary greatly - if they are wet or dry, in sun or shadow, as well as because of their actual makeup. Like tree trunks, the umbers and grays work well. If the rocks are wet, they will need a darker value then if they are dry. Some Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna (mixed with white) scrubbed on the rocks will add a glow of daylight. For shadows scrub some sky blue or purple to indicate which part of the rock is in shadow.


There are many colors of and within sand. It is not just beige. Sometimes the sand is pinkish and sometimes it is grayer and sometimes it is bluer… A good basic mix for sand is Raw Sienna and White. Then add a touch of red or blue or purple or gray to it - to create the color you choose. Which blue? - Use your sky color… Which red? Is it sunrise or sunset - Alizarin, or midday - use Cadmium. Which Purple? - Use a combination of your sky and your red.


Varies according to what kind of dirt you are trying to paint. Sandy soils - use the same mixture as for sand, but use a darker value. For clays - use the reddish browns colors as a starting point - Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber.


Use white as your highlight on snow, not as the snow itself. Yellow Ochre as well as the reflected color of the objects within the scene. In shadows, and for sunrise and sunset, snow reflects the colors of the sky and its surroundings, usually pale purples, pinks and grays.

White Objects

Objects with a local color of white are tricky to paint correctly. It is best not to use white out of the tube as your local color - save it for the highlights. White objects tend to reflect the color of their surrounding: an egg on a blue tablecloth would have a pale blue as its color, if it were on a red tablecloth - pale pink, yellow tablecloth - pale yellow… A white boat on the water would reflect the sky and/or water colors - a very pale version as your base. For a white bird in a tree, start with a pale gray with a few hints of pale green of the leaves. If in doubt, start with a pale gray and work from there.


Varies by person. However, Raw and Burnt Sienna mixed with White, Yellow Ochre and/or Ultramarine blue will give you a basic skin tone. Usually a mixture of a combination of these will work. Use purples, not grays, for your skin shadows to give a more natural look.


Unless you are painting someone with lipstick, use Burnt Sienna as your basic lip color; for non-Caucasians start with Burnt Umber.. The upper lip is usually darker than the lower lip, with a shadow as a divide.

Remember - it is better to add a little paint at a time - you cannot un-mix a paint.

With practice and experience you will soon have a better feel for mixing colors!

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