A Brief Summary of Color Theory: Part III

A Brief Summary of Color Theory: Part III
Sep 05

This is part three in our blog series on the basics of color theory. Click here to read Part I, which focuses on the color wheel, and click here for Part II which focuses on color harmony.

 If you’re reading this, we hope you’ve just completed the first and second blogs in our series that offer a basic explanation of color theory, and the important role it plays in all forms of contemporary and modern art. Picking up where we left our discussion after exploring color harmony, the next important aspect to understand relative to color theory, is a concept known as color context.

What is Color Context?

The concept of color context focuses on the ways that a color behaves in relation to other colors and shapes around it. Color context is a complex theoretical component of color theory as it focuses on the manner in which our eyes and minds perceive colors differently within the context of their use, and in particular, their juxtaposition to other colors.

 For example, a pure red circle may seem more vibrant when set against a black background than it seems when set against a white background. This type of interaction, in which our perception of a color changes based on its interaction with another, adjacent color, is known as simultaneous contrast, and happens in nearly every interaction with a hue that we have, as we rarely observe colors in a pure, isolated environment.


The phenomenon of color context relative to simultaneous colors is most noticeable when the juxtaposed colors are complementary, as discussed in Part II of our color theory blog.

The relationships that exist between different colors, their saturations and warmth or coolness can impact how our minds perceive individual colors. It is this impact that serves as the basis for the concept of color relativity.

 Color Context and its Impact on our Emotions

Not only does color context and the use of complementary colors side-by-side impact the way we see colors, it impacts the way colors make us feel. Colors defined as “warm” are those we associate with such emotions as love, happiness, and positive energy. Warm hues vary from reds to yellows, to browns, to tans. “Cool” colors, on the other hand, tend to conjure in us feelings of calm relaxation, and include such shades as grays, violets, blues, and greens.

 The use of warm and cool colors side-by-side impacts color context in that we tend to perceive warm colors as advancing, or appearing to be more active, while cool colors tend to recede into the background. Going back to the example of the red circle seeming bolder on a black background, it is these perceptions of warm and cool colors that impact the context in which we observe how bright or dull the red appears simply based on its background, and not because its hue has been changed in any way before being applied to a canvas.

One of the world’s most famous artists who most successfully used color context to create emotive paintings was Vincent van Gogh. In his painting Starry Night, for example Van Gogh juxtaposes cool blues with warm yellows to create a sense of movement and activity in an otherwise tranquil scene. When you see the image of Starry Night below, do you sense that the bursts of yellow are layered on top of the blue background? Even though there are indications of movement in the blue night sky, do the yellow orbs seem more active to your eye?


On your next trip to an art museum, keep the concept of color context in mind, and notice how the artists use warm and cool hues and other complementary colors to make certain images more strongly dominate their canvases.

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