Hi and welcome back. In this miniseries I’m going to try and cover as many aspects of color as I can, from terminology and theory to practical application. At the same time though, please note that the information provided comes from the perspective of a practicing artist, not an expert on color or a even a colorist. This simply means that the scope and organization of the information provided may be limited due to subjective relevancy. Today we’re starting out with the very basics of color.

Subtractive & Additive Color

The first topic I want to go over is the concept of subtractive and additive color systems. In other words, colors of light and colors of paint. In the very beginnings of my own painting career, understanding the distinction between the two systems helped me a lot in clearing out the confusion that comes with learning color theory, especially because my interest in graphic design to that point had made me very reliant on the RGB system.

Additive Color = Colors of Light

RGB system or additive color = color of light

The laws of the colors of light are not to be confused with the laws of paint colors. The primaries are different and their interaction is different. The primary color system of light is composed of Red, Green and Blue. It is the RGB system. If the three primaries of light are “mixed”, or rather overlapped, we get more pure and brighter hues, and ultimately white when we overlap all three primaries.

As painters we obviously don’t work with additive color. We mix physical paint where we lose purity as we add colors and we cannot mix red and green and get yellow. If we were to mix red and green we would get a neutral gray as the two complementary colors would cancel themselves out.

Subtractive Color = Paint Colors

CMYK system or subtractive color = color of paint

Subtractive color is a color that is created by subtracting parts of the spectrum of light via colored pigments and dyes. Therefore we talk about subtractive color in reference to physical paint as used in art or print. Think CMYK system in print. The painting and printing processes rely on mixing colors to produce wider range of colors from the basic three primary colors (plus black). With each added color to the mix some purity is lost. In the simplest of terms, we start with the cleanest, brightest and purest of colors and eventually end up with a range of neutrals, grays, or even black, the more color we add.

As far as mixing goes and the choice of our primaries, printing and painting are close but show some differences. In print, the main goal is to use primaries that provide the widest possible gamut of colors upon mixing. Print, as we mentioned, works with the CMYK system, which is Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. This configuration results in a very clean secondary triad  of Red, Green and Violet (secondary is a color that results from mixing two primaries, see image above) and provides a great number of colors that can produce a near perfect reproduction of reality and near perfect consistency of color gamut every time. (A fun fact: Notice that the additive primaries are, in fact, subtractive secondaries and vice versa. If these concepts are new to you and of interest, I definitely recommend you to study the subject more.)

As artists, our goal is not the reproduction of reality unless we are hardcore photorealists. Instead we are free vary our primaries. We usually talk about YRB (Yellow, Red & Blue) primary triad as artists, where each of the three colors may range from the coolest to warmest of hues. That means that our red may be a very cool red such as pink or a very warm, hot fire engine red. We are artists, after all, and we need to adapt to the situation at hand. We take leaps and risks, as we should, and we create unique color combinations in any one of our paintings. And most of all, we follow our personality. We don’t select our paints only rationally but also emotionally.

With that all being said, the more modern approach to artist’s palette recommends a primary triad that is, in fact, similar to the CMY(K) system. But remember that everything in art is relative. If you work with the three most muted colors on Earth as your primaries but mastered them, you’ll produce more impressive results than a novice with a “perfect” palette allowing him to mix any color in the world. Therefore recognize that no palette setup is inherently wrong. The trick is to know what it can do and what you can do with it.

Properties of Color

I want to go over some terminology in this article as well. Knowing the proper terminology provides a solid foundation for a successful study.

Hue & Color

Hue is color property of paint or object. Hue is color of an object or pigment regardless of value. Hue and color can be used interchangeably, though they are not exactly the same thing. Let’s use red as an example. Red is a color. Now its properties: The hue of red color is red. The value (tone) of red color is middle value. The temperature of red color is warm. Therefore, hue is a color property just as tonal value or temperature are color properties. Another example would be a red barn. The hue of the red barn is red. The value of the red barn is middle. The color temperature of the red barn is warm.


Chroma refers to the strength or “colorfulness” of a color, in other words, its purity. Some use the term intensity. An example of high and low intensity colors may be Aureolin Yellow – high intensity yellow and Raw Sienna – low intensity yellow. Technically the term intensity is not entirely correct but it is commonly used. If you’d like to learn more please look into “chroma and saturation”.

Value and Tone

Value and tone are just two ways of saying the same thing. Often I refer to value as tonal value. I’ve heard artists in the US use value more often, whereas in Britain and Europe overall the term tone is more common.

The Denman Ross Value Scale; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Value is one of the most crucial design elements. Our brain perceives values without us even realizing it. We think we see only color but actually each color has its inherent tonal value, which is what our brain really sees. If the world only consisted of middle value we couldn’t make sense of the spacial relationships. Good way to realize what value is and how it works is to look at world through black and white filter. Then you’ll realize that color is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It is important but not relevant to proper perception of objects. See the example below where you can clearly “read” the painting even with the exclusion of color.

Grayscale conversion shows values only; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY
Full color; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

As with every element of design, it is our job to judge and use colors to achieve our idea the best we can. We use colors with similar values for a more harmonious results whereas colors contrasting in value produce more dramatic effects.

The important take away here is that colors’ inherent values vary. For more in-depth discussion of color and value I highly recommend you to read my article “Scales, Values & Colors”.

Properties of Paint

Now let’s go briefly over the properties of paint. If you haven’t read my recent series on Watercolor Palette Setup, where I dive deep into the subject of paints, pigments and palette setup, I highly recommend you to check it out on this link.

Paint (specifically watercolor) is a mixture of pigment powder (in some cases a durable dye) and vehicle (Gum Arabic) in which the pigment is dispersed. There may be other additives which alter the performance of paints but that differs across manufacturers. The core ingredients are always pigment/dye and Gum Arabic. The highest quality paint contain more pigment to vehicle ratio than inexpensive low quality paints usually do. Watercolor painting uses water as a solvent.

Tint, Shade and Masstone

I notice a lot of confusion in regard to tint and shade. So let’s see what these really are.

Tint and shade are opposites. Whereas tint refers to light value of any hue, shade is a name for dark value of any hue. In practice, we as watercolor painters refer to tint when we dilute our paint with water and apply the wash at less than full strength. As for shade, we get shade when we mix a color with dark valued color, such as black and we produce color that is darker than is the inherent value and color of the paint in full strength. An important detail here is that we do this without altering the hue of the color in question. Therefore we use black for producing shades.

Masstone is a thick application of paint onto the painting surface which shows the paint at full strength. The paint is not sullied. It is not diluted nor darkened. We can say that masstone is the inherent color and value property of any particular paint. Masstone and toptone are interchangeable terms. Masstone is basically pure paint from the tube. Paint manufacturers test their paint by producing a sample of their paint in masstone and by judging this sample they can determine whether they achieved their desired result.

And that’s pretty much it for this introductory post on the basics of color theory. In the next article we’re going to look into color wheel and harmonies that we can achieve through some basic color combinations.



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  1. John August 1, 2018 at 16:37

    Great information. I will check out the rest of your blog.

  2. Paulo T. July 3, 2018 at 10:27

    Thank you very much for your tutorial. Your vision on painting is very inspiring. I also appreciate your videos. If you don’t mind I will try to mimic some of your paintings to get a deeper understanding of your art. Best regards from Lisbon, Portugal.

    1. Daniel Novotny July 3, 2018 at 14:59

      Hi Paulo,

      And thanks for the comment. Feel free to reproduce them as part of your study.


      1. Paulo T. November 4, 2018 at 18:58

        Daniel, are there any patterns to choose Color like there is for value? Like Whitney patterns for Color instead of value. I have troubles when choosing Color. When to apply warm or cool colours or percentage of each other. Thank you in advance.

        1. Daniel Novotny November 4, 2018 at 20:48

          Hi Paulo,

          Not necessarily in the sense of Whitney patterns, no, there aren’t. There are strategies though that allow us to create harmonies. These strategies are basically principles of design. I’m going to close the color series with an article on color harmony so stick around for that. I’ve no exact release date though at the moment. Keep an eye on the website or subscribe to the newsletter if you’d like to be reminded when it publishes.


          1. Paulo T. November 5, 2018 at 20:58

            Thank you very much. I’looking forward for it, with both my eyes 🙂
            I have to say that you are my favourite watercolor painter. It’s amazing what can you do with shapes, color, value and technique.
            Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and vision with the rest of us.

  3. John Hill July 1, 2018 at 23:28

    A good one, Daniel.

    Well done,



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