Colour in Painting
Theory, Practice, Pigments.

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Visiting (1915)
Russian Museum St Petersburg.
By Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)

For an A-Z list of important artist
pigments, from Antiquity onwards,
see: Colour Mixing Tips.

Use of Colour in Painting


The Importance of Colour
The Effect of Colour
Early Colour Theory
The Ingredients of Colour Paint
Do All Paint Pigments Behave in the Same Way?
What Exactly Are Pigments?
What are the Main Sources of Pigments?
What is the History of Pigments?
The Impressionist Revolution
Abstract expressionism/Colour Field Painting
Impact of Manufacturing Technology on Colour Painting
New Standardized Colour Systems
Greatest Colourists
The Main Colours (and Pigments)


See: Colour Glossary.


The Importance of Colour

In keeping with its status as one of the leading "visual" arts, painting is heavily dependent upon the use of colour for its impact, mood and depth. The impact of colour on the visual senses of the viewer is extremely potent and even one tiny dab of brightly coloured pigment in an otherwise monochromatic picture can transform the work. Even the earliest exponents of prehistoric cave painting (30,000-12,000 BCE) were experts in the use of primitive pigments, as exemplified in the monochromatic Chauvet paintings, the polychrome Lascaux murals and the vivid paintings at Altamira.

With the invention of oil painting in Europe during the early 15th century, which greatly improved the colour luminosity and richness achievable by both tempera on wood panels and fresco mural painting, the practice of colour painting took a significant leap forward.

What is a Hue?
Hue is a synonym for colour.

What is a Shade?
A shade is a dark value of a colour
(eg. dark blue), as opposed to a tint,
which is a lighter hue (eg. light blue).
Shades of a particular colour are
obtained by adding black.

What is a Tint?
Tints are paler variants of a particular
colour, obtained by adding white.
For example, pink is a tint of red.

What are Primary colours?
These are red, blue, and yellow;
the colours that can be mixed to
produce other "secondary" colours
but cannot themselves be produced
from mixtures.

The Effect of Colour

The effects of colour can be purely optical (eg. draws the viewer's eye), emotional (eg. cool colours like blue or green have a calming effect, while red or yellow are more stimulating to the senses), or aesthetic (eg. the beauty that springs from the juxtaposition of two or more harmonious colours), to name but three. In keeping with the principles of colour theory and the layout of the colour-wheel, all these effects on the viewer will also vary according to the combination of hues (actual colours) present, their luminosity (the degree of light or dark they possess) and chroma (the purity of the hue). In addition, a colour's impact varies according to its neighbouring colours on the canvas. A grey surrounded by blue will appear cool, while grey surrounded by yellow appears warm. A final influence on how colour is perceived, is the overall range of tones present in the painting - known sometimes as the tonal key. A dab of (say) yellow on a canvas with an overall low (dark) tonal key (eg. a Rembrandt picture) will have different impact than in one with a high tonal key.

Early Colour Theory

The earliest principles of colour theory in fine art were set out by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) in his treatise "On Painting" Della Pittura (1435), and by the High Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks (c.1490). In any event, the importance of "colorito" was taken especially seriously by the great Old Masters of European art, who were experts in the mixing and application of pigments, and meticulous students of the tonal effects of light. They understood the principles of colour theory - including colour-hues, intensity, and tones - and knew exactly when to use certain colours and how to harmonize them across the canvas. Seen from a distance, their skill levels are even more impressive due to the lack of manufactured paints, and the fact that most pigments (some of which were extremely expensive) had to be ground by hand, a messy and time-consuming process. Further colour theory appeared at the end of the Baroque with the publication of Isaac Newton's Opticks (1704). But the practice of colour painting only really changed during the 19th century when Impressionism startled many art critics with its revolutionary light-related optical theories and colour practices, which introduced a whole new pictorial language into fine art painting. For more on this, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.

What are Secondary Colours?
These are the hues produced by
mixing primary colours: eg. a
mixture of red and blue gives the
secondary colour violet; a mix
of red and yellow yields orange;
while combining yellow with blue
gives green.

What are Complementary colours?
These colours lie directly opposite
each other in the colour wheel: like
blue and orange, red and green,
violet and yellow. Each primary hue
- red, yellow, blue - has it's own,
exclusive, complementary colour
- green, purple, orange.

What are Tertiary Colours?
These result from the mixing of a
primary and a secondary colour
(like red and green) or two
secondary colours (like green and

What Are the Ingredients of Colour Paint?

The colour (hue) of a paint which comes from its pigment, is mixed with other basic ingredients as follows:

Oil Paint
Basically, oil paint is a combination of three things: pigment, linseed oil and turpentine. The pigment provides the colour; the linseed oil is the binder - that is, the ingredient that holds the pigment and allows it to be spread onto the canvas, board or whatever support is to be painted; the turpentine is the thinner - the ingredient that thins the oil/colour mixture and makes it easy to apply with a brush. Oil paint may contain other oils (eg. poppyseed or walnut), provided they are siccative oils - that is, oils that dry by oxidation. The point is, unlike most other paints, oils do not dry by evaporation but as a result of oxidation - the oil reacts with oxygen in the air and turns into a gel, then a solid.

What are Analogous colours?
Any set of three or five colours that
are closely related in hue and
usually found next to each other
on the colour wheel - such as blue,
blue-green, and green.

What is the Colour Wheel?
The colour wheel is a circular diagram
showing the relationships between
primary, secondary, tertiary and
complementary colours.

For more about the different types,
styles and values of traditional and
contemporary visual art, see:
Definition of Art.

For answers to all your queries
about painting and sculpture:
Painting Glossary.

A thick swatch of paint: useful for
painters who tend to use thick or
impasto painting techniques. An
excellent way to indicate inherent
attributes of a paint, like opacity
and gloss. For instance, when
Phthalo Blue is thickly applied,
the masstone appears black.

Watercolour and Gouache Paint
Technically, watercolour is any paint medium soluble in water, like tempera or gouache. Here, however, watercolour refers to the technique of painting with washes of colour, as developed in England during the 18th/19th century. Basically, this type of watercolour paint consists of pigment (colour) and gum arabic (a water-soluble binder), to which water is added. Gouache paint is opaque watercolour paint, created by adding materials such as talc, zinc white or china clay. Tempera consists of pigment (colour), and egg-yolk (the binder), to which water is added.

Acrylic painting is a wholly synthetic painting medium, based on acrylic polymer resin, and comes in a wide variety of finishes. In its simplest form, acrylic paint consists of pigment (colour), inside an emulsion of acrylic polymer (plastic) resins (the binder) and water. The combination of pigment and plastic resins dries extremely quickly by evaporation of the water (and other solvents it contains) to form a tough, flexible film.

Do All Paint Pigments Behave in the Same Way?

No. Acrylic paint is the fastest-drying, and its colour changes slightly as it dries. Watercolour is also quite fast-drying and watercolours also change hue during the drying process. In contrast, oil paint dries much more slowly, and its hues do not change. Moreover, as it dries, more paint can be added, to create exceptionally rich colours. These attributes of workability and luscious colour tone make oil paint the preferred choice of most master painters.

A thin scrape of paint which is
used to assess pigment qualities
over a white background. Often
used by painters to determine
how washes or glazes will look
in painting. Some colours, like
the Cadmiums and Cobalts, have
similar masstones and undertones,
but With the transparent organic
colours such as the Quinacridones
or Phthalos, the undertone may be
very different from what might be
expected after looking at the

Tinting Strength
This is a measurement of how
effective a quantity of colourant
is, in altering the colour of a

See below for a list of the
paint pigments associated
with colour palettes from
different periods in the
history of fine art painting.

Stone Age Colour Palette
Red Earth
Yellow Earth
Carbon Black (charcoal)
White Clay or Chalk

Egyptian Colour Palette
Red Earth
Yellow Earth
Carbon Black
Egyptian Blue

Classical Colour Palette
Red Earth
Yellow Earth
Raw/Burnt Sienna
Raw/Burnt Umber
Lamp Black/Carbon Black
Ivory Black
White Lead
Green Earth
Egyptian Blue
Egyptian Green
Red Lead
Dragon's Blood
Naples Yellow
Tyrian Purple

Renaissance Colour Palette
Red Earth
Yellow Earth
Green Earth
Ivory Black
Lamp Black
Vine Black
White lead
Egyptian Blue
Genuine Ultramarine
Ultramarine Ashes
Chinese Vermilion
Red Lead
Red Lake
Dragon's Blood
Naples Yellow
Lead-Tin Yellow
Raw/Burnt Sienna
Raw/Burnt Umber

19th Century Colour Palette
Prussian Blue
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine
Cerulean Blue
Emerald Green
Chromium Green Oxide
Cobalt Green
Zinc White
Rose Madder
Alizarin Crimson
Cadmium Yellow
Chrome Yellow
Zinc Yellow
Strontium Yellow
Lemon Yellow
Indian Yellow
Egyptian Brown (Mummy)

What Exactly Are Pigments?

Pigments and dyes are the ingredients that impart colour to the paint. The word "colourant" is commonly used for both dyes (and other dyestuffs) and pigments. The basic difference between pigments and dyes is solubility (their ability to dissolve in water). Whereas a dye is, or can be made, soluble, a pigment tends to be more insoluble. Thus pigments must be ground into a fine powder and then very thoroughly mixed with their carrier liquid, such as oil/water, before being applied. Pigments can be made from dyes via a special process.

What are the Main Sources of Pigments?

Most paint-pigments come from metals (metallic ores or compounds) or plants, although some derive from animal or fish products, as well as charred wood or bone.

Artist Pigments Derived From Metals
Metal-based colours include pigments such as: Cadmium (eg. Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red), Chromium (eg. Chrome Yellow, Chrome Green); Cobalt (eg. Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Aureolin, Cobalt Violet); Copper (eg. Han Purple, Egyptian Blue, Verdigris, Viridian); Lead (eg. Lead White, Naples Yellow, Red Lead); Mercury (eg. Vermilion); Titanium (eg. Titanium White, Titanium Yellow); Zinc (eg. Zinc White); Lapis Lazuli (eg. Ultramarine); Iron oxide (eg. Red Ochre, Sanguine, Caput Mortuum, Venetian Red, Sinopia, Turkey Red, Pompeian Red, and Persian Red; tinted clays (eg. Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber).

Artist Pigments/Dyes Derived From Plants
Natural plant-based pigments (most of which are now obsolete) include: Cornflower Blue (an 18th century watercolour pigment from Cornflower petals); Dragon's Blood (a ruby-red resinous colour from the tree Calamus draco); Fustic (a yellowish dye from the plant Chlorophona tinctoria); Gamboge (a yellow gum from Thailand); Indigo (made from the Indigofera family of plants); Logwood (a dark pigment from a South American tree); Madder (a reddish colour from Madder plants); Pink (a yellow made from a mixture of unripe buckthorn berries, weld, and broom); Quercitron Yellow (from the bark of the American black quercitron oak); Safflower Pigment (a red lake known as Carthame, made from the flowers of the Safflower plant); Saffron (a yellow from the flowers of an Indian plant); Sap Green (from the unripe berries of the Buckthorn plant); Turnsole (a purple/blue from the Heliotrope plant of the borage family); Weld (a yellow from the plant); Woad (a blue/indigo from the woad or dyerswoad herb of the mustard family).

Artist Pigments Derived From Animal/Fish Products
Now all obsolete (synthesized), these include: the crimson Carmine, made from the Cochineal female insect of the Americas; the dark yellow Gallstone, from the gallstone of an ox; Indian Yellow, produced from the urine of cattle fed on mango leaves; Sepia, a black colourant from the ink sacs of the cuttlefish. Tyrian Purple, a crimson pigment made from shell fish.

Artist Pigments Made From Charred Wood/Bone
All now obsolete, these include: Bistre, a brown made by burning Beech wood; Bone White, from burning bones to a white ash; Carbon Black, made from charcoal or charred bone; Ivory Black, from burnt ivory; Vine Black, from charred grape vines; Lamp Black, from soot taken from oil lamps.

What is the History of Pigments?

Colour Painting During the Stone Age
In the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, Stone Age artists relied on basic earth pigments like clay ochres, in yellow, brown and various hues of red, along with charcoal. (For details, please see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.)

Colour Painting in Egypt
This crude but effective colour scheme was extended during early Antiquity by Egyptian artists who decorated their temples and tombs with murals and panel paintings which included new paint colours like: Egyptian Blue Frit, the rich lemon yellow pigment Orpiment, the red-orange realgar, the green Malachite and its blue variant Azurite. White colours were derived from Gypsum and Chalk. (For details, see: Egyptian Colour Palette.)

Colour Painting in Ancient Greece and Rome
From Greek archaic painting onwards (c.650 BCE), the available range of colours for both panel paintings and frescos was adequately wide. Greek painting techniques were tempera and fresco; on wood and marble, encaustic and tempera - a process in which colours were mixed with wax, painted onto the surface and then 'burnt in'. In addition to the range of pigments used in Ancient Egypt, Greek artists added new reds like the gum "Dragons Blood", and Vermilion. New purples included Indigo, Madder and Tyrian purple, while new greens featured. Verdigris and green earth (Terre Verte). Massicot and Naples Yellow were two new yellows. (For details, see: Classical Colour Palette.)

Colour Painting in the Renaissance
Painting during the Renaissance was transformed by the development of oil painting. This new medium made colours look extra good, and added a new dimension of reality to figurative works, notably portraiture. Not surprisingly it stimulated the discovery and use of many new hues. These included the red pigments Carmine (Americas), "Red Lac" (India) and a new red Vermilion; plus the fabulous dark-blue Ultramarine and the yellow Gamboge, as well as Lead White. (For details, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.)

Academic Traditions of Colour Painting
Several important principles of fine art were laid down by Renaissance art. These principles consisted of conventions relating to all aspects of picture-making, including subject, composition, line, and colour. Colour (colorito) was regarded as secondary to the overall design (disegno), as illustrated by the fact that art students or apprentices spent the vast majority of their time learning drawing, and only learned the art of pigments and colouring at a much later stage. But see also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (c.1500-76), and Legacy of Venetian Painting.

20th Century Colour Palette
Titanium White
Cadmium Red and Orange
Quinacridone Reds, Violets
Pyrrole Reds
Dioxazine Violet
Mars Black
Pthalo Blue
Manganese Blue
Indanthrone Blue
Arylide, Azo, Hansa Yellows
Pthalo Green

Here is a sample list of paint
colours from a modern paint

A-Z Paint Colours (REMBRANDT)
Brown Ochre
Burnt Carmine
Burnt Sienna
Burnt Umber 40M
Cad Yellow Lemon
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Deep
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Red Purple
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Caput Mortum Violet
Cerulean Blue
Chromium Oxide Green
Cinnabar Green Deep
Cinnabar Green Light
Cinnabar Green Medium
Cobalt Blue Deep
Cobalt Blue Light
Cobalt Blue Ultramarine
Cobalt Green
Cobalt Turquoise Blue
Cobalt Turquoise Green
Cobalt Violet
Cold Grey
Deep Gold
Emerald Green
Gold Ochre
Green Earth
Greenish Umber
Indanthrene Blue
Indian Red
Ivory Black
Kings Blue
Lamp Black
Light Gold
Manganese Blue Phthalo
Mixed White
Naples Yellow Deep
Naples Yellow Green
Naples Yellow Light
Naples Yellow Red
Nickel Titanate Yellow Deep
Nickel Titanium Yellow Light
Olive Green
Orange Ochre
Oxide Black
Paynes Grey
Pearl White
Phthalo Blue Green
Phthalo Blue Red
Phthalo Green Blue
Phthalo Green Yellow
Phthalo Turquoise Blue
Prussian Blue
Quinacridone Rose
Raw Sienna
Raw Umber
Sap Green
Sevres Blue
Sevres Green
Sil de Grain Yellow
Stil De Grain Brown
Titanium White (Linseed)
Titanium White
Turquoise Blue
Ultramarine Deep
Ultramarine Green
Ultramarine Light
Ultramarine Violet
Van Dyke Brown
Venetian Red
Warm Grey
Yellow Light
Yellow Ochre Light
Yellow Ochre
Zinc White Linseed
Zinc White

For a list of masterpieces, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Colour Painting During the 17th and 18th Century
After the Renaissance, this approach to fine art painting was adopted by all the major European Academies and became enshrined in the style known as academic art. Painting was not even on the curriculum of most academies - students had to learn painting skills in the atelier of a master - and colour continued to have a secondary function, as more of a supportive element. Thus during the Baroque Rubens attracted criticism for his dramatic use of pigment, while Nicolas Poussin was revered as an exemplar of more balanced colourism. A century or so later, the same debate errupted over the respective colour practices of the Romantic painter Delacroix versus those of the more sobre Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. One of the cardinal principles of academic painting concerned the primacy of the naturalistic palette: colours were to reflect the natural colours found in nature, thus grass was green, the sea was blue, and skin was flesh-coloured. This situation endured until the 19th century when a revolution occurred. No major new colours were discovered in the 17th century, but Prussian Blue was produced during the 18th century, as were several new Cobalt and Chrome colours. (For details, see: Eighteenth Century Colour Palette.)

19th Century: Impressionism and Other Schools
The 19th century - essentially the start of modern art - was a period of massive change for both oil painters and watercolourists. New pigments seemed to pop up every few years. Cobalt Blue emerged first, then Chromium Green Oxide, followed by Indian Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Cerulean Blue, a cheap synthetic Ultramarine, Zinc White, Rose Madder, Aureolin, Viridian, and Cobalt Violet. Nineteenth century painters now possessed a cheaper, more convenient and more reliable means of colour painting. The Fauvists and German Expressionists took full advantage of these technological advances in pigmentation to produce an outburst of multi-coloured pictures. (For details, see: Nineteenth Century Colour Palette.)

The Impressionist Revolution
Impressionist painters caused a revolution in the theory and practice of colour painting by their insistence on capturing the "fleeting moment": the exact condition of light/colour which they perceived when painting plein-air from nature. Thus for example, if during this fleeting moment a tree-trunk - which is "naturally" brown - appeared red in the light of a setting sun, Impressionists (like Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley) painted it red. In fact, it might appear in any of several differing hues, depending on the effect of light, and was coloured accordingly. The "paint-what-you-see" approach to colour seen in most Impressionist paintings shattered the conventions of the time, and opened the gates to further experimentation by schools, such as Neo-Impressionism (with its technique of Pointillism), as practised by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

Impressionism represented the ultimate in "copying nature". But after two decades of slavish copying, progressive artists rebelled. Tired of simply "painting-what-they-saw" they injected more subjectivity into their canvases, in a general style known as Expressionism. Pioneered by Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, the expressionist movement was developed first by so-called Fauvist painters in 1905. For two years Fauvism was the hot thing in Paris: everyone tried it, even Georges Braque. Its influence spread to Germany triggering an explosion of German Expressionism spearheaded by progressive art groups like Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke. It also spread to Britain where it influenced the Scottish Colourists and others. For more information, see: History of Expressionism. For artists involved, see: Expressionist Painters.

Note: The Russian strain of 20th century colourism is most evident in the fabulous theatrical sets created for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. by designers like Leon Bakst (1866-1924) and Alexander Benois (1870-1960).

Abstract Expressionism/Colour Field Painting
Colour experimentation errupted again during the immediate post-World War II period in America, where European emigrant artists (eg. Arshile Gorky, Josef Albers, Mark Rothko and others) mixed with locals like, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman to produce a style of Abstract Expressionism known as Colour Field Painting. Typically, this featured huge canvases containing large areas of colour which were designed to "envelope" the viewer and engender an emotional reaction. See, for instance, Mark Rothko's paintings (1938-70). Pigment was now "the" key element of the canvas: it was the high point of colour painting. And despite the eventual collapse of the movement in the early 1960s, colour has continued to maintain its independent status in the process of disegno.

Impact of Manufacturing Technology on Colour Painting

New Paints

Impressionism coincided with the invention of the collapsible tin paint tube in 1841, by American painter John Rand, which made more pre-mixed colours available in a convenient medium. In addition, paint manufacturers like the Sherwin-Williams Company began urgently trying to perfect a formula that would keep fine paint particles suspended in Linseed oil. In 1880, after more than a decade of chemical research, the company produced a formula that far exceeded the quality of oil paints then available. Since then, artist-paint manufacturers have produced an ever-growing range of pre-mixed oil paints, virtually eliminating the need for hand-ground pigments, and revolutionizing the practice of oil painting in the process.

In addition, the appearance of acrylic painting in the 1940s (initially developed by the German chemist Dr. Otto Rohm) has provided painters with an even more convenient alternative to slow-drying oil colours. Thus technological advances in the manufacture of oil-based and now acrylic-based pigments has (and continues to have) a major influence on the theory and practice of colour painting.

New Synthetic Colourants

The laboratory invention of synthetic pigments to replace the more costly colours made from organic or other naturally occurring dyestuffs, has also had a huge impact on paint manufacture, and thus on fine art painting. One of the first modern synthetic pigments, discovered by chance in 1704, was Prussian Blue. Many other natural pigments were successfully synthesized by chemists, including Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber. By the early 19th century, more synthetic blue pigments had been created, including French ultramarine, an artificial form of lapis lazuli, along with laboratory versions of Cobalt and Cerulean Blue. In the early 20th century, organic chemists created Phthalo Blue, a synthetic pigment with enormous tinting power. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to both the organic chemists and the paint manufacturers, a wide range of oil paint colours - such as red, crimson, blue, and purple - had become available in affordable formats. Furthermore, because many pigments were now being made from chemical components under laboratory conditions, much higher standards of quality and consistence - in the composition and durability of colours - became possible. Thus in 1905, chemists were able to develop the Munsell Color System, a measurement system which became the foundation for a series of colour models. Among other things, the system classified colours by hue, value (lightness), and chroma (purity of colour).


New Standardized Colour Systems

One of the major developments in colour painting during the 20th century has been the creation of a number of colour systems designed to classify and standardize the attributes of pigments, to improve manufacturing and labelling consistency. The main systems include:

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) System
The ASTM is the organization mainly responsible for setting minimum standards for the testing and quality of artists' materials, notably in the labelling of paint products. First published in 1984, these standards provide the only assurance, outside of Federal and State mandated health warnings, that (eg) acrylics and oil paints are accurately labelled.

The Colour Index
First published in 1925 by The Society Of Dyers and Colourists of the UK, and presently managed in conjunction with the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists, The Colour Index is the official index of all commercially available colourants. Grouped by colour, each hue is assigned a C.I. (Colour Index) Generic Name, Constitution Number, and a listing of Common Names associated with the dye or pigment. The greatest value of this system is that it offers a standardized, dependable way of knowing exactly which pigments are in a paint.

Colorimetry and the Measure of Colour
Although highly useful, the Colour Index’s principal focus remains the cataloging of commercially available pigments. It does not classify colour in a particularly scientific way. For this, experts turned to the science of Colorimetry, the field concerned with the quantitative measurement of colour in general, and two main models have emerged - Munsell and CIE Lab - along with two alternate systems - CMYK and RGB - which are widely employed in the print and display industries.

Created by the American artist and educator, Albert H. Munsell, in 1905, the Munsell colour system was an early attempt to arrange colours into a logical order. It is based around three attributes: Hue, or the quality that differentiates one colour from another; Chroma, a concept similar to Saturation; and Value, the lightness/darkness of a colour.

In 1976 the Commission Internationale d’Eclairage (CIE), the organization that promulgates official standards for the scientific measurement of colour, developed a model known as CIE Lab in order to describe all perceptible colours in a uniform manner.

These systems cover the classification of colours and pigments appearing on monitors, televisions, printers, scanners, digital cameras, and mobile phones. All these devices operate quite differently from the CIE Lab and Munsell systems. In the latter, a set of well-defined variables delineate a unique colour. In comparison, RGB and CMYK values purport to describe ratios between generalized inputs: additive primary colours, in the case of RGB, or subtractive primary colours for printing inks in CMYK. Put simply, these systems provide a recipe for mixing a colour rather than its definition.

A third system employed in printing is the Pantone system. Its Pantone Matching System (PMS) allows printers to accurately reproduce every known hue of ink.

The Greatest Colourists in Fine Art Painting

Before listing some of the most famous exponents of colour work, it is important to remember that, (as described above), between roughly 1400 and 1800 painters were severely circumscribed in their application of colour, due to prevailing academic theories of fine art. Colour was an integral but supportive element in the process of picturemaking, and artists were obliged to be extremely subtle in their choice and use of pigments. Thus the greatest colourists were those whose palette captured and celebrated the precise mood of their picture, rather than those who employed the most vivid pigmentation. Only later, in the 19th century, did painters feel at liberty to treat colour as an independent form of expression and endow it with the importance it deserved. Modern colourists are therefore noted for much greater freedom in this area.

Renaissance Colourists

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
One of the earliest pioneers of oil paint, his unique colour work is illustrated in his powerful Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (1433, oil on wood, National Gallery, London), with its thin layers of transparent pigment.

Raphael (1483-1520)
Said to be the greatest painter of the High Renaissance. His colour work is exemplified by Madonna della Sedia (1512-14, oil on panel, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), the greatest example of Renaissance Madonnas.

Titian (c.1477-1576)
The most celebrated member of the school of Venetian painting, Titian's colour work is represented by The Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18, oil on panel, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice), whose strong colours, golden light and gesticulating figures caused a sensation when the picture was unveiled in 1518.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94)
Another supreme Venetian artist, his St Mark Freeing the Slave (1547-8, oil on canvas, Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice) shows Tintoretto's peerless mid-tonal palette incorporating beautiful pinks, browns, ochres and reds.

Paolo Veronese (1528-88)
Said to be even greater than Titian, his masterpieces are undoubtedly the monumental paintings The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-3, Louvre, Paris) and Feast in the House of Levi (1573, Venice Academy) with their glowing colours.

17th Century Colourists

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The colourism of this great Counter-Reformation painter is well illustrated by Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14, oil on panel, Antwerp), and Samson and Delilah (1609, oil on wood, National Gallery, London), with their rich red cloaks and drapery.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)
The most famous of Dutch Realists, along with Rembrandt, Vermeer's colour work is exemplified by the cool blues and sensuous whites of Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1600, oil on canvas, Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague) and Lady Seated at a Virginal (1632, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London), in severe contrast with the rich vermilion/scarlet of Girl with a Red Hat (1671-2, oil on panel, National Gallery, Washington DC)


18th Century Colourists

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
The greatest post-Renaissance fresco painter, Tiepolo's colouristic work is aptly illustrated by his Wurzburg Palace frescos (1750-3). Their pale limpid colours add luminosity to the sky and overall optics.

19th Century Colourists

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)
A great admirer of Venetian colourists like Titian and Paolo Veronese, as well as the Baroque master Rubens, Delacroix was also influenced by English painters like Turner, Constable and Richard Parkes Bonnington. Among his great colourist works is The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, Louvre, Paris).

Pre-Raphaelites (c.1848-60)
Several members of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were masters of colour, notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and Ford Madox Brown (1821-93).

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Monet's colourism is best exemplified by his extraordinary large-scale canvases of his waterlily pond at Giverny, such as The Japanese Bridge at Giverny (1918-24, oil on canvas, Marmottan Museum, Paris), a precursor of the later Abstract Expressionism movement. See too the Irish colourist Roderic O'Conor.

Vittore Grubicy De Dragon (1851–1920)
Painter, writer and art dealer, largely responsible for the Italian Divisionism movement, a variant of French Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
His application of Pointillist colour theory is exemplified by his famous masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago). Seurat's work into Divisionism and Chromoluminarism was significantly developed by Paul Signac (1863-1935).

Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
A member of the Die Brucke Expressionist group, Nolde's work is full of examples of his colourist painting. Wonderful examples include: Early Morning Flight (1950, Nolde Foundation) with its blues and greens, and Still Life with Dancers (1914, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, Paris) with its primitive red and yellow symbolism.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
For Gauguin, colour had symbolic and emotional significance, as in Vision After the Sermon (1888, National Gallery of Scotland) or Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). His use of flat areas of pure colour was known as Synthetism, while his followers at the Pont-Aven School (Louis Anquetin and Emile Bernard) developed the use of heavy outline filled with pure colour, as in medieval enamels - a style known as Cloisonnism.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
The vivid palette of Van Gogh's powerful Wheat Field with Crows (1890, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) with its "blazing" corn field and threatening black crows perfectly exemplifies his use of colour to express his personal emotional feelings.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Klimt's decorative masterpiece The Kiss (1907-8, oil and gold on canvas, Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna) typifies the Viennese Secession master's Byzantine-art style of glittering colour and precious metal.

Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947)
A founding member of Les Nabis, he was also - with Edouard Vuillard - noted for his domestic genre scenes (Intimism), although his paintings had greater richness and splendour of colour. In general, his colourist works radiate a sense of warmth and well-being. See, in particular, his later 20th century works, such as: The Green Blouse (1919, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and also The Terrace at Vernon (1939, Metropolitan Museum).

20th Century Colourists

Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944)
Combined a Fauve-like intensity of colour with elements of Russian folk-art. The founder of the Der Blaue Reiter Expressionist group, his works like Composition No 7 (1913) use the shock of contrasting colours, while Two Poplars (1913, Art Institute of Chicago) employs colour to depict a landscape with enormous emotional undertones.

Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
This Russian Expressionist, strongly influenced by Matisse, employed bold, vivid pigments to express his passionate temperament and melancholic introspection. His colourism is wonderfully illustrated by Head (1910, oil on canvas over cardboard, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Head of a Woman (1911, oil on cardboard, National Gallery of Modern Art).

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
The leader of the Fauves and an artist devoted to a lifetime's exploration of colour, his approach is well illustrated by Luxe, Calme et Volupte (Luxury, Serenity and Pleasure, 1904, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), and his Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912, Metropolitan Museum), as well as the contrasting Blue Nude III (1952-3, gouache on paper, Museum of Modern Art, Paris). Other important Fauvist colourists include Andre Derain (1880-1954) and his friend Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958).

Other early 20th century colourists included: Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), founder of Orphism, the avant-garde Russians Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Goncharova (1881-1962) who invented Rayonism, and Morgan Russell (1886-1953) and Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973) who invented Synchromism.

Georges Rouault (1871-1958)
Greatest French expressionist painter and religious artist, noted for the luminous, glowing colours in his oil, gouache and watercolour paintings.

Raoul Dufy (1877-1953)
Impressionist, Fauvist painter from Le Havre, noted for his calligraphic-style drawings over washes of bright colours.

Mark Rothko (1903-70)
One of the foremost exponents of abstract expressionist painting, Rothko's huge abstract canvases were characterized by plain, soft-edged shapes filled with colour, as in Untitled: Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red (1949, oil on canvas, Guggenheim Museum, New York).

Nicolas de Stael (1914-55)
Russian-French painter who fleetingly became one of the great abstract painters of the Ecole de Paris during the early 1950s. Noted for his lyrical abstraction and his thickly impastoed landscapes.

Patrick Heron (1920-99)
English abstract expressionist painter influenced by Matisse and Braque, and associated with Lyrical Abstraction and the St Ives School.

Yves Klein (1928-62)
French postmodernist artist who produced a number of monochrome paintings using his patented colour pigment International Klein Blue (IKB). See also: Yves Klein's Postmodernist art (1956-62).

The Main Colours (and Pigments)


White is a balanced mixture of all the colours of the visible light spectrum, or a combination of two complementary colours, or three or more colours, like additive primary colours. It is neutral or achromatic (devoid of colour), like black and grey. It is added to pigments to create tints or lightened hues.

Shades of white include: Cream, Ivory, Magnolia, Old lace, Seashell. White Pigments for this colour include: Bismuth white, Bone white, Ceruse, Chalk, Chinese white, Cremnitz white, Flake white, Tin white, and Titanium white.



Red (the word derives from Old English "Read" and the Indo European root "reudh-") is one of the additive primary colours of light, complementary to cyan, in RGB (Red, Green, Blue) colour systems. In addition, Red is one of the subtractive primary colours of RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue) colour space.

Red Pigments include: Alizarin crimson, Cadmium red, Carmine, Cinnibar, Folium, Indian red, Kermes, Light red (English red, Prussian red, colcothar, and Persian red), Madder, Minium, Safflower, Sinopia, Terra Pozzuoli, and Vermilion. Shades of red include: Alizarin, Amaranth, Burgundy, Cardinal, Carmine, Carnelian, Cerise, Crimson, Fire engine red, Fuchsia, Magenta, Maroon, Orange-red, Persimmon, Ruby, Rust, Scarlet, Terra cotta, Venetian red, Vermilion.


Pink is a pale tint of red, obtained by adding white. The word was first used in the late 17th century to describe flowering plants. Shades of pink include: Amaranth, Brink pink, Carmine, Carnation, Cerise, Cherry pink, Coral, Deep carmine, French rose, Fuchsia pink, Hot magenta, Hot pink, Lavender rose,
Magenta, Persian pink, Puce, Rose, Salmon pink, Shocking pink.


The colour orange is mid-way between red and yellow in RGB colour space, and is one of the tertiary colours on the HSV colour scale. The colour is named after the fruit which was first imported into Europe as "naranja". The word "orange" was first used as a colour-term in 1512. Previously, the colour was simply known as yellow-red. Shades of orange include: Amber, Apricot, Burnt orange, Carrot, Peach, Mandarin, Portland Orange, Pumpkin, Tangerine.


The tertiary colour brown refers to dark yellow, orange, or reddish hues. Brown pigment can be obtained by adding black or their complementary colours to rose, red, orange, or yellow. The first recorded use of brown as a colour term occurred around 1000 CE.

Brown Pigments include: Asphaltum (Bitumen), Bistre, Mummy (Egyptian brown), Sepia, Sienna, Umber and Van Dyck brown. Shades of brown include: Auburn, Beige, Bistre, Bole, Bronze, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber,
Chocolate, Copper, Khaki, Liver, Mahogany, Ochre, Olive, Russet, Rust, Sandy brown, Sepia, Sienna, Tan, Taupe.


Yellow (the word comes from the Old English "geolu", or "geolwe") is one of the subtractive primary hues. Its traditional RYB complementary colour is purple, violet, or indigo; its complementary colour in both RGB and CMYK colour systems is blue.

Yellow Pigments include: Aureolin, Aurora yellow, Cadmium yellow, Chrome yellow, Fustic, Gallstone, Gamboge, Gold, Indian yellow, Massicot, Naples yellow, Orpiment, Quercitron yellow, Saffron, Turner's yellow, Turpeth mineral, and Yellow Ochre. Shades of yellow include: Amber, Apricot, Beige, Cream, Flax, Gamboge, Golden yellow, Lemon, Metallic gold, Mustard, Papaya, Peach-yellow, Tangerine yellow.

Grey (also gray)

The term grey, first coined in England around 700 CE, describes the tints and shades from black to white. Low in chroma, these, colours are known as achromatic or neutral colours.

Grey Pigments include: Davy's grey, Neutral tint (lampblack, Winsor blue and alizarin crimson), and Payne's grey. Shades of gray include: Arsenic, Bistre, Charcoal, Davy's grey, Feldgrau, Payne's grey, Silver Slate.


In the subtractive system, Green is a secondary colour obtained from a combination of yellow and blue, or yellow and cyan. But it remains one of the additive primary colours. In the HSV colour wheel, its complementary colour is magenta - a purple hue with an equal mixture of red and blue light. On the RYB colour wheel its complementary colour is red. The word green derives from the Old English "grene" or "groeni", words closely related to the Old English word "growan", meaning "to grow".

Green Pigments include: Emerald (Schweinfurt green, Scheele's green), Hooker's green, Malachite, Oxide of Chromium, Sap green, Terre Verte, Verdigris, and Viridian. Shades of green include: Army green, Asparagus, Bright green, British racing green, Celadon, Emerald, Fern, Frog, Jade, Lime, Moss green, Olive green, Pine, Shamrock green, Viridian.


Can refer to a variety of colours in the blue/green section of the spectrum. It is sometimes called aqua-green or blue-green, and used to be called "cyan blue". Analogous colours include "baby blue", "turquoise" and "aquamarine".


Blue (derived from the French word "bleu") is considered one of the additive primary colours. On the HSV Colour Wheel, its complementary colour is yellow. On a colour wheel based on traditional colour theory (RYB), its complement is orange. The English language commonly uses "blue" to refer to any colour from navy blue to cyan.

Blue Pigments include: Azurite, Cerulean, Cobalt blue, Cornflower blue, Egyptian blue (Alexandrian blue, Vestorian blue), French ultramarine, Frit, Indigo, Phthalocyanine blue, Prussian blue, Smalt, Ultramarine, Ultramarine ash, and Woad. Shades of blue include: Air Force blue, Azure, Baby blue, Cobalt blue, Cornflower, Denim, Electric blue, Klein blue, Midnight blue, Navy blue, Prussian blue, Royal blue, Sapphire, Ultramarine.


First used about 1400 to describe violets, the term usually describes a shade of purple, that is, a mixture of red and blue light. Violet pigments include: Archil and Tyrian purple. Shades of violet include: Amethyst, Fuchsia, Heliotrope, Indigo, Lavender, Lilac, Mauve, Purple.


Black reflects no light, and is not a colour of the spectrum, nor does it appear on the colour wheel. Even so, as a pigment it is added to other colours to create darker variants or shades. Black Pigments include: Black lead, Ivory Black, Lamp Black, and Vine Black.


• For more about colour pigments in painting, see: Homepage.

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