What is colour in art?


What is colour in art and how should we look at it in the presence of an artwork?

This post contains a tutorial video.

By Yolanda Silva, author of the online course Analysing Art.

In this post you will know:

  1. Colours as symbols or codes.
  2. What are primary colours and the wheel of colours.
  3. The main carachteristics of colour and how artists used them to convey emotions.
  4. The pigments – the main constituents of colours used in painting.

What is colour definition in art ?

Colours are used as symbols or codes in the most varied circumstances.

These color codes, once instituted, become a new language for a more or less broad group of people.

The most known example will be the traffic lights (green, yellow, red) but others exist.

Let’s see a case. The identification of the liturgical times of the Catholic Church.

Learn how to apply methods of iconographic analysis and recognise symbols and attributes of the Saints, through practical exercises and other resources for future use.

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The colors of the different moments of the liturgical year.Iconography of the saints

At the end of the twelfth century, Pope Innocent III established rules regarding the colors used:

white – days of celebration, consecrations, coronations and important events;

red – meaning blood, would be used for the Passion of Christ and martyrdoms of the Apostles and other Saints;

green – moments defined before Lent and after the Holy Trinity;

gold brocade – replaced white, red or green;

violet and black – meant mourning, being black for funerals and mass of the deceased, and violet for penance (now violet has totally replaced black).


art definition of colour

 Color is reflected light on objects.

Its main characteristics are hue, saturation, luminosity and brightness.

We can also describe the color as hot or cold depending on the side of the spectrum to which it belongs.

Let’s see this main characteristics of colour in artwork and how the artists use them.

What is colour?

Synthesizing the colour in art definition.

It has three main characteristics:





Spectral intensity of color (the dominant light wave: blue-cyan, yellow or red-magenta).


Luminous intensity (ie light or brightness).


Spectral purity of color (if it is well defined or less defined within the intensity of the color spectrum).

White is the light in his pure expression.

Black is the total absence of light.

Colors are divided into primary colors and secondary colors.

primary colors

The primary colors are the three pure colors: red-magenta, cyan-blue, and yellow.

primary colours

All other colors result from their blend.

Secondary colors result from the blend of the three primary colors: green, orange, violet.

Wheel of Colors


Boutet’s 7-color and 12-color color circles from 1708. source: Wikipedia


There are also tertiary colors, which arise by adding primary and secondary colors.

When complementary colors are added (for example, green and red) the brown is generated.

using colour in art


Refers to the definition of color intensity.

Artists use Color saturation to create different moods: for example, darker colors suggest a lack of light (night or indoor scene), and dark colors can often give a sense of mystery.

A light color is associated with a light source or the light itself reflected in the composition (such as a lamp, for example).

imagem Cor

Robert Delaunay, Saint-Séverin No. 1, 1909



Describes the purity or strength of a colour.

Bright colors are undiluted and are often associated with positive energy and intense emotions.

More “erased” colors were diluted, mixed with other colors, creating a more serious, solemn or calm environment.

colors in art meaning

In painting the use of a “spot” of Colour is often used by artists to draw the observer to the main figure of the scene.

In these two representations of the Annunciation we can observe that the colored mantle intends to draw attention to the main character – Mary.

It is interesting to note the difference in the visual impact caused by colors in one painting and another (red: passion and feeling, and blue: calm and purity).

ImagemCor 3


Imagem Cor 2

The pigments

The pigments are finely milled substances that provide the necessary colours to the paintings. They are thus the main constituents of colours used in painting.

Learn more about Painting with Natural Pigments - Free online course

They are the materials responsible for the colour, which arise in the paints in the formanalysing art online course of small particles bound together by the binder.

Paints, formerly, were made in painters’ workshops, or in convents, from the pigments prepared by themselves and their apprentices.

The pigments used in painting can be classified into natural pigments and artificial pigments.

A natural pigment is obtained directly from nature, being only subject to processes of physical nature, separation and fine grinding.

These can be of mineral origin (earth and rocks).


The pigments can also have organic origin (vegetable or animal).

These substances were milled to the consistency of a colored powder.


An artificial pigment is obtained through chemical reactions, either from simpler materials or by the decomposition of more complex materials.

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