ETP - Introduction to Color Theory

The Use of Color

The flow and placement of a piece of art, as well as the quality of design, aren’t the only elements a person sees when admiring a quality tattoo. Just as important, and with arguably more initial impact, are the colors used to bring the piece to life. Even if his or her piece is entirely done in black and shades of gray, the choice of colors that are used in the design are what gives the tattoo its initial impact.

When the eye sees color, what it is really doing is interpreting wavelengths of light that bounce off of objects and meet the eye. White light is composed of every color of the rainbow, and when it hits objects, they absorb every wavelength except for the one that they reflect back to the eye. This reflected wave is the color we see. The red car driving by, for example, is absorbing all wavelengths except for red, which it reflects back back to our eye and our brain interprets as red.

Hue, Value, and Chroma
Color is a little more complicated than it seems. The quality of a color that differentiates red from blue, for example, is its hue. Determining hue can be murky, as colors exist on a spectrum. If you think of red at one end and purple at the other, you can create a constant flow of color that merges from one hue into the next in rainbow order. We may know precisely where the middle of yellow is, or the middle of blue, but finding the lines between hues, and where one begins and the other ends is tricky. Even so, the concept remains the same. Hue is the difference between different colors, even though it can be difficult to determine the actual difference.
The next important quality of color is value. A color’s value is how light or how dark it is. The hue of light blue and the hue of dark blue is the same blue, but the value is very different depending on the lightness or darkness of the shade. The value is affected by adding white, black, gray, or even its complementary opposite to the color. White makes a color lighter, and black makes it darker. Value is sometimes called lightness, or tone; these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
Finally, we have chroma. The Greek word for color, chroma is the saturation of a color, or how far it is from the color gray. It can also be described as the brightness or the dullness of a color. Think of a black and white photo; most colors are represented as grays in these images. Now, imagine color slowly being added to the image. As the color becomes more saturated, it is further from gray and becomes brighter. This brightening, or saturation, is the chroma of a color.

The Color Wheel
We see many colors every day, but there are only three hues that we cannot mix ourselves from ink. These hues—red, yellow, and blue—are called the primary colors. These colors, mixed together or with varied amounts of black and white compose every other hue and value.
Equally important to color theory are secondary colors—colors composed of mixtures between two primary colors. Red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and blue and red make purple. Orange, green, and purple are, therefore, the secondary colors. These are manipulated with white and black in order to compose the hues and values we see in the world.
Secondary colors can be mixed with primary colors. Red mixed with purple, for example, gives us red-purple, a purple that is much more reddish than blue. This is how extended hues are developed when an artist wants to create a yellow with a hint of orange, for example, or any other shade that falls between hues that we commonly recognize by name.
The most common color combinations are called complementary colors. These are the hues that are directly opposite of each other on a color wheel. Red and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange are the most obvious of the range, although getting into tertiary colors and beyond will give equally dramatic, yet less expected, results.
Complementary colors intensify their complement, so using red right next to green will make both colors pop and seem more intense. Analogous colors are those that are right next to each other on a color wheel.

Red and orange, or green and blue are sets that work well together visually. A secondary color will look more like one of the primary colors it is composed of when it is next to the other primary color it is made from. The exact same shade of green, for example, will look more yellow when it is on a blue background, and will look more blue when it is on a yellow background. Analogous colors can be used to add dimension to a tattoo, but it is important to keep in mind that these colors may flatten out when placed together, making the entirety of the image appear red-orange or blue-green if the color plan for the tattoo isn’t well thought out before application.

Color and Perception
Colors don’t do their work alone, however. Our eyes perceive colors differently based on all of the hues that we see together. This concept is most easily shown by choosing a hue and changing its background color. A medium gray, for example, looks simply gray when seen alone. On a white background it appears darker, and on a black background it appears lighter.
A Note About “Fluting”
Even stranger, if you place the gray in the middle of two other hues of similar chroma such as olive and lavender, the gray will look lavender next to the olive, yet will look olive next to the lavender. This phenomenon is called “fluting,” and it can be used to the artist’s advantage when attempting to change colors within a design from one hue to another in something that appears visually much like an airbrush effect.

Color also has a psychological effect, but it varies widely from person to person. Some people may absolutely love the color blue; others may associate it with depression or moodiness. Pink may be fun and playful for one person, yet childish and saccharine to another. Ultimately, it is the person receiving the tattoo who needs to be comfortable with the color choice, so the artist must take care to use color as the client wishes.
The meanings of colors are also very different from culture to culture. In the West, many people use white for marriage, innocence, and purity, and black for funerals and death. In the East, however, white is a funereal color, and red is considered very lucky by many groups. The colors chosen for a design will certainly be approved by the client prior to application, but bear in mind that the client may have very different ideas about what colors are appropriate for a design. Because of this, tattoo artists need to be very respectful of the final color choices made by the customer.
Culture affects not only the meaning of color, but also how it is actually perceived by the brain. In Japan, for centuries there was one word that was used for what we see as separately blue and green. To the Japanese in the past, these hues were simply the same color.
About 1000 years ago, a new word came into use to describe the greenish end of this color spectrum, but it was merely a shade of blue-green, not a hue in its own right. Culturally, green became its own color in the last century, but even so, the word for blue is often used for items that we might commonly describe as green.
This isn’t a cultural anomaly. There are many groups where the line between blue and green is still murky.
Ancient Hebrew had no word for blue; it wasn’t just in Asian cultures where these hues were seen as the same color. In the west, we see pink as a completely separate color from red, whereas to much of the world it is simply “light red”.
This matters because as an artist, it is important to recognize that there are no clear boundaries between one hue and another. We may look at yellow and be able to clearly distinguish it from red, but as the colors merge together to become orange, at what exact point is the hue no longer yellow or no longer orange?
Much of what we believe about color is shaped by our culture and the words we use, but color is ultimately far more dynamic and mutable. Understanding this concept frees the artist to choose colors that may not fall within traditional hue boundaries, but which add depth and dimension to a finished piece.
Since color is a continuous spectrum with an infinite number of hues, it would be impossible to keep every possible color of ink on hand. This is why artists mix their own colors; they understand how color theory works and the necessity of mixing precise hues, and are able to put color theory to work in order to do it. Think about it—is it more fun to have 20 colors on hand, or an infinite variety of them?

What makes a line, a picture, or a patch of color show up against another is called contrast. It is the difference between one area and another that our eyes distinguish. The most commonly used form of contrast is light vs dark—the value of a color, created by adding black or white to the hue. White will make the color lighter, and black will make it darker. The process of lining a tattoo gives contrast to the image, clearly defining the tattoo against the skin and against other elements of the design.
Light and dark can be used to great advantage. While white on black or black on white are the most striking level of contrast, this is not the only way to achieve it. The greater the difference between saturation levels of colors, the greater the contrast will be between them. The same goes for complementary colors on the color wheel. Green and red will have a high level of contrast, and will make each other pop within the design.
Care should be taken to avoid the traps of certain contrasting combinations, however. Red and green are commonly used as Christmas colors, so using them together too much could give the net effect of a holiday design. The same goes for the colors of a popular local sports team. If a design is composed of large swaths of those colors, it may resemble an homage to that team rather than an independent design.
These colors can certainly still be used together in a tattoo, however. What is important is the coloration throughout the entirety of the tattoo. Using complementary colors together can make these colors pop, as they have high levels of contrast with each other. Incorporating analogous colors as well can add depth, dimension, and cause the image as a whole to appear cohesive and unified.
Warm and Cool
The warmth and coolness of colors can also be used for contrast. Complementary colors already have this element working for their contrast, but other hues can be used to their advantage with this principle. Blue can be very cool in tone, whereas red can be very warm. Using these hues together can add lovely contrast to a piece without the worry of the image using too much red and green together.

An image that is mostly cool or mostly warm in coloration gains impact from the judicious use of the opposing tone, cool or warm, making those areas pop.
Value is another element of contrast; even complementary colors of the same value (lightness or darkness) may not give the same impact that a light blue can with a dark blue. Using value for contrast can give a design the distinction it needs while still appearing harmonious. While most designs will use complementary and analogous colors for impact, value is an excellent way to shade a design without using true black or gray.
A master artist can also learn to use texture to his or her advantage. Creating a design that looks smooth will contrast with areas that are drawn to look rough and pitted. Designs with flow and larger areas of negative space will contrast with areas of fine detail and more intricate design.
The best example of the use of negative space is in a bold tribal design, black on skin. These designs work because of the contrast between the positive and the negative space of the tattoo, and how they work together.
All of these elements can be used together in a design. High levels of contrast will appear to protrude, while areas of less contrast will appear to recede. Lighter shading and thinner lines will offer less contrast, and thicker lines and more dramatic shading will increase it. Using these elements with warm tones in one area and cooler tones in the area can even help give the design the illusion of a 3-D image if the color pops and contrasts are done well.
While all of these elements can be used in one design, it is important to understand how they work together. Otherwise, the image may look cluttered or too busy, and the elements will distract the eye instead of enhancing the unity of the image. The artist must take the time to fully render the image on paper, and decide which elements are being used well and which are actually cluttering the design.
The master artist understands that sometimes simplicity is best, and that showing off techniques can actually be a distraction to the overall piece.

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