ART TECHNIQUES Color theory 5 min read

How to Speak the Language of Color

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A solid understanding of hue, chroma, value, and temperature — combined with playful experimentation — translates to color fluency.

By Jeanne Rosier Smith

I sketched Marsh Musings (9×12) using a palette of 12 pastels.

Among artists, pastelists seem to have a special relationship with color, drawn to the medium by the seductive array of pigments ready at our fingertips. Learning to use those colors effectively is similar to learning to speak a language: Each pastel stick forms a part of one’s color vocabulary, and the more we have, the more we can say. But, learning to speak the language of color fluently requires more than just amassing a great selection of colors.

When learning a new language, a long list of vocabulary words can only take us so far. A profusion of possibilities might, in fact, be overwhelming without a few guiding principles about how colors behave and interact in order to help give our new words expression and impact. Whether or not you work in pastel, as I do, thinking about color as a language can inform your artistic choices.

Color Sense

Thinking of color as a language has always made sense to me. Just as some people seem to have an ear for language and can pick up new ones easily, a color sense is more intuitive for some than for others. But, like language, color can also be learned, practiced, and spoken by all. Spending time with color, playing around, taking risks, and practicing have proven to be the best ways to boost color confidence and fluency.

Much like a language student yearns to make the switch from translating each word to speaking effortlessly, a painter’s goal is to switch from thinking intellectually about color combinations to thinking instinctively, using color intuitively and with expression. Early on, efforts might require more planning and thinking and feel awkward; subtle nuances of expression might be missed easily by non-native speakers.

A Two-Pronged Approach

I find that a two-pronged approach toward color fluency works best. First, we need to brush up on the basic structure (the “grammar”) that governs how colors interact. Second, we need to get plenty of playtime.

As with language, learning the rules will only take us so far. Speaking fluently means practicing, using colors in combination, trying them out in real-life situations, and observing what happens.

Color Mixing Exercise

Always select pastels of equivalent values for layering.

Choose two or three colors of the same value, including a complement. Then, create several color patches using different blending techniques: layering, blending, broken color. Try as many different colors or color effects as possible.

Do the same with two or three analogous colors of equivalent value. Notice that layering analogous colors, as I did with swatches 1, 3, 4 and 5, intensifies their luminosity and is a great way to achieve glow. By contrast, layering complementary colors (swatches 2 and 6) quiets and dulls colors, producing complex, rich neutrals.

This article originally appeared in Pastel Journal. Subscribe now so you don’t miss any great art instruction, inspiration, and articles like this one.

A Color Primer

Following are a few simple color terms — hue, value, chroma, and temperature — and subsequent exercises that are designed to help you improve your understanding and color fluency.

Hue: Hue is the variety of colors around the color wheel, e.g., purple, blue, turquoise, green, yellow, orange, red. Hues opposite each other on the color wheel are color complements, which enhance each other when placed side by side and neutralize each other when mixed.

Value: Value is the relative darkness or lightness of a color. Learning to read the value of colors is critical for two reasons: First, value creates form by telling us about light and shadow. Getting values right, regardless of color, creates believable form. Second, reading the value of colors correctly is the key to mixing and layering colors. Pastels of similar value can be layered almost indefinitely to rich and beautiful effect, whereas mixing pastels of differing values can quickly create a pasty mud. Within any value, you can dull or intensify — or warm up or cool down — a color simply by layering. If you get the value right, you can invent the right color.

Exercise: Value Judgment

This painting exercise is designed to sharpen your value judgments and unlock color combinations you may not have considered otherwise.

Start with any black-and-white photo reference containing clear value variations.

Analyze your photo reference and separate shapes into four different values using a thumbnail sketch.

Choose three colors in each of four values: light, mid-light, mid-dark and dark, ensuring that the colors in each value set are close in range. (See

Paint your scene using your limited palette, keeping the values in each area accurate and playing with color within each value area. Layer and mix colors as needed, but keep values separate, as I did in Marsh Musings (at the top of this article).

3 Ways to Test Value
  • Spot test: Make a tiny spot with one pastel on a drawn pastel block, then squint. If the spot appears to disappear, the values match.
  • Side-by-side test: Make two side-by-side blocks by using two different pastels on a sheet of paper, then squint. If they resolve into one shape, they’re the same value.
  • Grayscale printout test: Use a grayscale printout and make a mark on each shade of gray, then squint. The color’s value is the shade on which it disappears.


Chroma is the relative intensity of a color. High-chroma colors are purely pigmented and intense, while low-chroma colors are neutral and dull. This distinction is useful to artists since high-chroma colors advance and demand attention, and low-chroma colors recede and are excellent in supporting roles.

Intensify colors by layering analogous (three colors that are next to one another on the color wheel, with one being the dominant color) of similar value; neutralize or dull colors by layering complements of similar value. Neutral shouldn’t be confused with boring; neutrals can be subtle, quiet, delicate, and powerful.

Most of us are color addicts, but anything used in excess has negative consequences. Overuse of beautiful colors lessens their impact and can actually make them less beautiful, so the power of neutrals is paramount. Use the quiet colors well, and they’ll give power to your brights, making your paintings better. The secret is not to make your neutrals neutral or your dulls dull.


Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color. Warm colors tend toward orangey-yellow, while cool colors lean toward bluish-purple. Although color temperature is an artistic rather than a scientific visual concept, understanding its effect on light and space in your painting can have a tremendous impact.

Color temperature can add dimension and space through atmospheric perspective. Cool colors recede, so cooling objects or areas into the distance pushes them back. Warm and cool contrasts also greatly enhance a sense of light in a painting. If the light source is warm (as often occurs outdoors), shadows will be relatively cooler; if a light source is cool, the shadows will be relatively warmer.

Exercise: What’s the Temperature?

Set up a simple still life and paint it twice, once using a warm light and again using a cool light. Note your color choices for each version; most likely, very few of the same pastels will have been used despite the same subject matter. Observe how light controls the color.

These two sketches were painted from the same setup — only the light bulb was changed (from a traditional incandescent bulb, about 2700K, to a 6500K daylight cool bulb). Warm light creates generally warm colors everywhere, with slightly cooler tones in the shadows (A), while cool light creates cooler colors everywhere, with relatively warmer tones in the shadows (B).

The Pastel Challenge

Because our pastel sticks are premixed, pastelists often face a special challenge when learning about color. We don’t get to learn by experimenting with pushing and pulling values, temperatures, or intensities by mixing our pigments together. Instead, we develop our visual acumen for reading each pastel stick for its value, chroma, and temperature by placing them next to one another and then comparing, juxtaposing, and layering them.

Our use of color — the instinctive reach of the hand toward a particular stick, whether light or dark, warm or cool, intense or neutral — calls to mind a speaker reaching for just the right word. In art, nuance, expression, tone, mood, and emphasis are all shades of meaning within our grasp. Spend time with your colors, observe their interactions, and listen to what they tell you. Whether you’re a native speaker or a newcomer, you can achieve greater color fluency, allowing you to successfully — and beautifully — communicate your artistic concept.

Meet the Artist

Jeanne Rosier Smith is a professional pastelist and teacher living in Sudbury, Mass. She’s a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, the Connecticut Pastel Society, and the Pastel Painters Society of Cape Cod.

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