The first law of color

April 24th, 2020

The first law of color isn’t really a law; it’s not written in stone anywhere, it’s really just a guide or a rule, a strategy to help us manage the complexity of color. Now I refer to it as a law because it’s a very powerful strategy and it’s a very useful strategy and it’s a very foundational strategy to artists because this law also deals with value. And because it deals with value it’s a great place to start for anyone who wants to make the transition from drawing into painting or anyone who wants to learn more about color but who has always been too intimidated colors, so this first law is a great place to start. So the first law of color is – If you change the value you must also change the temperature, and this simply means that every time you change the value of a color – in other words – make it lighter or darker, you also want to change the temperature –  as we saw earlier – the temperature means either making the color warmer or cooler or if we look at location on the color wheel it really means moving the wheel, shifting the color more towards orange and reds or shifting the color towards greens, blues and violetslaw-of-color-one

So for example let’s say you start with the red and you want to render a red object – so every time you make your red brighter you go towards the lights, just add a little bit of yellow or a bit of orange so whenever you add white, add just a little bit of yellow or a little bit of orange to your mix and as your colors get brighter they’ll shift, and also shift in temperature towards yellow, and the opposite is also true, let’s say if you want to make your red darker, every time you add black to make your red darker, add a little bit of blue in there and that’ll shift your darks to the blues and the violets as you go darker. Of course this works with any of the color, with the cool colors as well so let’s say you want to render a green object, you’re starting with green, every time you go lighter you could add a little bit of yellow, so add white to lighten your green and also add a touch of yellow and maybe orange to shift your green towards yellow and orange as it gets brighter and as you go darker with your green add a touch of blue or maybe even violet and that’ll shift your greens towards the cools, towards blue and violet. So that’s pretty much how the first law of color works, every time you change the value you must also change the temperature. Now let’s take a look at how we can apply this first law when we mix colors on the pallet.

If you’ve always wanted to learn color or painting, but have been too intimidated by color, this is the right course for you. Click the link below to get the course and start painting today.

Mono-chrome value scale

Now we’re going to look at some examples of mono-chrome value scale, we’re going to take one color and make lighter and darker versions of it, and in this example we’re starting with red, here we using cadmium red. To shift the value I’m going to use white and black – the white I’m using is titanium white and the black is ivory black, now this first value scale – this was using only the titanium white and the black to shift the value only if we take a look at this value scale, it looks ok, its going brighter as we go left and darker as we go right. Now one thing to note is that because we use tradition medium, titanium white and ivory black aren’t neutral colors, ivory black is actually a very, very dark green, it has a nice greenish tint to it, in fact if you add yellow to ivory black you can easily make green, so black in itself is not neutral and same goes for the white, titanium white is not a neutral white at all, it actually has a very, very light blue/grey tint to it. When we work in traditional medium is does work in our favor that adding white will naturally shift the temperature towards light blue, adding black like ivory black will shift-it towards a dark grayish/green.

In the second example I used the same colors, but this time I shifted the temperature as well along with shifting the value. So if we take a look at the darker range, it doesn’t look that much different as we go darker they almost seem identical. But you’ll notice as you go brighter that’s when you can see the difference, if you look at the light-half tone it has a grayer/bluer tint to it, almost a purple, and that because the ivory black is not neutral is has some blue/green to it so when you add it to the red it works similar to a dark green and really helps to grey it down and really helps to shift the temperature of the red into the blues and the greens. And I know that seems very counter-intuitive to add black when you want to lighten a color but if you think of black less as a value adjustment and more in this case as a color and temperature adjustment it works really well for that and especially limited pallet and that’s all you have to work with. For this last set of colors I wanted the temperature shift to be a little more dramatic  and little bit more obvious, so for the light side I added a touch of yellow, in this case I use a cadmium yellow light and for the dark side I added a touch of blue, in this case it was ultra-marine blue. Now again if we look at our swatches, we look at our colors – if we look at the dark side it looks relatively the same, the only difference is if you notice that the dark is dark, it does have much more of a saturated feel to it, it does have a lot of blue in it so it pops quite nicely.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 2.18.41 PM

Now again the most dramatic shifts can be seen in the lights and light half-tones, So as I went brighter instead of adding black or blue I simply added orange or yellow to Warm it up which did pull it towards orange and if we look at the half-tone color it does have a nice orangy pop to it and if we look at the light half-tone – this is a very orangy and yellow, so that yellow really adds a nice warmth to it, really pulls the temperature back to that cool pinkish/red up to a more orangy/yellow-red so when those two colors come together they’re going to pop quite nicely. And for the highlight – if you notice they’re very subtle, the highlight actually has a blue and yellow, it’s actually green, it’s a very light, light, light green. So when I put that highlight next to that light or light half-tone it going to pop, that temperature shift is going to be very dramatic, very exciting and very lively. So this is just an idea of how colors can look when you shift the value and the temperature using a very limited pallet. Now let’s see how we can actually paint with these colors and see how they interact with each other, when we put them next to each other and put them on top of each other.

How value and temperature effect first laws of color

Here we have a very still-life, an apple, for this example I use the exact same colors from the pallet demonstration. I just took cadmium red, I added black to make it darker, I added white, titanium white to make it lighter and this is the pallet I got in the bottom. And here you can see how these colors look on top of each other when we’re actually using them in a painting. It’s not bad, it gets brighter, it looks ok, the highlight looks pretty nice, and the shadow looks pretty dark, nothing crazy. Now let’s take a look at the same apple when we shift the value and the temperature at the same time. So here – the same still-life, the only difference is in color, I added blue every time I went darker to pull and shift the darks towards blue, towards the cool and added yellow in the lights, now if you see them side by side they look pretty similar, you probably think ‘No big deal, they look about the same to me’. Now let me point out again the most dramatic change will be in the half-tones, light half-tones and lights, In this example here – the apple – notice the difference of the light half-tone, again when you add orange, look how much that warmth pulls that orange forward and really makes it pop against the cooler pinkish light half-tone beneath it. So again it’s that beautiful shift of cool pink to warm, light, really working nicely.


And then finally that highlight – remember that highlight has yellow and blue so it’s a green highlight – notice how well that jumps. Take a look again at the apple on the left, we shifted only the value, look at the light half-tones in the highlight area then compare it to when we shift the value and the, look how much lively – that yellow really pulls the light off the apple, that yellow is about to come off that apple and that highlight jumps and pops quite nicely because it’s a green. So I would argue that the apple on the right is much more interesting, much more compelling and it’s much more lifelike and naturalistic because this is really how colors work in nature.

Of course this first law works with any color, not just red. Here we have two examples using the exact same principal, so the apple on the left was done using only ultra-marine blue, ivory black and white, and you can see the colors we created on the bottom. The apple on the right was done using only yellow, in this case yellow ochre and we added ivory black to darken and titanium white to lighten and you can see the result below. And it also works in any medium; here are two examples – one on the left was done in Photoshop and the one on the right was done in water color and if you want to learn more about working in a digital medium definitely check out the Photoshop portion of this course. As you can see it works just as well with a transparent medium water color and has this very unique – in Photoshop – there’s so many ways – using electronic tools – to change colors, it’s very important to use in digital medium as well. So that’s the first law of color, every time you change the value you must change the temperature – in other words – whenever you make a color lighter or darker you want to also shift it towards the warm colors, yellows, oranges and reds, or towards the cool colors, greens, blues and the violets. And if done correctly, the colors we use, the colors we mix, the colors we create would not only help us to render and model form by changing the value but the colors are going to buzz, they’re going to pop and they’re going to look much more lively, life-like together, they’re going to work well together.


Become an expert on laws of color

YouTube video