The Psychology of Color Schemes

From A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D.

The methods used by classical artists to create the illusion of shape, depth, and distance are the same principals you likely learned in primary school. By mastering two major color schemes, they learned to draw the viewer’s eye, evoke specific emotion, and challenge your preconceptions.

Van Gogh Self Portrait Bandaged Ear

Color can have a purely symbolic function. However, when used in an artwork, color is neither arbitrary nor predetermined; it is always a deliberate choice by the artist.

The two main color schemes used in art and design are the analogous colors and the complementary colors. Analogous colors are harmonious; placed side by side, they will soften each other. Complementary colors intensify each other; juxtaposed, they will both seem more vivid.

Example of analogous colors
Analogous colors are adjacent to each other on a color wheel; for example, an orange hue that shifts into yellow.
example of complementary colors
Complementary colors are on opposite spokes of a color wheel; red is opposite green, yellow is opposite purple, blue is opposite orange, and so forth.


Image of The School of Athens by Raphael illustrating how he used Color Schemes
The School of Athens (1510–1511) by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

A masterful example of complimentary color use appears in The School of Athens (1510–1511), above. Here, Raphael creates a focal point in a complicated composition by dressing Plato in orange and Aristotle in blue, drawing the eye to the two most important characters in the scene.

Value vs. Saturation

Detail from Seurat's La Parade de Cirque (1889), showing the contrasting dots of paint used in Pointillism
Detail from Seurat’s La Parade de Cirque (1889), showing the contrasting dots of paint used in Pointillism

We call the lightness or darkness of a color its value. Intensity, or saturation, is a color’s brightness or dullness. Artists can create a sense of contrast by varying the value and intensity of nearby colors. Colors also have psychological effects. Warm colors, such as red, orange and yellow, make people feel happy and uplifted. Cool colors—that is, blue, green and purple—have a calming or even saddening effect.

Most of these scientific color principles were discovered in the 19th century, and they had a profound influence on the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists. Georges Seurat created pointillism, composing whole scenes out of tiny dots of multiple colors that, through contrast and complement, create form and depth. His technique was highly methodical and scientific, and his aim was not to use color descriptively, reproducing how his subjects appeared in nature. Rather, he chose colors to create specific effects.

Color And Symbolism

Image of Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gauguin illustrating the use of Color Schemes
Vision after the Sermon (1888), Paul Gaugin

Paul Gauguin was one of the first modern artists to expand on a Renaissance technique of using color symbolically. For example, in Vision after the Sermon (1888), a group of women are watching the biblical Jacob and an angel wrestling on a patch of red grass. Painting the grass the opposite of its color in nature is a signal that the women are not witnessing a real event but are having a religious vision.

Image of Van Gogh Self Portrait With Bandaged EarVincent van Gogh was a master of evoking emotion with color. His Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) was painted during one of his happier periods. Here, he paints himself in cool, calm blues and greens, but the background is orange and red. The artist himself is calm and serene, but the anger and madness that plagued his life lurk close behind.

From the lecture series How to Look at and Understand Great Art
Taught by Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D.