12 Practical Exercises to Help You Learn About Color
Color has fascinated us for thousands of years. For some, it’s enough to simply admire the colors that appear in the natural world. But for others, the world of color is so intriguing that it practically demands a deep dive.
Whether you’re an artist, a designer, or just someone with an interest in color, nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to learning about color. Check out these practical, engaging exercises and start deepening your understanding of color today.
1. Paint Your Own Color Wheel
This exercise is especially useful for painters. But even if you only work with color on a screen, breaking out a set of paints and creating a physical color wheel is an effective (and fun!) way to better understand the relationships between colors.
Making a color wheel might sound pretty simple. But to make sure you deepen your understanding of color theory, you need to create the wheel using only the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.
To start out, place the three primary colors at their usual spots on the color wheel. The next step is to make each of the secondary colors: mix red and blue to make purple, blue and yellow to make green, and red and yellow to make orange. Place these colors at the appropriate spots on the wheel, too.
Next, blend equal amounts of the primary and secondary colors to get tertiary colors:
- Vermilion (Red-Orange): Mix red and orange
- Amber (Yellow-Orange): Mix yellow and orange
- Chartreuse (Yellow-Green): Mix yellow and green
- Teal (Blue-Green): Mix blue and green
- Violet (Blue-Purple): Mix blue and purple
- Magenta (Red-Purple): Mix red and purple
You can keep blending to come up with quaternary and quinary colors as well. However, it’s important to remember that the tertiary (and later) colors vary in different color models. The one here is the RYB (red-yellow-blue) color model used in traditional painting. Even if you work with RGB (red-green-blue) or CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-key), this exercise is still useful for helping you think more closely about color theory.
2. Do More With Complementary Colors
If you have any amount of design experience, you know that complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Because they have such opposite characteristics, complementary colors can add both balance and dynamism to any design. In layman’s terms, they really “pop.”
That said, complementary shades only create these effects if they’re used skillfully. This exercise can help you figure out how to harness the power of complementary colors in your projects.
The exercise itself is relatively simple: all you need to do is select a pair of complementary colors and then create a design made primarily of both. Creating balance in a design like this is harder than creating it in a design that only uses complementary colors as accents. So if you can successfully create an all-complementary design, you’ll have no problem incorporating complementary color pairs into the rest of your work!
3. See the Weber-Fechner Law in Action
More specifically, the relationship between an actual change in stimulus (the quantified increase in color saturation) and the perceived change in stimulus (how much more saturated the color looks to us) is a logarithmic one.
In that logarithmic relationship, each time the stimulus is multiplied by a given factor, our perception of it only increases by the addition of another given factor.
The concept is a challenging one to discuss in the abstract, so let’s look at an example. Say you’re looking at a color sample. To model the law, we have to assign a mathematical value to its saturation, so we’ll say the color’s saturation has a value of 1.
Next, you look at a color sample with triple the saturation (the saturation value is now 3). However, according to the law, each stimulus multiplier (in this case, 3) has a corresponding “additive constant.” Let’s say that for this color, the multiplier 3 has an additive constant of 1.
This means that when the actual saturation is multiplied by 3, the perceived saturation is increased by 1. So when the saturation is tripled (3 x 1 = 3), your perception of the saturation only doubles (1 + 1 = 2).
What if you triple the saturation again? If you do this (3 x 3 = 9), the actual saturation has a value of 9. But your perceived saturation is 2 + 1 = 3.
Color Gradients Exercise
Fortunately, you don’t have to memorize or use mathematical equations to put this concept to work. All you need is a magic marker and some paper.
For this exercise, you just need to make two color gradients. For the first one, do this:
- 1st Line of Gradient: Make a line with one marker stroke
- 2nd Line of Gradient: Make a line with two marker strokes (layering a second stroke over the first one)
- 3rd Line of Gradient: Make a line with three marker strokes
- 4th Line of Gradient: Make a line with four marker strokes
- 5th Line of Gradient: Make a line with five marker strokes
As you can see, the initial saturation is added to (rather than multiplied) for each step of the gradient. Now, make the second gradient — this one multiplies the saturation at each step instead:
- 1st Line of Gradient: Make a line with one marker stroke
- 2nd Line of Gradient: Make a line with two marker strokes (layering a second stroke over the first one)
- 3rd Line of Gradient: Make a line with four marker strokes
- 4th Line of Gradient: Make a line with eight marker strokes
- 5th Line of Gradient: Make a line with sixteen marker strokes
Now, step back and see which one of the two appears to have the smoothest gradient. The second gradient should look much smoother. Thanks to the way perception works (as outlined in the Weber-Fechner law), gradients look smoother to us if you multiply the saturation of the initial color as you go through each step.
So why does this matter? If you use color gradients in your designs, you probably want them to appear smooth and seamless. When you understand the concept behind the Weber-Fechner law, you know that you need to add more saturation than you (probably) thought you had to in order to create a beautifully smooth gradient.
4. Organize by Color
At first, this might sound like an incredibly simple exercise. But much like being able to differentiate between similar pitches is an essential skill for a musician, being able to pick out subtle differences between colors makes a huge difference for designers (and anyone else who works with color).
If you’re someone who wants to get more organized but struggles to actually organize anything, this exercise can also help you do that. Choose a bookshelf, your closet, or anything else that includes items with a range of different colors.
Start by organizing non-neutrals in the order of the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Depending on the number and types of neutral clothes, books, etc. you have, you can decide the most useful ways to organize. For instance, if you have a lot of gray shirts in your closet, it can be helpful to practice differentiating between the grays by arranging the shirts from white to black.
Some aspects of this exercise are pretty easy — it doesn’t take a genius to tell the difference between a bright red and a bright orange book cover. However, as you go between the shades, it gets a little harder. For example, if your closet includes several reddish-orange shirts, you’ll need to look very closely to see which shades include more red and which have more orange. Once you’re done, you’ll have a nicely organized space and a better eye for color!
5. Create a Nature-Inspired Palette (or Several)
The natural world has long been a source of inspiration for creatives of all types. And as it turns out, nature doesn’t only inspire new ideas — it also can help you improve your understanding of color and become a better designer overall.
To start this exercise, find a striking natural landscape. You might go for a walk, head to a scenic area you’ve been meaning to visit, or even look out your window. Then, pick a handful of colors that capture the overall feel of the landscape.
Using paints or your chosen design software, do your best to reproduce each color. This can take some time, but it’s time well spent. As you practice, you’ll start to develop a feel for the relationship between different colors.
Being able to replicate colors you love is a useful skill, and it can also save you time when creating designs. If you can see a given color palette in your head, you’ll be able to replicate it in the real world!
Here are some examples of what nature-inspired color palettes can look like.
6. Use Colorblocking to Create Contrast and Interest
Stepping outside of your comfort zone of often-used shades can be stressful. But challenging yourself is critically important if you want to reach your creative potential. To do that, you could try using colorblocking in a design.
It can be overwhelming to think through the whole process of choosing a new color scheme and then incorporating it into a shaded, 3D design. But when you keep it (relatively) simple with a 2D colorblocked design, you can focus on the colors themselves and what they’re doing for your design.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the intricacies of design that you forget the fundamentals. But when you limit yourself to geometric 2D shapes, you can focus on the interplay of colors and decide whether a given combination is one you’d like to work more with.
To really get the benefit, try repeating the exercise with different palettes. You can practice creating interest with even highly unusual color schemes, and if there’s a particular combination that really resonates with you, you might opt to use it in a more in-depth project.
7. Discover Vibrating Boundaries
Take a look at the pattern above. If you’re like most people, you’ll find it jarring or overwhelming to look at. You also might notice something odd going on at the boundaries between each color: the boundaries might appear shaded or fuzzy, and they might also appear to be vibrating.
This effect is due to something called “chromostereopsis.” Essentially, with certain high-contrast colors, placing them next to one another creates the illusion of depth. Of course, the depth is just that — an illusion. As a result, anyone looking at the design is going to have a hard time determining where the boundary between the two shades lies.
It can be interesting to experiment with creating designs that exhibit this off-putting effect. In order to show chromostereopsis, a pair of colors must be of the same spatial hue and contrast sharply. Combinations of red/green and blue/red are especially prone to this effect.
Unlike most exercises on the list, the point of doing this one is to make sure you avoid creating vibrating boundaries in your work. As you probably noticed when you looked at the above design, chromostereopsis can cause significant eye strain (aside from just being unpleasant to look at). And if you design user interfaces, it might be useful to know that for users with colorblindness, navigating color schemes like this can be quite difficult.
8. Create a World With Just One Color
Regardless of their chosen medium, every visual artist needs to know how to create depth and interest in their work. It’s pretty easy to do this if you can use any color you want. But if you want to make sure your skills are as sharp as you think they are, challenge yourself to create a design using shades and tints of only one hue. If you can create plenty of depth with a monochromatic design, you should have no trouble at all doing so with a design of many colors.
Creating a monochromatic design like this doesn’t just improve your skills as a designer — it also helps you gain an understanding of how shades and highlights work together to give a design a 3D look.
If you need some inspiration, take a look at these monochromatic color palettes.
9. Transform a Design Into a Different Color
Are you familiar with color intervals? Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ve almost certainly seen how color intervals work. A color interval is the range of colors between two specific points. In a design, color intervals are what make certain shades look darker or lighter than others. In order to be a great designer, you need to be able to recognize color intervals.
One of the best ways to sharpen that recognition is to do something called “color transformation.” This process is like transposing music into a different key. When you transpose a song, the relationship between the notes remains unchanged, so the tune is still the same. But the song will sound different because it’s pitched up or down.
When you transform a design into a different color, the light/dark intervals between the colors remain the same. As a result, the two designs will look the same — they’ll just be colored differently.
The above illustration shows you how color transformation works. The lion on the left is made of shades of yellowish brown, and as you can see, some of these colors are decidedly darker than others.
The lion on the right is made up of blue-gray and very light yellow. The coloration is different, but because the darker colors are located in (approximately) the same places, the color arrangement still looks like a lion. The lions are posed slightly differently, but the illustrations are similar enough that you can get the idea.
Doing a color transformation of a detailed design can be daunting. Instead, you can try this exercise with simple patterns of colored squares. Something like this is a great place to start:
10. Use Shapes to Identify Color Harmonies
Some colors just seem to go together. And while you can certainly discover these color groupings by using a little trial and error, there’s a better way to choose your color schemes while deepening your understanding of color theory.
The image above illustrates an important concept in the design world: color harmonies. Color theory teaches us that by using certain geometric shapes on the color wheel, we can identify color harmonies, or groups of colors that go particularly well together.
Try making a color wheel that allows you to spin different shapes to create different color harmonies. For instance, you could create an isosceles triangle to point out split complementary colors, an equilateral triangle to show you a triadic color harmony, a rectangle for a tetradic color harmony, etc.
Creating this kind of spinning color wheel can help you commit the different types of color harmony to memory. It also gives you a tool you can use when planning out future projects.
11. Play Online Games Just for Designers
How do you improve as a designer? Plenty of people (and even many designers) suggest simply creating more designs. They aren’t technically wrong, but to keep things interesting and avoid burnout, you might consider playing games specifically for designers to sharpen individual skills.
If you aren’t a designer, you can play, too! These are games that can sharpen anybody’s understanding of colors and color theory.
The X-Rite Color Challenge and Hue Test is a fun, abbreviated version of the Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test. It asks you to line up colored squares into a gradient. When you’re done, the game gives you a score and a “color IQ.”
If you work with digital colors, you’re probably familiar with Hex codes. What the Hex lets you test your knowledge of these codes. The game shows you a Hex code and asks you to choose which of five different colors corresponds to it.
This color matching game challenges your ability to discern the differences between similar shades in a limited amount of time.
12. Improve Your Color Matching Skills
If you’re an artist or a designer, you know that it’s important to be able to match colors you see in the real world. Color matching is a skill you can sharpen individually. Start by choosing a few different color swatches. With each one, try to re-create the shade by mixing red, yellow, and blue (and adding black or white as needed).
Especially if you don’t have a lot of experience matching colors, this exercise might take a good bit of time to get right. It’s a useful exercise even if you only work with colors on the screen — truly understanding how colors are created is extremely useful for anyone with an interest in color.
You don’t have to feel limited to matching swatches, either. Swatches are easier to match because they’re so uniform — there are no shadows or highlights to worry about. Once you get more comfortable matching swatches, try matching the color of other things in your life. You might try to match the color of wildflowers, your favorite shirt, or even your pet!
Add Some Color to Your Life With Hands-On Practice
Doing color exercises might sound boring. But the practical exercises above are designed to engage and intrigue you while helping you learn about color theory and discover new ways to use color in your own work. Pick your favorite and start learning today!