Leonardo Da Vinci's Primary Colors

by Mitch Morgan
Da Vinci's theories on primary colors introduced new modes of artistic thinking and techniques.

Da Vinci's theories on primary colors introduced new modes of artistic thinking and techniques.

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As an architect, inventor, musician, engineer, sculptor, anatomist, geometer and painter, Leonard Da Vinci is often credited as being the original model for the "Renaissance man." One of his many important artistic contributions was his study on colors and how they are affected by, or related to, other factors in nature. His theories on color, particularly primary colors, are still applied to some extent in modern art.

Color Theory in History

Historically, there has been much debate about which colors of the spectrum make up those basic primary colors from which other colors are derived. Using real-world experience, ancient Greek alchemists theorized that colors came from white light. Greek philosopher Aristotle believed there were seven colors: white, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, and black. Any other color, he contended, could be produced by adding different levels of either black or white.

Primary Colors

Da Vinci produced a collection of work, his "Treatise on Painting". In it, he claimed that, unlike Aristotle's belief, there were only six primary colors. Though philosophers before him viewed white as the cause of color and black as the absence of color, Da Vinci proposed that both colors were essential in art to signify light or darkness. He ranked these six primary colors in order of their importance and in relation to earth's elements: white, yellow (earth), green (water), blue (air), red (fire), and black.

Complementary Colors

The artist also introduced the concept of what he called "contrary" colors, or complementary colors. These color pairings are represented on the opposite side from one another on a color wheel chart. When combined together in a 1:1 ratio, true complementary colors mix as a nearly neutral tone of gray. When placed side by side, these colors intensify one another but are not always harmonious.

Artistic Applications

The artist applied these postulations to his own work with his methods of painting. Chiaroscuro describes his newfound technique of defining three-dimensional shapes with the use of light and dark paints. The effect illuminates the subject and its surroundings to create a sense of depth. Sfumato, another of his styles, involved the blending and grading of different hues to create a hazy, blurry effect.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Mitch Morgan has been a writer since 2005. His articles have appeared in daily and weekly newspapers, "Nightclub & Bar Magazine" and various websites. Morgan earned a B.A. in print journalism at the University of Mississippi. As the former editor of a weekly arts-and-entertainment guide, he maintains a passion for film and music.

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