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The Structure of Color

a 3 part project based on David Hornung's project of the same name


University of North Georgia



Course Level

2D Design & Color Theory


Conversation points for instructors

Purpose (Part I + II): This project helps students increase sensitivity to contrast, subtle color differences, and become proficient at color mixing. Students actively develop their ability to discern between value and saturation, while also exploring the interrelationships between these properties of color through a research-based studio project.


Purpose (Part III):  To research color palettes used throughout art history and test students’ abilities to identify the ingredients to mix, and match observed colors. This activity will help increase sensitivity to colors and their nuances.


This project is a convenient project to do at home and is broken up into small segments so it works well in person, at home, or in a hybrid mode. Its becomes quite large (and rewarding!) after the accumulation of many small compositions.


Much of this project comes from the book Color: A Workshop for Artists and Designers by David Hornung, an extremely supportive resource for color mixing. What I wish to offer here are my minor revisions and additions, mainly, the introductory background research and the last segment adding a "researched palette" component which applies color mixing knowledge gained through the project. In addition, I’m excited to share how this project played out in my classroom, which I hope will be helpful to many.



Project Prompt / Challenge

Your task is to create a series of 20 small, original compositions using the medium of hand-painted paper collage, in the specified saturation levels and value contrast levels outlined below. The compositions should be relatively simple, but thoughtfully designed. Designs should have a "familial relationship" - in short - they look related! Follow the specifications outlined below in Part II "Studio Research" and Part III "Researched Palette." Begin with background research (Part I).



In this project, you will:

1. Develop the ability to discern differences between value and saturation. 

2. Research to learn new color vocabulary and usage.

3. Mix a wide variety of colors to gain a “physical understanding” of color. 

4. Create a unified series of original, non-objective/abstract compositions.

5. Explore composition and color relationships through collage techniques.



Part I: Background Research

Overview: Build your theoretical knowledge by researching to answer the following questions using the textbook, museum websites, and other reliable book and/or online sources. Some museum websites to visit include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Tate. Include a bibliography of your sources.

1. What does value refer to in art and design?

2. What does contrast refer to in terms of value?

3. What is high-key value range? Low-key value range?

4. What are some formal and expressive implications of using a particular value range? (or

high-contrast versus low-contrast?). Cite an example of an artwork that uses high- contrast and an example that uses low contrast. Provide a brief explanation of the visual and communicative effects of each.

5. What does saturation refer to in art and design?

6. How can a color be de-saturated (i.e. “muted”)

7. Why would an artist/designer want/need to vary the saturation levels of an artwork/design? Provide a few examples of how varying saturation levels of colors are used and for what purpose.


Part II: Studio Research

Overview: Apply theoretical knowledge to practical applications by working through the following studio process. As you work, consider how practice informs theory.

Project Specifications:

Each composition should:

  • measure approximately 5x7”, vertical or horizontal format (leave a border)

  • be non-objective or abstract.

  • use approximately 6-9 shapes and 6-9 color mixtures (see examples).

  • use the specified levels of value and saturation.

  • be finished with a consistent border (either taped off or later mounted).

  • include a black and white printed image secured to the back.

  • be labeled on the back to identify.

Medium: acrylic on Bristol

Format: small work on paper (approx.. 5x7”), vertical or horizontal, please leave a border



Warm-up Exercise:

This exercise is to isolate the visual element of value and explore its relationship to color by creating compositions in two different value ranges:  broad (high contrast) and narrow (low contrast)

This exploration of value lays a foundation for future work where you will build on the concept of value (relative light and dark) by adding different saturation (relative bright and dull) levels to the equation.


Main Tasks:

Collage warm-up Set 1 – Achromatic - Black/white/gray

Create a set of two collages using 6-9 shapes, working with an achromatic palette. Start by painting swatches using white and black and mixing grays light to dark from the two. You need a range of 6-9 different values ranging from light to dark to work with.

Achromatic (focus on value)

Collage 1A broad value range

Collage 1B narrow value range


Collage warm-up Set 2 – Monochromatic - one hue + black/white

Create a set of two collages using 6-9 shapes, working with a monochromatic palette.


Start by painting swatches using one hue plus white and black to darken and lighten the color. You need swatches ranging from light to dark with 6-9 different values to work with.

Consider the inherent value of the color when mixing.

Monochromatic (focus on value)

Collage 2A broad value range

Collage 2B narrow value range​​

Value/Saturation Collage Process:

Color Swatches:

Create a variety of color swatches (approx. 3-4”) to use for collage. Aim for mixtures based on approximately 6-9 hues. Mix a range of saturation levels (prismatic, muted, chromatic neutral) and a range of values of each hue at each saturation level. Apply the paint flat and evenly until set #5 which will ask you to experiment with paint application. The final set (Part III) will require research to find your color palettes – so, wait to make these swatches when you get to that part of the project.

Color Sorting:

Each set will indicate the value range and saturation levels needed. Sort swatches into saturation levels, organized in bags or envelopes. Add to swatches as needed.

Planning Compositions:

In your sketchbook, work through thumbnails to create several ideas for shape types (geometric, organic etc.) to be used. Then, sketch general ideas for non-objective/abstract compositions using those shapes in relation to one another. Be sure to incorporate a variety of small, medium and large shapes within each composition. Think about the principles of design we have learned thus far – how are you applying them? Repeat each composition for each set. Each new set can have a new composition, just be sure they relate in a “familial way.

Constructing Collages:

Use paint swatches to construct each composition according to the specified saturation levels and value range. It is okay to modify the designs from your initial sketches as you go based on what you discover throughout the process. Allow for spending some time arranging and rearranging cut-out shapes until you arrive at an interesting and balanced composition. Try several variations before arriving on one.


Erin McIntosh's Instructors Examples

Follow the guidelines for each collage set outlined as follows:

Each set will contain TWO 5x7” collages – saturation level specified

Collage A: Use a broad value range and a broad hue range.

Collage B: Use a narrow value range and broad hue range.

Set #1

Chromatic Neutral (Saturation level)

Collage 1A broad value, broad hue

Collage 1B narrow value, broad hue

Set #2

Muted (Saturation level)

Collage 2A broad value, broad hue

Collage 2B narrow value, broad hue

Set #3

Prismatic (Saturation level)

Collage 3A broad value, broad hue

Collage 3B narrow value, broad hue

Set #4

Combined Saturation

Collage 4A broad value, broad hue

Collage 4B narrow value, broad hue

Set #5

Experimental paint application

Collage 5A broad value, broad hue

Collage 5B narrow value, broad hue

Design and Color Mixing Tips

Do some research to get ideas - refer to the abstract painters in the power-point for design inspiration or use simplified versions of existing compositions.

Prismatic hues will be pure and will require you to consider the inherent value of a color.

The more you mix, the more the saturation decreases.

Ways to mute a color:

(1) add a little white (tint)

(2) add a little black (shade)

(3) add a little of its compliment

(4) add a little achromatic gray (tone)


Muted colors still maintain much of the hue, the saturation is decreased slightly but not so much that it becomes neutral.

Ways to mix a chromatic neutral:

(1) add the color’s complement, enough to make the color read as a neutral however, it still maintains a color bias (its leans more towards one hue or the other)

(2) add gray to the hue (color should read as a neutral with a color bias)

If you add a gray that is of the same value as the color, the value of new mixture will stay the same.

If you add a compliment, the value of the new mixture will depend on the value of the color you add.

Part III – Researched Palette

Overview: Using your new color mixing knowledge you will be researching to find six color palettes from historical paintings to use in your last set of collages.

Main Tasks:

Choose six (6) paintings from six (6) different time periods to create six (6) new compositions.

To find your color palettes, you may use the following museum websites to do your research:

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

LACMA –The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The National Gallery of Art

The Tate Galleries

These links will give you plenty of options to find high-quality artworks. Browse their collection of paintings (since we are dealing with paint on a 2D surface). Select palettes that you are drawn to but also that provide you with a challenge. 


Select each from the general time-frames* listed below.  Use these for your last set of paints:

Set #6

#1. 1100-1350

#2. 1351-1550

#3. 1551- 1750

#4. 1751 – 1899

#5. 1900 – 1980

#6. 1981 – 2017

*Please note that these time frames are general and arbitrary; they do not refer to any specific historical period, rather, they are for you to pull from a broad expanse of time, in order to consider the colors/pigments available throughout different historical periods.


After selecting six reference paintings, you will need to mix and match 6-9 of the colors you observe from each of the paintings to build palettes for these next compositions. Using these six (6) palettes, and using the same collage method as before, create six non-representational or abstract compositions, each utilizing its own historical palette. Use the same format as was used in part I.


Please Label each (very important):

1. Provide the following information on the back of each composition:

  • name of the museum

  • name of the artist

  • title of the painting

  • date

2. Provide a word document with the list of images and a web link to the image.


Congratulations! In TOTAL you will each have 20 small collage compositions.


Bristol, acrylic paint, glue, scissors/x-acto, small plastic bags or paper envelops to organize paint swatches


3-4 weeks


Student Examples:



Deborah Zlotsky

Louise Belcourt

Esphyr Slobodkina

Laurie Fredrich

Barbara Campbell Thomas

Michael Dwyer

Corrie Mccallum

Paul Yanko

Lori Glavin

Additional Tips: 

To introduce the researched palette, I make comparisons to being served a delicious meal and being given the task of trying to figure out the ingredients - in what ratios are the ingredients combined? Just as a chef utilizes their knowledge of the flavor components of foods, herbs, and spices, to mix and match colors observed in a painting (or observed anywhere) one must use their knowledge of pigments, and how they mix, in order to recreate the recipe.


This is one long assignment and I have found students often struggle with it the first week or two, but they ultimately gain so much from the experience. It always yields exciting color combinations and the students become well-prepared for color mixing in future studio courses.

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