Color 101

Learning the essentials of good painting does not have to be expensive. All good paintings have three things in common and in order of importance and they are, 1) good composition, 2) good contrast and 3) good colour.

This Alla Prima painting was painted using the 3 primaries, plus black & white.

The least expensive way for beginning painters to master colour is to learn to mix colour using the three primary system. These are colors that are made from a single pigment. Using this system, the artist only needs only five tubes of paint and most of those colours are a series four or less in the professional grade. In the student grade, colours made by the same manufacturers cost even less.

primary colors

The three primary pigments are : PV19 (red), PY3 (yellow) and PB15 (blue). These pigments are the same used in printer's inks and when combined with white and black can replicate pretty much any colour.

secondary colors

The primaries create a triangle which become the base (parent) colours of the wheel. When each parent colour is mixed with its neighbour, they create a secondary colour. Red mixed with yellow makes Orange. Blue mixed with Red makes Violet and Yellow mixed with Blue makes Green. So, Orange, Violet and Green are the secondary colours, creating another triangle on the wheel.

tertiary colors

To finalize the wheel, the primaries are again mixed with their new nerighbouring secondaries. This new mixing creates six more colours on the wheel called tertiary colours and complete the wheel. Red mixed with Orange makes the tertiary Red-Orange and Red mixed with Violet makes the tertiary Red-Violet. Yellow mixed with Orange makes the tertiary Yellow-Orange and Yellow mixed with Green makes the tertiary Yellow-Green. Blue mixed with Green makes the tertiary Blue-Green and Blue mixed with Violet makes the tertiary Blue-Violet.

Now the wheel is complete.

Which now brings us to complementary colours. Complementary colours are opposites and opposites create contrast, just as light against dark create contrast, but more about that later.

Simply put, complementary colours are located directly across from one another on the colourwheel. For example, Primary Red is directly across the wheel from the secondary Green. This makes them complements (opposites). The Primary Red was not a parent to the secondary green and therefore unrelated. The same is true for Yellow and Violet and accordingly, Blue and Orange. The same is true for the tertiary colours. Red-Violet is directly across the wheel from yellow-green and so on.

neutralizing color

Mixing complements neutralize. Therefore, a complementary can be used to mute its opposite. Red mixed with Green can create varying degrees of brown. The same is true when mixing the other two primaries with their complementary secondary.

    COLOUR HARMONY

On the colourwheel there exists colour groups (also known as families). These groups are based on the parent primaries. So, there is The Red Group, The Blue Group and The Yellow Group. Colour Harmony is created when one group dominates.

red group

The Red Group consists of all the colours on the wheel that include the Red parent. Red, Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange, Red- Violet, Violet and Blue-Violet. The complements for this group are any from the green secondary group (Green, Yellow-Green and Blue-Green).

The Blue Group

blue group

Red-Violet, Violet, Blue-Violet, blue, Blue-Green, Green and Yellow-Green. Their compliments: Red-Orange, Orange, and Yellow-Orange.

The Yellow Group

yellow group

Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow, Yellow-Green, Green and Blue-Green. Their complements: Red-Violet, Violet and Blue-Violet.

Complements are used to neutralize; white to tint (lighten), black to shade (darken).

The primary colours are unrelated and therefore can only exist harmoniously with colours that are in their own group or family. Red can only harmonize with colours that contain red, yellow only with colours that contain yellow and blue with colours that contain blue. So, a painting that has colour harmony is one that has a dominant primary group. Good paintings have one or more of three dominant ingredients: Dominant primary group, dominant temperature (warm or cool) and dominant value (dark, light or middle). Contrast is achieved when a dominant ingredient is put next to its opposite. In painting, areas of contrast become focal points, or accents, and are useful in guiding the observer's eye through the painting. So, a dominant colour con be accented by it's complement, a dark painting can have light accents (and vise versa) and a warm painting can have cool accents (and vice versa).

    MIXING EARTHTONES

It is possible to also mix earthtones using just the primaries:

earth tones

earth tones

Below are two colour sketches that illustrate dominants and opposites

DAYLIGHT

daylight painting

Here, the primary yellow group is used as the dominant group, and green as the dominant colour. The colours used are from the violet complement group to mute and red-violets are used as accents. The area of most contrast in value is the house which becomes the focal point in the painting.

NOCTURNAL

nocturnal painting

Here, the primary blue group have been used and are muted with the blue-violets and blue-greens with orange. The complementary yellow orange is used to create a high contrast, light against dark, focal point. Again, it is the house.


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