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Basic Color Theory – Why its’ not that simple with paint.

Rainbow Acrylic Pour

I’ve had lots of compliments on my social media accounts and my youtube channel regarding the crisp clear color combinations in my paintings. First of all, thank you. Your appreciation means a lot.

This appreciation got me thinking about my initial struggles with paint mixing and color. I have a strong background in art education and therefore was knowledgeable about basic color theory, but when I went to make a simple purple or green, it was never quite that simple. Inevitably I would end up with a brownish purple or a grayish green. Eventually, after a lot of wasted time and paint, I figured out the problem. In this post I will share with you the tips and tricks to successful paint pigment mixing that will save you time and money.

For those unfortunate few who haven’t taken an art class, I will quickly explain the basics. Feel free to skip ahead if you have.

Basic Color Theory

In the mid-1600s, Sir Isaac Newton observed that when light travels through a wedge shaped glass, it is split into the full spectrum of colors; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Dark Side of the Moon
The concept made iconic by Pink Floyd’s cover artist, Storm Thorgerson

This order can be remembered using the acronym Roy G. Biv, which sounds like a man’s name, or as They Might be Giants imagined him, a magical elf. Take a moment to watch the video and listen to their song. It’ll brighten your day.

Artists have bent that spectrum into a continuous loop called the color wheel to compare and contrast these hues (another word for color) and organize them into eye-catching color  schemes (selection of colors).

Here is a basic diagram.

Color Wheel basic

Studying it, you will see that there are warm colors on one half and cool colors on the other. Also you will observe color labeled Primary, Secondary and Tertiary or Intermediate.

Primaryany of a group of colors from which all other colors can be obtained by mixing. Red, Blue, Yellow.

Secondarya color resulting from the mixing of two primary colors. Purple, Green, Orange.

Tertiary– a color produced by combining a primary and a secondary color. Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green etc.

Warm vs. Cool colors – This is simply the yellowness, or the blueness of a color. But each color can have a warm version and a cool version. For instance, you can have a warm blue like Ultramarine Blue, and a cool blue like Manganese Blue.

Now that I’ve explained the simplest concepts, I will show you a slightly more overwhelming version of the color wheel.

color schemes

Here you see the colors ranging in tints and shades. Also, to the side they have listed some of the most common color schemes.

Tints, Shades and Tonesa tint is the mixture of a color with white, which increases lightness, while a shade with black, which reduces lightness. A tone is produced by the mixture of a color with grey, or by both tinting and shading.  Mixing a color with any neutral color (including black, gray and white) reduces the chroma, or colorfulness.

Color Schemes:

Monochromaticare derived from a single base hue and extended using its shades, tones and tints.

Analogousare groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, sharing a common color, with one being the dominant color, which tends to be a primary or secondary color, and a tertiary.

ComplementaryColors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors (example: red and green). The high contrast of complementary colors creates a vibrant look especially when used at full saturation.

Split Complementarya variation of the complementary color scheme. In addition to the base color, it uses the two colors adjacent to its complement. This color scheme has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme, but has less tension.

From these concepts and charts, we derive that mixing blue and red will produce purple, and also that yellow and blue will produce green. Unfortunately, this is where things get a bit tricky.

The most important concept for a painter to understand is that of the Complementary Color Pairs; red/green, yellow/purple, blue/orange.

These combinations add the most drama when placed side by side but neutralize to a brownish-grey when mixed together. Skillful artists have used this neutralization to their advantage to tone down colors and add richness to shadows for centuries, but to the novice, it can wreak havoc on a well intentioned painting, leaving you with an ugly muddy hue. This is also why things get so complicated when mixing paint pigments.

Advanced Color Theory

Every hue on the color wheel is represented by several versions of paint sourced from both organic and inorganic pigments, no matter what brand of paint you choose. These pigments can range from warm to cool within the same hue. For example yellow is warmer than blue but in the GOLDEN line of paint pigments, “Hansa Yellow Light” is not as warm as “Diarylide Yellow Light” and “Pthalo Blue (Green Shade)” is warmer than “Anthraquinone Blue”. Ok. So what?

Color Wheel Split

If you want to make a purple and you use a warm red with the cool blue, then you have introduced yellow into the mix, which is a compliment of purple and will make a less vibrant purple. Some artists might desire a more subdued, brownish purple and use this method purposefully; but the key word there is purposefully.

mixing purple

Refer to the earlier color chart to ease any confusion here. You will see that a cool red would lean towards purple and a warm blue would also lean towards purple. So if you want the purest version of a secondary hue, the two primaries you mix must be those that have the color temperature that leans towards the color you are trying to make. Instead of simply mixing red and blue to make purple, you must mix a redder (warmer) blue with a bluer (cooler) red. This same concept works for mixing greens and oranges as well. A pure green is not simply yellow and blue, but a bluer yellow mixed with a yellower blue. Or, if it makes it easier, a greener yellow and a greener blue will make the truest green.

This can be confusing at first, but once understood, you see how artists achieve the variety and subtlety within their color palettes. Thanks for checking out this post. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns in the comments.

Golden Artist Colors provides a full breakdown of their Heavy Body line pigments in cool to warm order here.

My visuals from this advanced section have been borrowed from Michael Townsends’ wonderful article in “JustPaint” a magazine published by GOLDEN Acrylics. Also, though I use GOLDEN acrylics exclusively and recommend them often, I am simply a fan. I have no affiliation or sponsorship with them.

24 thoughts on “Basic Color Theory – Why its’ not that simple with paint.

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  7. What a wonderful article! I live in Colombia and I am only just an amateur painting. But I am going to take advantage of my long experience in teaching to write an educational tutorial on how to paint, aimed at children and adolescents living in rural areas and remote neighborhoods of my municipality (Rionegro, near Medellín). They have the internet, but are confined by the pandemic. I will present it to the municipal government so that it supports this population in a School of Arts that they are just organizing.
    In the tutorial I am going to include the teachings of your article, giving you the credits, of course. Thank you

    1. That is really beautiful. I applaud you and your efforts. Every body needs a little art in their lives right now.

  8. I have read gently discovered acrylic pour g and having lost my awesome amazing generous husband last year I find peace in pouring although I do struggle with the correct mixing g techniques however your blog is so informative a d I shall return to your techniques when I feel at a roadblock I am Australian and 71 years of age. You are totally awesome

  9. Thank you for this Courtney!
    As I look to step up to fine art paints, I notice that Golden has a lot of information about their colors (density, transparency, etc). Can explain how to use colors of various opacity/transparency in pour acrylics? I understand the principle of transparent / opaque colors but not how it applies to pour acrylics where the colors are thicker. Before I start experimenting I’d appreciate some basic suggestions and guidelines. Thanks so much!

    1. As you say, you understand the concept of opaque vs transparent, then visualize this. I think it will help with seeing how it could effect pouring with the two. If a layer of opaque pigment is like a piece of construction paper and a layer of transparent is like a piece of colored acetate film, then you could see how one would be much more effected by the color of background that is underneath or surrounding that color. To be more clear. If you laid a piece of red acetate on top of white, then it will appear red, but if you lay it on black, then it gets lost, barely shows up… Now imagine if your yellow is a transparent yellow and you try to add that transparent yellow paint to your flip cup with the purples and the blues. Theoretically it will be a beautiful color scheme as long as you keep them from mixing too much. The problem with transparent pigments, is they will appear to have mixed regardless, because you see through them. Does that make sense? That doesn’t mean I don’t use transparent pigments. Some are just too lovely to do without.

      1. Thank you for that visualization. I kind of “thought” I understood it but now I can see it!

  10. Thank you for this. I am sure it was a lot of work and I appreciate it more than you know. I have found most people that share this type of into want to be paid for it. I am disabled and have not worked for many years. I just stumbled across acrylic pouring while looking for an abstract painting while updating I livingroom. I could not find anything with greys, silver, and green/yellows. So I have decided that to start painting. Of course small at first. Hoping to get to the size you have done 24×48. I love your swipes I love the colours you choose and your website will educate me so I don’t end up wasting a lot of time and paint along with any frustrations. Thank you again for everything you have shared including your videos especially your mixing colour one.

    1. You are welcome. Good luck!

  11. Observing the effects colors have on each other is the starting point for understanding the relativity of color. The relationship of values, saturations and the warmth or coolness of respective hues can cause noticeable differences in our perception of color.

  12. Thank you Courtney for your help understanding the color wheel. I happened upon your website while trying to find “how many ounces to cover an 8×10 canvas”, so this is the first thing I have read, yet I plan to check out more info by you.
    I am planing to do an event for our yearly kids fair in June It is a huge event that my company puts on and I have been asked about doing a booth (pour booth) I have been asked to submit a proposal for 500 8×10 pours. I pour for fun . Any suggestions or advise would be welcomed as well as appreciated.
    Thank you for doing what you do. Lisa

    1. Lisa, this sounds like a logistical nightmare, besides the fact that this is not a cheap medium, no matter what recipe you go with. Acrylic paint is not washable. So this would be a booth where children come and make a painting, then take it home? or you keep them til they are dry and mail them to them? These things take almost a week to fully dry. Where will you store them? 500? How will you keep track of whose is whose and return them? Or if they are to take hem with them when they go, how? It sounds like there is a possibility of a huge mess. Also, that is a LOT of paint mixing!
      Also, What is the budget? Even the cheapest of recipes adds up quickly with this medium.
      I just foresee a lot of red flags with this idea and would suggest you not do it.

  13. I have been examinating out many of your articles and i can state pretty good stuff. I will surely bookmark your website.

    1. I appreciate that.

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  17. I really enjoyed reading your “simple” explanation of color theory. Wow! I’m a 73 year old blossoming artist and want to learn all I can and paint all I can before the Good Lord takes me home to heaven!

    1. That is awesome! More power to you. I hope you found my post helpful and inspiring. Good luck to you and your artistic endeavors. It is never too late!

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