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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.

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

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  5. 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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