Color Theory for Painting

What You Need to Know About Color Theory for Painting

Artisans Gallery - The Three Primaries

Color Theory Lesson: The Three Primaries

The fundamental rule for mixing color and painting is that there are three colors that cannot be made by mixing colors together. These colors are red, blue, and yellow and are known as the primary colors.

What Happens When You Mix Primary Colors?

When you mix primary colors together, you create a secondary color. Mixing blue and red creates purple, red and yellow creates orange, yellow and blue make green. The exact hue or tone of that secondary color depends on the proportions in which you mix them. If you mix three primary colors together, you get what is called a tertiary color.

What About Black and White?

Black-and-white can also not be made by mixing together other colors but they are used simply in color mixing to create colors so they get excluded from any color mixing theory. If you add white to lighten you can also add black to darken even though many painters don't agree with using black to darken.

Aren't There Different Blues, Reds, and Yellows?

One can buy a variety of different blues, reds and yellows. Blues can include cobalt blue, cerulean blue, ultramarine, monastical blue and Prussian blue. Reds are alizarin Crimson, cadmium red and yellows are cadmium yellow medium, cadmium yellow light, or lemon yellow. They are all primary colors but just different versions.

Which Specific Primary Colors Should You Use?

There's never a right or wrong but since each blue, red and yellow is different it will produce a different result when mixed. Pairs of primaries can produce very subtle differences.

Get Started with the Color Theory Triangle

Print out a Color Mixing Triangle Worksheet and use it and paint in it. It is a color-mixing sheet basic and the first step on your journey with experimenting with color.

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Warm and Cool Colors

Every color has a certain bias towards warm or cool. It's subtle and is an important element in color mixing.

As a group, reds and yellows are considered warm colors and blue is considered a cool color. But if you start to compare different reds and yellows are blues, you will see that there are warm and cool versions of each of these colors. For example cadmium red is definitely warmer than alizarin Crimson.

Secondary colors are usually made by mixing two primary colors together, red and yellow to get orange etc. the secondary color will depend on the proportions, which you mix.

How Do I Know What Colors My Primaries Will Produce?

The actual color you get will depend on which primary you using whether it's Prussian blue or ultramarine and you're mixing it with cadmium red. It will also depend on the proportions in which you mix. You can paint a color chart where you record the two colors you've mixed and the proportions of each. This will help you provide a reference till you get to the stage we instinctively know what you do.

How Much of Each Primary Color Do I Use?

The proportions in which you mix two primaries are important. Your secondary color will reflect this. You will need to experiment with all the colors you have and keep a record of what you've done.

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Mixing versus Buying Ready-Made Colors

You need to be able to recognize individual colors and have a bias towards cool or warm for any color mixing. When you mix two warms or you mix two cools together you will get a warm or cool secondary. When you mix secondary colors is not just about the proportions but it also is about knowing the different reds yellows and blues and what they produce.

Artisans Gallery - Mixing Primary Colors Together

Secondary Colors

When you mix color makes you get a wide range of colors with a minimum number of tubes of paint. If you really uncertain about a color it may be easier just to buy it to rather than mix it up again and again.

But there will be a time when you always need a color that doesn't come ready-made. Your knowledge of color mixing will enable you to make that particular shade you require.

There is an advantage of buying a premixed color as you're getting the exact identical hue each time.

Artisans Gallery - Mix a Brown Color

Tertiary Colors

Browns and grays usually contain all three primary colors. By varying the proportions of the colors you mix you create the different tertiary colors.

What's the Easiest Way to Mix a Brown?

Make a primary color with its complementary color. One can add orange to blue, purple yellow or green to red.

What's the Easiest Way to Mix a Gray?

Mix orange or yellow and red with the blue and then add some white. You always want more blue than orange but experiment with the amount of white. You can also mix blue with an earth color such as a burnt sienna. With watercolor you don't have white paint so to lighten the gray you add more water instead of white and the gray always dries lighter.

Why Do My Tertiary Colors Keep Turning Out Muddy?

Mixing too many colors together ends up with mud. If the gray or brown isn't coming out the way it should start again and add more color.

Artisans Gallery - Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors

complement a color of a primary color red blue or yellow, as this is the color you get by mixing the other two primary colors. So the complementary color of red is green, blue is orange, and of yellow is purple.

What About Secondary Colors?

The complementary of a secondary color is a primary color that wasn't used to make it. So the complimentary color of green is red, of orange is blue and of purple is yellow.

Why are Complementary Colors Important in Color Theory?

When these are placed next to each other, complementary colors make each other brighter and more intense. The shadow of an object will contain its complementary color.

How am I Going to Remember This?

A color triangle makes it easy to remember. The three primary colors are in the corners. The color you get when you mix two primaries is between them (red and yellow make orange; red and blue make purple; yellow and blue make green). The complementary color primary color is the opposite color for example green is a complementary of red, orange complementary of blue and purple for yellow.

When you print out a color mixing triangle worksheet it a simple exercise but the first step in a fundamental painting skill. Put it up on a wall where you can see it at a glance until you've internalized which colors are primaries, secondaries, tertiary's and complementary's.

Artisans Gallery - Mixing Black and White Colors

Color Theory Lesson: Using Black and White

It seems logical that a lightning color you use white and to darken it you add black but this is an oversimplification. White will reduce brightness though it makes the color lighter, it removes its vibrancy. Black doesn't add darkness it creates murkiness.

Why Can't I Add White to Lighten a Color?

Adding white to a color produces a tint to that color but makes a transparent color opaque and cools the color. This is most noticeable with red, which changes from red to a cool pink when you add white. Adding white removes the vibrancy of a color and you'll end up with a washed out picture if you use white to lighten all your colors. Instead develop your color mixing skills to produce cues with varying intensity. To lighten a red add some yellow instead of white. Watercolor paints are different and you simply add more water to the paint to let the paper shine through.

Why Can't I Add Black to Darken a Color?

Black tends to dirty colors rather than darken them. Mars black is the blackest and is very opaque, ivory black has a brown undertone, and lamp black has a blue undertone.

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Color Theory Lesson: Avoiding Black for Shadows

Think about how much is actually black in nature. Shadows are not black nor a darker version of the color of the object. They actually contain the complementary color of the object.

For example the shadow of a yellow object. If you mix black and yellow, you get an unattractive olive green. Instead of using this for the shadow, use a deep purple. Purple is the complementary color of yellow, and both will look more vibrant. If you can't figure out what colors are in the shadows, simplify what you're looking at place it on your hand or piece of white paper and then look again.

Haven't Painters Always Used Black?

Impressionists didn't use black at all. Monet's painting of Rouen Cathedral in the morning. In light, in bad weather and in blue and gold shows us what a genius can do with shadows. He actually did 20 paintings of the Cathedral at different times of the day. It is not true to say that the Impressionists never used black, but they certainly popularized the idea.

If you just can't imagine working without block, then mix up achromatic black rather than using a straight from the tube block. It will have an advantage of not killing a color it's mixed with.