Thursday, December 12, 2013

Understanding the Color Wheel

My Tuesday class was a review on color theory.  Painting is like a balancing act.  One weak point and it all comes tumbling down.  As you learn new aspects of painting, some of the earlier ones are overlooked or ignored.  So it was requested that I explain color from the beginning again.

Whether you use the standard color wheel or the Munsell wheel, the basic theories apply.  The only difference I can see between the two color wheels is that the Munsell wheel limits orange and expands the blue range.  Adding a bit more blue to all your color mixes would satisfy the Munsell theory.  It pays to study the color wheel to learn the relationships of dominant color and complement and their discords.  I use the standard color wheel in my classes.

Okay, back to the basics – For successful color mixing you need to understand the three properties of color.  First, decide what basic color the object in question is.  It can only be one of six colors – yellow, orange, red, violet, blue or green.  Don’t think in terms of brown, gold, peach, aqua, etc.  Then the questions –

  1. What is its Hue?  Looking at the color wheel, determine which immediate neighbor the color leans toward.  If your color is yellow – does it lean toward orange or toward green?  Another aspect of hue is temperature.  As the color leans toward its cooler neighbor, it becomes cooler; as it leans the other way toward its warmer neighbor, it becomes warmer.  (So now you know how you can easily adjust the temperature of a color.)

  1. What is its Tone?  I ask my students to think in terms of black and white.  Is it light, medium or dark?

  1. What is its Intensity?  How bright or saturated is the color?  If the color is yellow, is it the intensity of a lemon, or dull like tarnished brass, or somewhere in between?

And now the role of the complement.  Because light is composed of the three primary colors – yellow, red and blue, all three colors are needed to reproduce colors in a natural way.  These three primaries are the base for all colors.  Looking at the color wheel, we see that the color’s complement is directly opposite the color.  Interestingly, a color and its complement contain all three primaries.  Without the introduction of the complement, colors look raw and garish. The complement will calm a color that is too bright.  A bit of the complement is added to the shadow side of an object to darken and slightly neutralize the color.  And the complement is the opposite color temperature and gives you a nice play of warm and cool.  Fascinating stuff.

Neutrals.  Mixing a color with its complement produces colorful and very useful neutrals.  They can be either warm or cool, depending on the proportion of colors used.  This mixture can be further adjusted with white to make soft, colorful grays. The use of neutral or subdued colors is very important in your painting as most colors straight from the tube are too intense to be used alone.

And the discords.  They are the small bits of spice that adds excitement and balance to your painting. They are most effective in the focal area. The discords form an equilateral triangle on the color wheel with the dominant color at one of the three points.  Together these three points contain all three primary colors. As an example, if your dominant color is green, then orange and purple are your discords.

Taking the time to understand color theory will give you a good starting point. I believe color harmony in a painting is more important than exactly replicating the colors you see.  Once you understand the theory of color, you will be able to make proper artistic choices.  This is just the beginning of the fascinating world of color theory. You will learn more as you continue painting, experimenting and studying.

Thank you for visiting,


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