I agreed to teach a couple of friends about watercolor basics, so I am reviewing the lessons that I found most valuable when I started painting. One of those was the making of a color chart, and since some of the pigments that I use have changed over the years, I decided to make a new one, and in the process, I’m learning things I missed the first time around!
Most of us learned as children that red and yellow mixed together make orange, yellow and blue make green, and red and blue make purple. And if we had perfect pigments, we could mix all the colors using the primaries of red, blue, and yellow. However, our pigments are not perfect, so the mixtures don’t make true secondary colors (orange, green, and purple).
One solution to this dilemma for the artist is to use two of each primary color, one tending toward “warm” and one tending toward “cool.” In the color wheel above, all of the colors in circles are pigments as they come from the manufacturer. There is nothing I can add to these pigments to make them brighter, truer colors. The rectangles are mixtures of two primaries. As soon as I start mixing two pigments together, the color starts to lose its brightness. None of the mixtures is as bright and true as the manufacturer’s secondary color (in circles outside the large circle). However, as you can see above, I get a truer orange when I mix a warm red with a warm yellow than when I mix a cool red with a cool yellow. A cool red and a cool blue make a truer purple than warm red and warm blue. And a warm blue and a cool yellow make a truer green.
So why is it we mix a warm and a cool for the green? I thought I was getting this – mixing warm colors with warm colors and cool colors with cool colors. Not so.
It has to do with complementary colors, those colors directly opposite one another on the wheel, i.e. red – green, blue – orange, and purple – yellow. When complementary colors are mixed together, they neutralize one another, making beautiful grays and taupes.
The warm yellow leans toward red, the complement of green, so it will yield a duller mixture than the cool yellow. Likewise, the cool blue tends toward red, yielding duller mixtures. So for a bright green, mix together a cool yellow and a warm blue.
Knowing how to mix bright colors and dull colors is useful for the artist, as a dull color surrounding a bright color will make it appear even brighter. Dull colors are more restful and convey a different mood than bright colors.
For an example of this, see Window in Assisi. I wanted to draw your eyes to the flowers on the windowsill, so I used bright colors there. The stones in the wall, although colorful, are duller colors, so they don’t attract as much attention.
Has this been interesting or useful to you? Do you prefer bright colors or duller colors?