Double Primary Color Wheel

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!

Double Primary Color Wheel

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.

Mixtures of complementary colors. Swatches on the left are full strength. Swatches on the right have been diluted to show the different underlying hue.

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?

3 thoughts on “Double Primary Color Wheel

  1. I know this is not the same, but I do lots of cake decorating and have found that if I take the frosting left from creating roses, whether a shade of pink, yellow, or lavender, as a base for adding green for the leaves, I achieve a beautiful and interesting green, far more like reality than the clown green food coloring provided us. Using this method ALWAYS gives a green that makes sense as the leaf for its flower. I’m guessing the green in every blooming plant includes some of the pigment destined for the blooms. Colors are amazing and I love them. 🙂 And, yes, this was very interesting! Thanks for it!

    • This is the same principle. I have a green on my palette, and by itself it looks plastic and is not useful for painting anything organic. I keep it on my palette because it mixes with a red to become a wonderful deep black. I mix my greens for trees, grass, etc. from blues and yellows and sometimes throw in small amounts of red, orange, or purple.
      Adding the green coloring to the frosting already colored for the flowers uses the same color harmony concepts as when I paint an entire picture using one red, one yellow, and one blue. I can mix all the colors from these three, and although some of hues derived will be duller, they all tend to “play well together.” Green leaves that have the color of the flowers in them will be duller but more natural-looking than the clown green, and will make the flowers appear brighter, and be harmonious because they contain some of the same color as the flowers.
      Cake decorating! You are an artist, too!

  2. Yes. Ad artist. I mostly love textiles and sculpture, and am really happy when combining them as in intricate draperies or papier mache. Oh, and starting to love concrete. 😐
    And squirting frosting is something I just learned from my artistic mom, since when I was old enough to see over her countertops. She loved making fancy food. Me too. I remember pinwheal cookies and cookies with windows to reveal jam filling, thousand-layers-of-butter pastries, and mile-high meringues. That was before she opened a bake shop. Then came the decorated cakes! I love all that stuff, but if I make it, I eat it. 😦

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