Color Theory Basics
In this Lesson you will learn:
1) What type of paint to buy (Materials)
2) How to control color intensity (Intensity)
3) How to see the value (shade) of color. (Color Value)
First things first! It is important that you know how to buy the right paint for what you want to do.
There’s two types of paint. Transparent and Opaque. When you start painting it is HIGHLY recommended that you start by using only opaque colors. This will reduce the possibility of your paintings becoming streaky and dull. Transparent colors can be used later when we get into glazing. For now you need some strong opaque colors in order to learn how to mix your colors and get them to stick to a surface. So how do you identify which colors are opaque, and which are transparent? Many tubes of paint will have a small box graphic usually on the front underneath the brand name. If the box is black, then it’s opaque. If the box is half full then it’s semi-transparent. And if the box is white, then it’s transparent. Stick to the basics.
The ideal starter palette of Opaque colors would include
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Yellow Medium
That’s it. You can mix all the colors you’ll need from these three. It should be noted that Cadmiums are toxic, as is Titanium white. So don’t eat them. They’re the best available and have been used for centuries. If you’re scared of them then ask the person at the store for help finding other opaque primary colors. I don’t know of any.
Second thing you need is a brush. For brushes there are a few different types. For now just buy a simple mid sized Flat, or Philbert. Around a 6 to an 8 (that’s the size as indicated by a number stamped on the brush). You don’t need any little brushes for details. Not yet. Just get some flat synthetics like the one below, and you’ll be fine.
Find an old cup you don’t want to use anymore to hold some water. And for a palette you can use a piece of cardboard.
The Color Wheel
At this point in the course you will be concentrating on a few basic elements of color theory. This will be expanded upon later but currently you need to grasp the essentials so you can begin painting.
The color wheel
The three primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. Primary colors are called “primaries” because they aren’t a mixture of two other colors. When you mix two primary colors together you get a secondary color. The secondary colors are???…..You guessed it. Orange, violet, and green. Easy isn’t it? So, for those who don’t know, in order to make violet you mix blue and red. To make orange you mix red and yellow. And to make green you mix blue and yellow. Pretty straight forward.
Now, we’ve got some colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. yellow is opposite violet, orange opposite blue, and green opposite to red. These colors which are on the opposite side of the color wheel are called complimentary colors. It is important to memorise all the colors compliments because you use a color’s compliment in order to control color intensity.
Color intensity is, well, the intensity of a color. Think about it as “brightness” or “radiance”. Color straight out of the tube is generally high intensity. In order to lower the intensity of a color (aka make it less bright) you are going to add a small amount of it’s complimentary color. For example: for red, you add a small amount of green to lower the intensity of the red. Just a dab of green and the intensity of that red will come down. Yes they do get darker.
Now, Take a look at the image below. We’ve got a red which is super intense at the top, then by adding green to that red we take down the intensity (as indicated by the second strip down). I know what you’re thinking. It looks brown!! That is where you have to be careful. Take a look at the second image. That is the “brown” (or more correctly a lower intensity red) surrounded by a black box. That brownish red in the context of another color will be red. For the purposes of this course you will be taking down the intensity of all of your colors by adding their respective secondary colors. This is because our eyes rarely see super intense colors in the real world.
Assignment #21 Playing with color intensity.
For this assignment you will start with an intense color, and then slowly add it’s complimentary color in gradual amounts to create a color intensity scale. As you can see in the examples below you can start with a Red, then add a bit of green to get the second gradation, and then more green to that mix to get the third gradation etc. When it comes to dark colors (Blue, and Violet) you can add a bit of white to these in order to see the color intensity manipulated.
The Value Of Color
The darkness or lightness of a color is its value. Just as we can make grey scales from pitch black to white, we can also do the same with colors. Take a look at the image below. We’ve got our happy little primary and secondary colors cascading from light to dark.
This is the one you will be copying.
And here we can see all of their values (darkness)
Now lets look at how we can use the value of color in painting. Check out this painting by Rolling Stone illustrator Philip Burke. Notice how the shadows of the face are done in green, and bright dark reds, but the painting still flows and makes sense. This is because the green/red is the correct value which corresponds to the shadow. You can throw any color in there and it will makes sense as long as the darkness of the color correctly matches. Think of whatever you are painting as a black and white photocopy, and you are simply mixing your colors to match the various greys on the photocopy. Also beware of red, it seems lighter than it really is. A medium red is actually very dark.
Now compare the high value contrast of Philip Burke with the low level color contrast of Edouard Vuillard. In Vuillard’s painting he broke the rules of what color value meant by keeping all of his colors this medium grey. The gradations in value are extremely subtle, but they are still there nonetheless. In the black and white copy of you can still make out how Vuillard finely manipulated the value of his colors to create shadows and depth.
Assignment #22 Color Value Scale.
For this assignment you will be copying the color value scale above. The important thing to remember is that you’ll start with the color out of the tube
Many claim that the real color wheel contains Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and K (which stands for key, not black) . This is true for printing processes and was largely taught to graphic design students in the 1990s. However using cmyk as a color wheel for painting doesn’t make much sense because it ignores a few important factors.
For instance. In printing, in order to make red, one must mix magenta with yellow optically. This means that in order to get a true red (following the cmyk model) you would need to mix a magenta, and then put a thin glaze of yellow on top of it. But in painting there are many more variables at play. For instance there is no “red” as we all know when we go to buy paints. There’s cadmium red, vermilion, and permanent rose and so forth and so on. But the point is that the red that we choose to start with can vary greatly from the get go. When you create any palette of colors you are immediately limiting yourself in some way.And if you limited your palette to cyan, magenta, yellow (not even specified), and key (which isn’t a color, but a tone) then you would be given a different set of limitations.
There is one other commonly held idea about the “real” color wheel. It is a 12 color system based on a rainbow and the proponents believe that this gives an artist the largest possibilities for mixing . If you want to try it the colors are
Cadmium Yellow Pale
Cadmium Green Pale
This set of colors could easily cost more than two hundred dollars. So that’s one major downfall. The second is that you shouldn’t think about one palette as your savior. It won’t be, in fact in the beginning your palette should be limited because the more tube colors you introduce, the harder it will be to create any type of color harmony. Also you should remember that artists personal decisions as to what colors to use on their palettes is as varied as art itself. There is no absolute answer one way or the other. Giving a beginning student this 12 color rainbow mix would be like buying a 7 year a drum set the size of a living room.
The palette I have given above is a very powerful starter palette. As you may have noticed the weakest colors created by this palette were the greens, and the violet. If you are looking to make a stronger green then I’d suggest buying a Pthalo Green, and in order to push your violet I would suggest Dioxazine Violet. Remember though that it is important to master the basics before moving on to a more extended palette!