Painting and Colour #2

Of all the electromagnetic radiation from trillions of nuclear reactions, created in billions stars every split second, both near and far away, we can perceive less than 1%, we call this visible light. The wavelengths we perceive are handily mixed into 'white' light by our ever present brains, but thanks to rainbows, glass prisms and Isaac Newton we now understand 'white' light is composed of several different colours. 

There is a natural order to these colours as seen in the rainbow, which is actually due to increasing or decreasing wavelengths depending on which end of the spectrum you come from.



Moving on naturally from the last blog posting about colour and painting, this is another great exercise in colour and will go on to cover probably the most important part of colour theory. This is about the colour wheel and like most circular things around us it is an expression of perfection and contains amazing natural symmetry.  

Historically it was only a matter of time before artists became fascinated by colour and tried to understand how it worked in a visual, practical way. Artistically much of this work began in the Renaissance with people like Leonardo da Vinci contributing a great deal to colour theory. These pioneers of colour helped pave the way for the eventual birth of the colour wheel, prior to the perfection of the wheel there were many other visual interpretations of colour theory such as colour pyramids, colour triangles and colour maps. 



The evolution of the colour wheel has now reached a kind of pinnacle with the Munsell system which is a very good system of classifying, identifying and communicating about colour, it is useful but not essential to the painter.

I will cover the Munsell system in a later posting, part of a Munsell tree of colours can be seen below, very basically it is a three dimensional colour wheel with a coding system to take all the subjectiveness out of describing and identifying different hues.



As most of us know there are three primary colours which in theory all the millions of perceivable colours can be created out of. The primary colours are red, yellow and blue.

I say in theory because this blog is about painting and unfortunately the perfect primary paint colours where only three tubes of paint would be needed to mix every visible hue have yet to be created. This is mainly due to a lack of purity in the pigments whether organic or inorganic, you can learn more about pigments in the supreme guide to oil painting.

In the world of printing inks have been developed where millions of hues can be mixed with just four colours, cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Today though even this has been superseded by a six part process using six hues, to achieve a greater range of colour. 

The traditional colour wheel is constructed from three groups of colours, primary, secondary and tertiary, and this is where there is a superb exercise in colour mixing for the painter by constructing a colour wheel. It sounds like a primary school exercise however it is actually very technically difficult to get the colours right and a huge amount can be learnt by doing it, indeed I feel you could do it hundreds of times and still benefit.

Start by cutting a piece of thick white card into a circle and dividing it with pencil lines into 12 equal sections, you could use any paint for this but if you are using oils then you will need to give the card a couple of coats of gesso or primer.



I say you can use any paint, but it will be a huge struggle using cheap paint as the many pigments used to make up the colours will skew your mixes, try to use good quality, single pigment paints.

As mentioned the primaries are red, yellow and blue, these can be applied to the wheel in the locations shown above. The primaries are then mixed together for the secondary colours;


Yellow and Blue to give Green

Yellow and Red to give Orange

Red and Blue to give Violet


As you mix these on the palette you start to appreciate the value of having a few extra colours available to you in your painting, much like drawing a value scale you are trying to achieve an even step between the hues so the orange sits between the yellow and the red with perfectly even 'steps' either side, and the green perfectly between the yellow and blue, it takes some skill to achieve this and to get the violet right is very difficult.

A couple of tips, firstly do this exercise in the best possible light you can find preferably natural light, second is to make sure you hold a sample on a palette knife up to the colours on the wheel as they can appear quite different alongside the strong colours rather than in isolation on the palette. This actually represents a very complicated area of colour theory, the interaction of colours where one affects the other. This will be covered in another post, however to learn more about this now see the classic text The Interaction of Colour by Josef Albers, a fascinating and beautiful book which gives many exercises using coloured paper to help the painter understand this complex part of colour theory.

Once you have applied the secondary colours using the wheel above as a guide for positions, the next step is to mix the tertiary colours for example;


Yellow and Orange to give Yellow Orange

Orange and Red to give Red Orange

Blue and Violet to give Purple and so on


Once you have applied these you should have a perfect hand painted colour wheel with even steps between each hue, if you achieve this in even ten attempts you are a genius! Don't worry if you don't achieve it you will learn a phenomenal amount about the colours on your palette and about mixing them.

In the next post which will follow shortly, I will describe the uses for the colour wheel, showing some of the beautiful symmetries present within it, and the essential practical uses it has for the painter, for example identifying complementary and analogous colours.

Get mixing!







James Holman
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