Artist, Illustrator & Tutor

It's all about the colour

Posted by Barry Whitehouse on Sunday, September 25, 2011 Under: Enlightening reading
I thought that I would mention a passion of mine: the use of colour in a painting. When we paint, we always use colour, whether it be a monochromatic painting or a full summer picture. In short, without understanding colour, we cannot make a good painting. All painting is painting light, shade and the colours in between. For years I struggled with using the Colour Wheel - the thought that all colours came from only three primary colours amazed me, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find a combination of primary colours that gave me the range I needed. In fact, I often ended up mixing 'mud'. I would always refuse to buy a green tube of paint as it left my pictures looking too similar and flat, but by only using the primary colours, I found myself severley limited.

I always saw my students lugging huge suitcases into a class filled with every colour of paint ever manuafctured 'just in case' and I thought to myself that there must be another, more simple way to paint.

A few years ago, I stumbled on the book 'Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green' by Michael Wilcox. It looked scientific, and being a full 'right-brainer' my instinct was to avoid it! I knuckled down and waded through it. As I read, my eyes were opened. I had an epiphany and realised where i was going wrong. The colour wheel as I was taught (and taught to others) is severely limited, especially when confronted with the range of colours in an art shop. For the first time, I actually understood how we see colour and why I always ended up with mud.

Scientifically, the colour wheel doesn't make sense as if any equal mix of a pure colour would always make a dark grey/black as the light spectrum would absorb each other. So the colour wheel that supposes a PURE red, blue and yellow is wrong. This is why many fail at mixing - we had the wrong or limited at best information.

Michael Wilcox shows through science how all red paint can be broken down into an orange-red or violet-red, that all blues are either violet-blue or green-blue and yellows orange-yellow or green-yellow. This may be hard to understand in theory, but read on and I will eaplain hoow in practice, your work will improve no end! Instead og=f just one red, yellow and blue, one needs to have  one of each type of red, yellow and blue. A good list would follow like this:
Cadmium Red (orange-red)
Alizarin Crimson (violet-red)
Ultramarine (violet-blue)
Cerulean Blue (green-blue)
Lemon Yellow (green-yellow)
Cadmium Yellow (orange-yellow)
Throw in Yellow Ochre, burnt Sienna and WHite and you can now mix EVERY colour you want every time you need it! Don't believe me? Make time to understand how we see colour, then come back to this blog. Each of the colours listed above are bias towrads or strongly reflect another colour other than the main primary colour we see. By knowing this, you can now mix bright, mid and dull shades.

For a bright green, mix the yellow and blue that reflect green (Cerulean and Lemon Yellow), for a mid green, keep one of the colours that reflect green, and use the other colour (Lemon Yellow and Ultramarine) and for a dull/dark green use the two colours that do not reflect green (Ultramarine and Cadmium Yellow). Makes sense doesn't it. the same applies for violets and oranges.

The burnt sienna is useful for mixing with either blue to create more browns and greys. Basically those 9 colours I have listed are the only colours you need. Ever. Amazing!

Once you get a grasp of these colour mixes, it means you can paint seasons really well - you can  make bright, fresh spring colours, or muted autumnal shades. It also means that once you know how they work, you can limit your palette at times even further because you know exactly what the result will be. Its such a freeing thought - every colour you ever need lies in that selection, whether painting in oils, acrylic, watercolours and to a lesser extent, pastels. Another great advantage is that your paintings will always harmonise and gel because they are made up of the same colours. It also cuts down on cost as you are only ever using the same colours.

In a colour mixing workshop last month, one of students didn't believe that she would get the same colour every time so she tried the mix many times and always ended up with a bright green (maybe leaning more towards yellow or blue), but always a bright green! The look of relief, excitement and enjoymnt on my student's faces when I see them finally getting the hang of colour mixing is a reward in itself. So please dear reader, if you are struggling with mixing greens or purples, or are sick of mixing mud, please either try to find a copy of the book, follow my guidance in this blog or attend one of my colour mixing classes. I assure you your paintings will appreciate the effore you make!

In : Enlightening reading