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Color Mixing For Artists
Donna Engstrom

Color Wheel

I think it is essential to familiarize yourself with the power of color. It is such an important part of an artists work. Color can set the mood, convey a feeling, and enhance or detract from our focal point.

The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary (one of my favorite books) defines color thus: A visual attribute of bodies or substances distinct from their spatial characteristics and depending upon the spectral composition of the wavelengths of radiant energy capable of stimulating the retina and its associate neural structures.

... whaaaat?

All I know is, blue, red, yellow, turquoise, lime green, purple, magenta, gold, crimson, I love them all. I can’t wait to open your eyes to the wide world of color!

As an abstract artist, texture and color are two important elements in my work. Acrylic paint is my medium of choice because it is so very versatile. Acrylics come in a variety of consistencies including inks, fluids, and heavy body paint. In the references that follow, I use Golden Artist Colors unless otherwise noted.

The best way to learn about color is to actually DO color mixing.

So I suggest you go cut a number of 8” x 10” pieces of watercolor paper or primed canvas so you can try all the following techniques. I think you will find these sheets a great reference tool.

Supplies you will need for our C O L O R adventure:

Disposable paper palette (no messy clean up—I like it!)
Mixing knife or palette knife (any size will do)
Watercolor paper or primed canvas (there are pads available of both at your local art supply store; make sure you get actual primed canvas—not that paper stuff which I think is really icky)
Water containers for cleaning brushes
Synthetic brush of your choice (#8 round or #6 flat is good)
Spray bottle to keep paint moist
Paper towel for blotting and cleaning brush
Color Wheel
Paint colors as listed in following pages
(Also visit Golden’s web site listed below for color samples)

Ok, let's talk color.

Let's start with the basic color wheel. If you don’t have one, get one. It’s loaded with good information and visually reiterates the following:

Primary colors are yellow, red, blue. You have to start with these colors as they can’t be mixed from anything else. Hence the term primary.

Secondary colors are orange, purple, green. Yellow + red = orange. Red + blue = purple. Blue + yellow = green.

Tertiary (third round of mixes from primary and secondary colors) include colors like blue-green, red-violet, yellow-orange.

Colors can be visually warm or cool. Warm colors include yellow, orange, and red; cool colors include purple, blue, green. Yellow can, however, be cool just as a green can be warm, depending on the pigments used to make that particular color.

The colors listed below are chosen for their purity; only two primaries used to make them.

Cadmium Yellow Medium (trace of red no blue)
Ultramarine Blue (trace of red but no yellow)
Cadmium Red Light (little yellow but no blue)

Cadmium Yellow Light (trace of blue no red)
Phthalo Blue (little yellow but no red)
Acra Violet or Quin Magenta (trace of blue no yellow)

Complimentary Colors:

You probably heard the term complimentary colors, right? They are directly across from each other on the color wheel. That's all well and good but what if you don't HAVE a color wheel in front of you? Here is a quick way to figure it out.

If you are looking for the compliment to red, the two primary colors left are yellow and blue; mixed together they make green which is the compliment to red. The compliment to yellow? Blue and red are the primaries left that, when mixed, make purple - the compliment to yellow. Cool, eh?

What if you want to know the complimentary color to purple? Well ……. red and blue mix to make purple, the primary color left is yellow, which is the compliment to purple. TA-DA!

What about orange? Yellow and red make orange, blue is the primary left. Blue and orange are complimentary colors. Got it? Pretty simple. All you really need to know are your primary and secondary colors.

Knowing about complimentary colors is key for two reasons:

1. Complimentary colors, when painted next to each other, enhance one another and almost glow. Why do you think a red rose is so stunning? It's those wonderful green leaves making the red dance. Did you ever wonder why so many spring flowers are purple and yellow? Mother Nature knows what she's doing.

2. Complimentary colors, when mixed together, create a neutralized or grayed-down version of the original color. Alter the proportions to get blue gray, green gray, or purple gray; red brown, yellow brown, or greenish brown.

Sooooo, when you have a blue that is too bright, you can dull it by adding a bit of orange. Give it a try. Take a dollop of blue and add a small amount of orange. Mix well and watch how the blue changes from bright to dull. Uh oh, are you getting a greenish brown? That's because you added too much orange or the orange may have too much yellow in it. Yellow and blue make green, remember?

We learned something here. We got a brown because blue and orange are complimentary colors and create neutralized versions of the original color. This can be a wonderful color or something less than desired - just depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Neutrals make the bright colors in your work sing. Use them around your focal point or to create quiet areas where the eye can rest.

When a paint manufacturer attempts to convert the colors we SEE into color pigment in a tube, well, let's just say they do the best they can. Did you know that most of the paint colors available contain all three primary pigments to come up with the final color you squirt onto your palette?

Why is that important?

Because Red and Blue don't Always Make Purple

We know that it takes red and blue to make purple and yellow is the compliment. Which red and blue do you choose to mix a bright purple? (HINT: NOT red with yellow in it. Red and yellow make orange, the compliment to blue which will make a gray purple not a bright one.) Got the idea?

If you don't believe me, mix some Pyrrole Red (which looks like a true red) with Pthalo Blue and see what you get. Now try it with Acra Violet or Quinacridone Magenta … ahhhhh, much better.

Now this is a pretty basic explanation of color mixing. There are so many books about color available, my suggestion is to find one that makes sense to you, learn it, use it, and then study other theories.

OK, so why is it important to know all this stuff?

Because color is crucial to conveying our message,expressing ourselves artistically.

The Highly Technical Marble Drop Theory

Is this making sense yet? I know this is a lot of information,and it took me quite a while to filter/assimilate it. As Shrek might say, "Color study has layers." We can't get it all at once (darn it). Don't worry if you are befuddled, just keep at it.

Let me share my "marble drop" theory. Our brains can only comprehend so much information at any given time. When learning new techniques/methods, it is difficult to hold onto all these various tidbits. I picture them as marbles all lined up waiting to be absorbed.

At some point you will think 'AHA! I get it!' and the marble will drop for that particular tidbit of information - you will no longer have to struggle with it. This makes room in your brain for the next pearl of wisdom.

Your art journey is a spiral. As you get each new principle, when you come back around to study, oh, say color again, you have the capacity for a higher-level of understanding.

I hope this helps you on your artistic journey. Visit my web site listed below to view my work and check out my zine ‘Feed the Addict,’ which contains more color mixing information and actual color samples.

Have a very creative day.
Donna Engstrom

About the Author: I have been painting and teaching for years, which prompted this article. Many artists struggle with color mixing. My passion is painting and collage; layering texture and color in an intuitive manner. My goal, always, is to provide a mysterious and intriguing surface, engaging the viewer. Also check out Golden Artist Colors:

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