Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Color and the Split Primary Palette

In a new tutorial for Empty Easel coming out this Thursday, I recommend making a color wheel and chart to help learn and understand the colors in your palette.  Here is an explanation of my personal color palette (tho I use professional grade paints) with a little more detail on color theory.  Enjoy!

The Language of Color
Let’s begin with some basic color “language”.  Color has a vocabulary all its own and we will use these terms as we go forward, so let’s get familiar with them.
Primary Colors: Red, Yellow and Blue.  These colors cannot be mixed from any others and are the primary colors that all others are mixed from. 
Secondary Colors: Violet (purple), Green and Orange.  These colors are mixed from two primaries. Red and Blue = Violet.  Blue and Yellow = Green.  Yellow and Red = Orange.  That’s simple enough, right? Now let’s get a bit more complicated.
Tertiary Colors: Red Orange, Yellow Orange, Blue Violet, Red violet, Blue Green and Yellow Green.  These colors are just secondary colors with a little more of one primary color than the other. 
The twelve mixtures above, or shades, or “hues”, are what you will find on a common color wheel.  Color mixes can go on forever, but these are basic hues that all others are derived from.
Split Primary Color Palette
The six colors on my supply list make up a split primary color palette, meaning they have a “warm” and “cool” of each primary.  Yes, color has a temperature! A “warm” color is one that is a mix of warm hues—red, orange, yellow.  A “cool” color is one with a mixture of cool hues—blue, violet, green.  So while you may think of all reds as “warm”, (and it is in general), different hues of red may be “cool”, depending on their color “properties” or mixtures. (It is hard to find a tube paint that is a “pure” primary color.  Most are a mixture of colors that give them their specific shade or “hue”.)     
Let’s look more closely at what I mean.  The reds we will be using are Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson.  (these are the names for Winsor Newton student grade paint.  (The paint list, with their temperature, are in my previous article on Empty Easel “Watercolor Paint 101”) Cadmium Red light is a bright orange/red color.  When placed beside Alizarin Crimson, you can see it has a bit more yellow in its mixture.  Cadmium Red is a “warm” red.  Alizarin Crimson has a more violet color, meaning there is blue in its mix.  Alizarin Crimson is a “cool” red. 
In Yellow we have Cadmium Yellow Pale and Cadmium Yellow Hue.  Now place those colors side by side and Cad Pale has more green and is therefore a “cool” yellow, while Cad Yellow is clearly a little more orange and therefore a “warm” yellow.  (Yellow may be the hardest to distinguish because it is so light)
And last, the blues.  Ultramarine Blue leans to violet, while cerulean leans to green.  Ultramarine is “warm” and Cerulean is a “cool”. 
Why Use a Split Primary Color Palette?
That’s a good question, and the answer is complicated.  For now let’s keep it simple!  The simple answer is:  it helps simplify mixing color, keeps color mixes vibrant, and mixing color helps us learn about color relationships.  A limited palette also helps keep color harmony in our paintings.   
With this color palette you can mix any color without making “mud”.  “Mud” is a term for cloudy colors that lack vibrancy.  Mud happens when all three primary colors are present in the mix. Basically, by keeping colors in the same family, we mix the color with two, not all three primary colors. (this is the part where most students eyes glaze over and things get a little muddy!  No worries!  Just remember the color mixtures and it will click later!)       
Color Charts and Wheels
Below is a color wheel I made using the split primary color palette.  I labeled the “temperature” and the divided the wheel to show the divisions (color family) used to mix clean, vibrant secondary and tertiary colors. 

The next example is a color chart of the mixtures you can make with these six colors.  I suggest you make a color wheel and a color chart.  By making a wheel, you will see how to mix your secondary and tertiary colors and will have a color wheel to refer to.  Making the color chart will show you which color combinations create the color you are looking for.  Notice how the colors are uneven on the chart?  This is because I mixed the color on the paper.  I find mixing on the paper helps me see the possibilities of a mix.  You can also see which colors don’t work together and avoid making those mistakes on your painting.  There are times when you need a muted color and times you want bold, clean, vibrant color.  With your reference charts you will be able to see what color you want and how to get it.  Both the chart and the wheel are useful when learning to mix color and as tools for future reference.

As you can see, you can make any color of the rainbow with just these six tubes of paint.  By limiting your colors, you will understand color better by mixing and eliminate the need for tons of tubes of paint!  While you may want to add a few tubes as you learn, for the most part, my palette has remained the same for over 15 years!  The more paints you use, the more likely you are to make that mud.

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