Australian Fine Artist

Colour Theory

Materials Study
May 2nd, 2012

Colour and Perception

Intuition has to be based on understanding. Colour and light are only a part of the light spectrum from beyond ultra-violet to beyond infra-red. Newton experimented with optics passing light through a prism to break colour into the colours we see in a typical rainbow.

What we see as colour is only what part of the spectrum the a particular surface reflects back to us.

For artists the primary colours we use are red, yellow and blue. The subtractive colour is white. The secondary colours we use are based on mixing the primary colours and are green, violet and orange. Tertiary colours are mixed from the primary and secondary colours and are colours such as brown.

See an example of a typical colour wheel that artists use as references.

Many artist we admire have used colour to create composition and drama. During the time of the French Impressionists colour in paints became far more available than ever before. This enabled artists to start experimenting with colour for creative purposes. They discovered that colours could be typically called warm or cool as they go around the colour wheel. This understanding of how colour works changed how they composed paintings and used colour.

Refer to the works of Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and Kandinsky.

Consistency in Colour

As artists, especially if we are selling works, we should expect consistency in our colours in materials such as paint. Poor quality paints will not match the colour we expect. On a personal note, I have experienced this when thinking I could paint on a budget. The colour I purchased was nothing like the better quality paint that I had nearly run out of. Not only was the colour not right but the consistency of the paint was very thick and hard to apply. Some of the others I have purchase or been given, have been very runny out of the tube as well. It was a good lesson that you should try to always purchase the best quality that you can to help keep the consistency of your work to the highest degree you can manage.

Some paints come out of the tube very dark. This has nothing to do with their quality, it is just the colour. If you want to get a better view of the colours they can produce, put some on your palette and add a little white to bring the colour back to it’s middle value. You will then see the colour properly and get an idea what you can do with it.

Breaking Colours

An exercise in breaking a colour can be done in a similar manner to making a greyscale. For example, start with violet and gradually add a mix of ultramarine blue and white to reduce it’s redness

Try Putting complementary colours (these are colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel such as green and red or blue and orange – see the colour wheel above) at the end of a scale and gradually add a little of one colour to the other and work your way across. For example you may have red at one end and green at the other. Gradually add a little red to the green and work your way across to the red  and see the colours you make at each step.

Here are some exercises to try:

  • Do a colour panel. Use yellow and take it through warmer and cooler colour variations by adding other colours. For example add a little red to warm it up, or add a little green or blue to cool it down.
  • Create your own colour wheel with paints.
  • Create a test sheet of complementary colours next to each other to see how they react.
  • Add white to colours to see the tonal values you can create.
  • Select the most intense of act colour you create in your tonal values.

The Black and White of Things

We have many shades of black and white in the world. There are more shades of grey than you may think. Greys can also be warm, cool or neutral.

Exercise: Try creating a truly neutral grey from your paints and make up a grey scale.

Shades of grey have been widely used by artists in the past. Blacks and greys can add emotive feelings just the same as colours like red or blue for example.

See the examples of Picasso, Brandt and Gorky.

Greys can also be used to help create flow and connect other colours. See Rauschenberg’s use of greys.

Exercise: Create a grey using equal quantities of yellow, red and blue, Keep adding white until you get rid of any bias and have a mid grey. If the grey is still too warm add more blue.

Exercise: Create a black by mixing your darkest red (alizarin), darkest blue and darkest yellow. If your black is still to purplish – add more yellow. Once you think you have a neutral black, add white to create your neutral grey. Create another greyscale from your new colour.

Remember that when you mix colours they will always look different on the palette than they do on a white surface or one of any other colour. Every surface you place your paint on will effect how it looks.

Exercise: Try adding your grey to a red to diminish it IE: controlling it to change it tonally.

Exercise: Create a greyscale for warm and cool greys.

The more you experiment with colours and understand how they work with each other and on your surfaces, the more efficient you will be at creating your artworks and the better results will follow.


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