Know thine own palette

What you learned about primary colors in elementary school is only partially true.

Jack Pine, 8X10, by Carol L. Douglas.

Today’s project is designed to help you learn more about the colors you’ve chosen and to give you more confidence in mixing colors. You can do this in any liquid medium: oils, acrylics, gouache, or watercolor. The examples were done with a Winsor & Newton field kit by my student Sheryl in my Rockport, ME class.

My wheel, above, is an approximation. Every manufacturer formulates its colors differently. Still, I’ve tried to match a pigment name with each spot on the wheel. The biggest circles are what we call the primary colors, followed in size by the secondary colors, and then the tertiary colors.

I encourage students to make their own color wheels based on the pigments they use. But if you want to buy one, Stephen Quiller’s color wheel is excellent.

The outside of the wheel represents the highest chroma (intensity) colors. The center of the wheel represents low-chroma neutrals. The circles in the middle are the common earth pigments.

Start by drawing two circles, one inside of the other, on a piece of paper or a primed white canvas. Then draw a triangle inside the circle to help position your colors.

Sheryl’s watercolor palette, interpreted on the color wheel above. Note how lacking her palette is in cool tones.

We’re going to start with paint straight out of the tube. The colors on the outside of the wheel are modern pigments. They’re the highest chroma. The earth tones are historic pigments and less intense. Black falls in the middle.

Use only the paints you carry in your paint kit. No painter has everything. One point of this exercise is to find the holes in your color space.

Find the closest thing you have to true red, blue and yellow. Choose paints that don’t have overtones of other colors. You might not have a color that is a true primary. Don’t force another color into that spot. Sheryl’s kit didn’t have a clear blue. She put both her blue dots to the left of the primary blue square, because they were both a little on the violet side. Another common paint is cadmium yellow medium. It’s actually pretty orange, so it goes to the side of true yellow. Label your colors, if you know their names.

Sheryl’s finished wheel, showing various mixes of pigments. Yours should look something like this.

You will have some tubes in your paint kit that don’t belong on the outside of the color wheel at all. Besides the earth tones, tubes that contain more than one pigment are less intense than straight pigments. (Pigments are usually listed on the tube.) Approximate where they go. For example, Sheryl has sap green, which is mix. She put it slightly inside the pure-pigment wheel, because it’s on the dull side.

Check your color wheel to see where you have gaps. Sheryl’s paint wheel is strongly weighted toward the warm colors—reds and yellows—and short on the blues and violets.

Draw a dotted line from two pigments on the outside of your color wheel—say quinacridone rose to ultramarine blue. Then make a mixture of those two colors and put a circle of that paint between the two. These are the neutrals you can make with your palette. Repeat this with different combinations until you get bored.

The complements you choose will have a big impact on the end result. Raw sienna is warmer than burnt sienna, so the final greys are warmer too.

You should notice three things:

  • Mixing across the color wheel gives you beautiful neutral tones. They are far more interesting than mixing black and white to get grey;
  • You can never mix a paint that’s more brilliant than the straight-from-the-tube paints you started with. If all your paints are on the dull side, your finished painting will be dull too;
  • What you learned about primary colors in elementary school is only partially true. I remember my disappointment while trying to mix purple as a kid; that was because the paints I had weren’t true blues or reds.