Color Theory – Understanding Color

Color Theory is relative to each artist and viewer.  There are many factors that contribute to the overall effect of a colors in a piece.  Color temperature, color relativity, color value, and color relationships can create a vast array of effects.  Color has always been a mystery for me, difficult to understand and use powerfully.

Many other artists struggle with color as well and I found this color exercise extremely helpful.  In a previous post I mentioned Richard Schmid’s color chart exercises.  Doing these charts will help you develop your own personal color theories and, ability to mix paint, use a palette knife, and judge values.

Color Charts – Steps to Understanding Color:

Colors Involved (links to recommended brands, all in Oil):

Titanium White (by Utrecht) for mixing values

Cadmium Yellow Lemon (by Gamblin)

Cadmium Yellow Pale (by Windsor Newton)

Cadmium Yellow Deep (by Gamblin)

Yellow Ochre Light (by Windsor Newton)

Transparent Iron Oxide Red (by Utrecht)

Terra Rosa (by Windsor Newton)

Cadmium Red Medium (by Gamblin)

Alizarin Crimson Permanent (by Utrecht)

Viridian (by Utrecht)

Cobalt Blue Light  (by Rembrantd)

Ultramarine Deep (by Rembrantd)

Mars Black (by Windsor Newton) NOTE: Richard Schmid doesn’t use black in his chart series, I only added it because I wish to understand black.  Many contemporary artists mix their blacks purely from color, as you will see from these charts there are many beautiful combinations of extremely dark psudo-blacks possible.  Treat black as a color, not a darkener.  It has many possibilities and I recommend adding black to your chart and see how  Black based greys compare to color based greys.

You can apply this exercise to your own color choices. This palette is recommended because it can achieve a huge range of colors including difficult to mix unique colors such as Cobalt Turquoise, Sap Green, Prussian Blue, Naples Yellow, and more.  Richard Schmid mentions that he occasionally uses additional colors that mixtures of this palette cannot achieve such as: Cadmium Orange, Cobalt Violet, Cadmium Scarlet.

Start the Charts:

The exercise is to mix a total of 13 charts.  The first Chart begins with a row of all the pure colors.  Each color is tinted down to a near-white color.  All 5 swatches should have equadistant values.  So the first color is pure, the second has a little white, the next color a little more, and so on until the last color is close to white.  Take your time with this, make sure all of your colors are equally far apart in value.  To make it easier 1) have a lot of light where you’re working 2) SQUINT!  Squinting is an invaluable tool that will cut out visual distraction and allow you to compare values. Is one swatch of color too close to another in value?  Is it too far apart?  Compare swatches in 3′s. How do Swatches 1,2, and 3 compare? 2,3, and 4? 3,4 and 5? Darken with pure color or lighten with white as needed.  TAKE YOUR TIME WITH THIS.  It will enhance your mixing abilities dramatically.

Basic Color Chart to understand color

The next charts each feature a dominant color.  You mix 2/3 of the Dominant color into the sub-dominant color.  Referencing your base chart (shown above) you go down the line; in Chart number 2 Cadmium Yellow Lemon is your dominant color, mixed one by one with all of the other colors.  Chart number 3 is Cadmium Yellow Pale, number 4 is Cadmium Yellow Deep and so on.  Below are what the completed charts look like.  After all of the charts I give some suggestions on materials and methods for constructing your chart.  Once you start these you will begin to notice each pigment’s strength, consistency, personality, and even texture.

 

Cadmium Yellow Lemon (by Gamblin)

Cadmium Yellow Lemond

Cadmium Yellow Pale (by Windsor Newton)

Cadmium Yellow Pale

Cadmium Yellow Deep (by Gamblin)

Cadmium Yellow Deep

Yellow Ochre Light (by Windsor Newton)

Yellow Ochre Light

Transparent Iron Oxide Red (by Utrecht)


Transparent Iron Oxide Red

Terra Rosa (by Windsor Newton)

Terra Rosa Chart

Cadmium Red Medium (by Gamblin)

Cadmium Red Medium

Alizarin Crimson Permanent (by Utrecht)

Alizarin Crimson Permanent Chart

Viridian (by Utrecht)

Viridian Green

Cobalt Blue Light  (by Rembrantd)

Cobalt Blue Light

Ultramarine Deep (by Rembrantd)

ultramarine blue deep

Mars Black (by Windsor Newton)

Mars black

Note: This exercise is to be done slowly, it will take awhile, weeks definitely, maybe months.  Just stay focused on getting those value mixtures right and you will come away with a certain expertise in color.

Constructing your Color Theory Charts:

Once you finish these charts you will want to keep them.  They make great references while painting.  They should be lightweight, mobile, and well constructed. If you live in the State College/Lemont area of Pennsylvania I recommend supplies carried locally by Uncle Eli’s Art Supply.

Materials Needed (Links to recommended products):

Heavy weight mat board 0r Gessoed panels

Acrylic Gesso (if you use the Heavy weight mat board)

Artist’s tape (I suggest 3/4″)

Palette Knife

Ruler, Pencil, and Exacto Blade

Lots and lots and lots of rags (old clothes).

Process:

1) If you are using Gessoed Panels than skip to the next step.  If you go with the Heavy weight mat board then you will need to give it 3x coats of Acrylic Gesso using a hardware brush.

2) With the Ruler and Pencil measure out 12x 1″ sections with 3/4″ sections in between each 1″ swath.  Next, measure 5x 1″ sections with 3/4″ gaps perpendicular to your first line of marks.  Measure the last two sides to form your rectangular grid.

3) Place strips of your 3/4″ Artist’s tape in the 3/4″ gaps on your grid. This will give you nice clean edges.  The charts will make for great, well crafted references with this technique.

4) This step applies only to Heavy weight mat board users.  Use an Exacto Blade and your Ruler to cut out your taped up gridded rectangle.  Tip: On edge of mat board (where you will not be cutting chart out from main sheet) create a small loop/handle with the tape for ease of removal.

5) Mix up your mixtures with your Palette Knife and make sure to clean it regularly.  If you cross contaminate colors scrape it off and re-mix it.  The Palette Knife  method makes for an easy clean up and makes it effortless to scrape off wrong valued colors and start over.

6) Peel off tape and set to dry!  If you want to be super classy you can wait 6 months and varnish your charts for extra protection.

I hope you find these charts as useful as I did!

One thought on “Color Theory – Understanding Color”

  1. Great job on the color charts Sean… you’ve already learned a huge amount about color possibilities from doing these.
    I recommend keeping these close when you’re painting from life to help your color mixing and deciding about overall color
    harmony.
    If you ever do these again (ghastly thought!…. ) I recommend getting closer to white in your lightest value
    since that is a value you would use a lot in full value painting.
    Hope you and Stephanie are enjoying your new home!

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