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Color Behavior & Theory


To mix color you have to have a basic knowledge of color theory and a hands-on understanding of how paint colors behave with each other.  It is important to understand that when mixing paint, as you are creating a painting, you draw upon your knowledge of color theory and your understanding of how paint colors behave. However, it is more of hit and miss and try again to achieve the right color.

Studying the color wheel below is a good place to start learning color theory.  The first thing you should note is the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.


Primary Colors


Theoretically, all colors can be mixed from these three colors.  However, theory and practical application are very different.  If you were to ask what is pure yellow?, I would have to answer “the absence of red and blue." The same would be said of pure red; it is the absence of yellow and blue, and pure blue is the absence of red and yellow.  To simulate the primary colors in the color wheel below, I used warm and cool hues of each color.  For primary yellow, I mixed Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow. I mixed Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson to create a primary red, and the blue was made by mixing Phthalo Blue and French Ultramarine.

An example of why it takes two colors of red paints to achieve a color closer to a primary red, Cadmium Red paint is a warmer red as it has more yellow than Alizarin Crimson paint, which is a cooler red with a blue undertone. By mixing them together in almost equal proportions, you begin to nullify the yellow and blue in each, resulting in a color that is closer to a primary red.

The idea of warm and cool color is critical to understanding color theory and practical application of paint.  It is important to have a basic understanding of color theory and to spend time mixing and experimenting with the paint you are working with.

Secondary Colors


The next thing you should notice in the chart is that between the primary colors are the secondary colors. If you look between two primary colors you will see a secondary color.  By mixing any two primary colors, you will get a secondary color: orange, green, and violet. 

Here is how it works: by mixing the following primaries you will create secondary colors.

Red and Yellow (primaries) = Orange (secondary)

Yellow and Blue (primaries) = Green (secondary)

Blue and Red (primaries) = Violet (secondary)

Complementary Colors


Complementary colors are very important in painting.  They can be used to increase the intensity of each other when placed side by side.  An example would be orange with its complementary blue next to it. It will look much more intense than if surrounded by white.  Another important aspect is when complements are mixed together, they create rich neutrals or grays.  With a small amount of one mixed with the other, you can achieve shadow tones.

Primary Colors & Complementary Colors

Yellow (primaries) = Violet (complementary)

Blue (primaries) = Orange (complementary)

Red (primaries) = Green (complementary)

Color Wheel painting Lession with Ed Burke

Color Wheel (Theoretical)

Edward Burke "Still Life in John’s Studio" – 2002 Oil on Canvas

Edward Burke, "Still Life in John’s Studio," 2002. Oil on Canvas.

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