A Short Course in Color

A Short Course in Color
by Barbara Lipkin

In applying paint to canvas, there are two separate basic issues: value and color. (There are other issues, too. This is the short course.) Value is how light or dark something is in relation to any point on your canvas, or in your subject. A painting can be created using only different values of gray, which is a good way to concentrate on accuracy of form and perspective, without having to also worry about color.

The Old Masters originally always painted a grisaille study first. When they were satisfied with their results, they added thin layers of color, glazing, to complete the painting. The grisaille showed through, so the values were automatically correct. This is a very slow method of painting, because the grisaille, and then each layer of color, must be completely dry before proceeding. But it’s a really good exercise to learn how colors work together. If you learn some color basics, you will be better able to make informed decisions about color in your paintings.

Primary colors: red, yellow, blue. All other colors are derived from these three colors.

Secondary colors: orange, green, purple. These are derived by mixing any two of the primary colors together. (Mixing all three primary colors together results in a muddy gray.) For example, red + yellow = orange; yellow + blue = green; blue + red = purple.

Tints: adding white to any color will make a tint of that color.

Shades: adding black to any color will make a shade.

You should have a color wheel to look at as you read these explanations.

Complementary colors: Those opposite each other on the color wheel. Example: red/green; blue/orange; purple/yellow.

Analogous colors: Those next to each other on the color wheel.

Complementary colors (think “opposite colors”) intensify each other when placed next to or near each other. For example, a red stroke placed next to a green stroke will make both seem brighter. Complementary colors create a gray when mixed. For example, red and green make a brownish gray. In glazing, if you paint a thin layer of red over a dry layer of green, you will darken and “gray down” the green. It will still appear green, not red. (Here we get into color temperatures, warm vs. cool. This leads us into using color temperature to create the illusion of distance. For now, let’s keep it simple.)

Analogous colors calm each other down; so placing a blue stroke next to a green stroke makes an area seem calmer. Mixing analogous colors changes the hue, but doesn’t make a gray. Mixing purple and red makes a redder purple or a purpler red, depending on how much red or purple you use. Mixing blue and green makes a bluer green or a greener blue, again depending on how much of each color you use.

A painting which uses a lot of complements will seem quite lively, especially if you use saturated colors. (Again, this gets us into temperature. As you can see, this is a large subject. Let’s stick with the basics for now.) A painting which uses lots of analogous colors will seem calm and serene.

The best way to learn about color is to experiment with your paints. Your basic supply should include a warm red and a cool red (cadmium red, alizarin crimson); a warm blue and a cool blue (cobalt, ultramarine); and a warm yellow and a cool yellow (cadmium yellow, winsor lemon). These are only suggestions. You can chose other specific shades.

You also need a basic white. Titanium white is most opaque. Zinc white is more transparent and better for mixing, or you can also buy a mixing white. You need a black in your palette, but use it very sparingly, as a little goes a very long way.

A word about gray. Black and white make gray, but you can also make gray by mixing complementary colors, and these are much more satisfactory. They are richer and more interesting, and have more subtle effects. However, black and white grays are fine for your gray (grisaille) painting.

This is just a brief overview of a very large subject, which basically requires a lifetime of study. But it should be enough to get you started. Happy painting!