The Colour Theory Triangle

My favourite starting point for colour mixing is the colour triangle rather than the more familiar colour circle. I think it’s easier to understand and makes remembering complementary colours simple.

(If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.)

The fundamental rule of colour theory for painting is that there are three primary colours: red, blue and yellow. The second rule of colour theory is that mixing two primary colours togethe creates secondary colours, that is purples, oranges, and greens. On a colour triangle, the three primary colours are at the points, and the three secondary are on the “flat bits”. All you need remember initially are the three primaries, because you can always mix two to remind yourself what they create.

The other reason I like the colour triangle so much as it makes it easy to remember complementary colours. These are colours that make one another look brighter, and also desaturate each other (make them less intense in colour). On the colour triangle, complementaries are the colour opposite, so Blue + Orange, Red + Green, Yellow + Purple..


The first color triangle is attributed to the 19th century French painter Delacroix. A notebook of his dating from around 1834 has drawing of a triangle with the three primaries written in as rouge (red) at the top, jaune (yellow) on the left, and bleu (blue) on the right, plus added the three secondaries as orange, violet, and vert (green). Delacroix adapted the triangle from a color wheel in an oil painting handbook by J.F.L. Mérimée, a painter he knew.
(Source: “Colour and Culture” by John Gage. Thames and Hudson, London, 1993. Page 173.)


Colour Theory Triangle

Not a Painting Project for 1st April

I had been thinking about writing up a painting project called “50 Shades of White” for an April Fools, using a photo of Ghost sleeping on the shelf in my studio. I’d put the ‘bubble paper’, which an order of paint/ink had been wrapped in, on the shelf, thinking it could be useful for collage. Next thing he’s on the shelf and fast asleep.

With the whites of Ghost, the roll of paper, the tub of primer (Michael Harding’s non-absorbent acrylic primer, for those curious) and its reflection in my watercolour set, and the whites of the pages of the closed book (volume two of the Matisse biography by Hilary Spurling), and the blacks of the shadows, it could be an interesting challenge. But not one I’m in the mood for right now, hence the thought of doing it as an April Fools’ project.

Then over breakfast this morning, reading various things as I do through an RSS Reader, I came across a long illustrated article on the use of white in art by Vinciane Lacroix titled “Challenge #9 White“, which I thought was far more fun. Even if you’re not in the mood for a long read, I think it’s worth taking a look at the photos of the paintings to refresh our thoughts on white as a colour. And let’s try, as Vinciane says, to “not pass by a white without observing the shades that dress it.

Interesting Greys

Grey days, with low cloud or haar (sea mist), when there’s minimal colour in the landscape are not “dull days” to me, but “interesting greys”. A challenge to find the subtle changes of colour, the gentle variations in tone (value).

I started thinking of “interesting greys” after looking at paintings by Whistler in the Tate Britain gallery in London one visit, where the whole painting is dominated by shades of grey. For example:
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea,
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, and
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights

Paintings I’d most likely walked past before, but spoke to me then, and still do.

I know it was at least 11 years ago now, because in October 2009 I did a Painting.About.com project in the style Whistler (see it on the web archive here).

In his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 20 February 1885, Whistler wrote: “He [the artist] does not confine himself to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade of grass, as commended by the inconsequent, but, in the long curve of the narrow leaf, corrected by the straight tall stem, he learns how grace is wedded to dignity, how strength enhances sweetness, that elegance shall be the result.

Taking this to greys, I think it’s not confining ourselves to neutral greys, to greys mixed with black and white, but to explore those greys that have a touch of blue, green, yellow, pink, purple. The greys that happen when we mix complementary colours together — yellow/purple, red/green, and my favourite orange/blue — and can happen when we scrape remnant colours together on our palette (depending on what’s there). Add lots and lots of white to get pale interesting greys.

It’s important to make notes about what colours youre using for your interesting greys so that you can replicate them. Imperfectly mixing colours on the canvas/paper, rather than on the palette, can give compelling variations, as in this sheet done by a participant in one of my Higham Hall workshops.

Mixing Interesting Greys

Think of grey not as a constant hue, but a variable.

Greys Days sheep
SOLD “Greys Days”. 76x76cm.

My Colours for Painting with Acrylics

Six Primary Colours

Marion's paint coloursThe array of colours you can buy can be overwhelming and you definitely don’t need them all! I believe it’s best  to start with a few and get to know them well. I would start with two blues, white, a yellow, magenta (not red) and an orange (which must be a single pigment not a mixture). After this, perylene black and a lemon (cool) yellow. Plus a red if you’re missing it.

Acrylics are inter-mixable between brands. Buy the best quality you can afford without feeling inhibited about using it. What you’re paying for in artist’s quality paints is the pigment loading (the amount of pigment in the tube)and the wider range of pigments (colour choices, with series 1 colours being less expensive than series 2,3, etc.). The consistency of the paint is stiffer too, so holds brushmarks more.

The artist’s quality brands I use are the most are Schmincke Primacryl and Golden Heavy Body, and for mid-price Amsterdam Expert. The student-quality paint I use in workshops is Seawhite. I use Seawhite/Amsterdam for the initial blocking in of a painting on a large canvas (“getting rid of the white”) and painting the edges.

WHITE: Titanium white (PW6).

BLUE: My favourites are Prussian blue (PB60 / PB15:1 / PBk7 Schmincke), which I often use instead of black, phthalo turquoise (PB15:4 / PG7 Golden or PB16 Schmincke), and cerulean blue (PB15:3 / PB16 / PW6  Schmincke). I also use all sorts of other blues but almost never ultramarine blue.

YELLOW: Two yellows, one darker/warmer and one lighter/cooler, like the different yellows you get on a daffodil. My favourites are cadmium yellow (PY35) and lemon yellow (PY3).

RED: I use quinacridone magenta (PR122) instead of a red for colour mixing, except when I’m painting something that’s definitely red, such as an apple. Magenta mixes with blues to give the heathery purples typical of Skye. It also produces “interesting pink-greys”, whereas when I’m mixing with a red (or sienna) I find I end up at boring browns too easily.

ORANGE: To get the range of “interesting greys and browns” that comes from mixing orange + blue + white, it needs to be a single-pigment orange not a yellow+red mixture in a tube (the latter will give unwanted greens). My favourites are cadmium orange, PO20, and transluscent orange (PO71 Schmincke).

BLACK: The one black I use is PBk31, which has green undertones, making it ideal for landscapes. It’s sold under different names by different manufacturers including Perylene Black, Perylene Green and Atrament black (Schmincke); look for Pbk31 on the label. Mix with yellow for earthy greens.

PAYNE’S GREY: This is a mixed colour, not a single pigment, and what’s in it differs between manufacturers. I use Payne’s grey acrylic ink a lot for continuous line drawing, specifically FW Artist’s Ink by Daler Rowney (note: not DR System 3). It contains PBk7 / PB15, so is a blue-black.

Remember: Cadmium pigments are toxic, but then paint isn’t meant to be eaten. And don’t lick your brushs to get a nice point.

If you’re interested in paint colours, I recommend Bright Earth by Philip Ball, and the Handprint website which although written about watercolours is relevant as the pigments in all paints are the same.

I mostly buy art supplies from Jackson’s as their prices are good and they don’t have ridiculous shipping costs for the Highlands and islands. If you use this link or click on the photo below, I’ll earn a small affiliate commission on your purchases.

Six Primary Colours

Six Primary Colours

Keeping My Cool with Warm and Cool

Nearly a year on from my blog on not using warm and cool as I paint, I’ve been looking at warm and cool again, in anticipation of a portrait painting workshop I’m going on. I started on a random empty page in my sketchbook — the lefthand page — with a little of each colour I had decided to take with me:

The right-hand page is ‘thinking notes’ from when I was doing my Colour workbook.

Then I had a go at organising the colours into cool and warm by instinct, and getting it muddled by having different criteria in a what was meant to be a binary chart (eg an orange may feel cooler than other oranges but it’s always a warm):

Next the in-house art critic and I had a long discussion about which were what, over coffee. Then I found Gamblin’s comprehensive list and had another go:

It still leaves the question: why do I put cool on the left and warm on the right?

Next I’m going to have another read of colour temperature on Handprint and see if I can internalise more of it.

All of this so I can divide the colours into warm dark (for cast shadows), cool dark (for form shadows), warm light (for direct light) and cool light (for indirect light) whilst trying to paint a likeness. Time to remind myself about why it’s good to get out of our artistic comfort zone!

My Style of Painting Palette Control (or not)

palette color mixing

Know those photos you get of artists’ palettes with squeezes of colour around the dge and a mixing area in the middle? Mine never looks like that.

I don’t use a staywet palette for acrylics, and I don’t like to waste paint, so I have evolved a working method that involves a lot of opening of tubes or tubs of paint, taking out a little, using that, then repeating. It may seem inefficient, but it also has the benefit of making me step back from my painting regularly.

The tubs/tubes live on the shelf below my palette so they’re easily to hand and, yes, I do put them back in the same spot. I’d call it a taboret but it’s really a slimline wire kitchen trolley the in-house art critic found, and before that it was an old computer desk, and before that a TV trolley that was a bit low.

This photo shows the squence of colours as I was working on a seascape. I don’t clean the palette, just add the new colour and mix.

If I recall correctly, the colours were (1) Mixed grey from orange/blue. (2) Cerulean blue (3) Transluscent orange PO71, a new colour I’m using (4) Cadmium yellow (5) Cadmium orange (6) Prussian blue (7) More Prussian blue (8) Titanium white on the brush which gave me (9).
wip palette colors
Painting-in-progress. This was end of Day One, where I left it to dry overnight. Orange and magenta were used as the “get rid of the canvas white” colours.
Detail wip painting
There’s texture paste on the canvas too.

Monday Motivator: Black Isn’t For Beginners

Monday Motivator Motivation Quote“…black is a color that is best used after having some experience.”
Brad Teare, Black is a Color

“Not yet” rather than “never” I think should be the rule with black.

It all too easily gets used for shadow where other colours will be more interesting. It all too easily gets used to mix darker colours ending in dulls colours.

As a beginner, if you think you want black, try a dark blue or purple instead. After that, a chromatic black (the darkest mix you can make with blue/green/red/anything but single pigment black).

When you’ve quite a few miles under your brushes, then add black. As a colour, not as an agent of darkness. And start exploring black as an alternative blue to mix with yellow for green.

Tree Trunk Colour Studies

Colour studies tree trunks

In a multi-day workshop, I usually include some time for colour studies, exploring colour mixing with some underlying focus but mostly for the sheer joy of colour, of seeing what happens. The most common response is what fun it is and why don’t we do it more often when we’re by ourselves? I suspect the answer lies in that we get too fixated on “creating a painting” and forget it is time well spent to practice our scales.

When I sat down at my favourite picnic bench in the Uig woodland, I had intended to do a watercolour version of the sketch I’d made a few days before. But after the first tree trunk was painted, impulse led me to trying various colour combinations in search of the ‘perfect recipe’. An hour or so later, I had this:

Colour studies tree trunks

Colour studies tree trunks

This photo is a bit blown out. In the middle is my favourite:
lunar black + cobalt blue + serpentine green

Colour studies tree trunks

I know what the colour are because I remembered to make notes! Not the proportions of each, just the ingredients.

Colour Names vs Pigments

Colour Names vs Pigments Magenta

Primary Magenta and Process Magenta.

Spot the difference?Colour Names vs Pigments Magenta

The small print on the labels tells us: PR 122 and PV 19.

Looking up the numbers tells me: quinacridone magenta and quinacridone rose.

Depending where you are on your colour journey, this may or may not be useful information.

The good news is all you really need to know is that one’s a red (R) pigment, the other a violet (V) so, besides the difference in colour as you see it, they’ll do different things when mixed.

Handprint says: “Because it is warmer than a typical magenta, quinacridone rose creates clean, bright mixtures across the red to yellow span of a color wheel. Its violets are not as bright as those mixed from quinacridone magenta, but I find this creates a more natural color when the mixtures are used for shadows.

For me the two feel like Rosa rugosa flowers (“pink-pink”) vs its rosehips (“red-pink”), which I can’t find a photo of right now.

At Patchings Art Festival last month I was very encouraged by the number of conversations where “single pigment colours” and “pigment numbers” weren’t met with blank looks.

How Many Colours Do You Need for a Successful Painting?

Warm and cool primary coloursThe short answer:
One.
Try black or Payne’s grey or sepia.
(If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself how black-and white photography is still a thing so many years after the invention of colour photography.)

The colour theory answer:
Six.
A warm and cool blue, yellow and red.

The typical answer:
The primaries, white, and some earths, perhaps a green.

The Colourist’s answer:
Whatever floats your boat.

My slightly longer answer:
However many you wish, but probably not all in one painting.

Exploring colour is part of the joy of painting, getting to know the personality of each, how it behaves when it’s by itself and how well it plays with others. (I mean: the properties of a pigment and how it mixes with others.) Everyone has their preferences as to how many they want to play with, both at any particular moment and overall.

There is no magic number, it’s about personal preference and it’ll change. If you don’t enjoy colour mixing, you’ll likely use more straight-from-the-tube colour.

How many colours make a successful painting depends on how you use them. Mix them all together and you’ve a muddy mess. Have scattered colour across a composition and you’ve disjointed visual chaos. Worked together, considered and intuitively, it can be intriguing and full of discoveries for a viewer. Never let anyone insist that you limit yourself if you’re enjoying playing with your colours.

Six Primary ColoursWhen painting with acrylics, I tend to use a subset of colours that has got slightly larger over the past few years (I now need two hands to count the colours, not only one). I do have tubes of many other colours I’ve tried, and occasionally I play with these again. But mostly I use titanium white, Prussian blue, cadmium orange and yellow, lemon yellow, magenta, and?perylene black. Phthalo blue, cobalt blue and phthalo turquoise are also regulars, cerulean blue sometimes joins in. Burnt umber is now neglected as I’ve shifted to mixing greys with orange and blue, and I still don’t like ultramarine blue much (sorry Sharron.

But when it comes to watercolours, since discovering Daniel Smith’s granulating colours, I’ve increasingly been having a ceilidh with colour. Pigments with distinctive characters, not homogenized to all behave the same way like well-socialized, good little colours. I’m not using every single colour in every single painting, and the more successful ones do have fewer colours, but I think these also work because they retain the joy of mucking about with all the colours.

When I moved to Skye 10 years ago, my watercolour set looked like this:
Thatch watercolour set

My current watercolour box looks like this:

big watercolour tin

It feels indulgent to have so many colours, but it’s also so joyous. Sometimes one is all you need, but how will you know which one unless you’ve tried many?

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A big thank you to all my Patreon supporters and subscribers; you enable me to spend more time writing. In the past six months I’ve written twice as many blog posts as I did in the same period last year, as well as create my “Word Prompts” drawing workbook and my “Think Like an Artist” book. Thank you too all my followers, readers, and encouragers. Here’s to whatever the next six months bring!