Posts Tagged ‘color theory’


Old Life Magazine Article About Color Theory

June 26, 2013

Lately I’ve been scanning through some old Life Magazines, and happeed to come across an issue from 1944 that has an article on color, including such things as additive/subtractive, wavelengths, and the Munsell notation system. It’s the July 3rd issue of that year (page 39.)


There’s a digital copy of it on Google, but the scans are poor. If you can find an actual copy on eBay or the magazine racks at a used book store/garage sale it’s worth a read.


Color Value Chart

May 3, 2012

Several years ago (2002, I think) while reading through the Golden Paint website, I came across a page on the subject of neutral grays, and there was a chart that ranked several of their paints by value range, from white to black. Since this was an accurate reading by a spectrometer of specific pigments, I thought at the the time that it would make a good project to recreate this chart with the actual paints I owned to use as a reference. The image above was the result. I painted in a few extra colors that I collected later, including a few oils, but only managed to fill up about a third of it before I forgot all about it until digging it out yesterday.

I did learn a few things from the exercise, or at least demonstrate some things I had taken for granted. For example, I have a gouache version of PR122 (Quincradone Magenta) that is far brighter than the Golden acrylic which uses the same pigment (row 2, column 6.) I was also a bit skeptical of their spectrometer readings since the Phthalo Blue/RS doesn’t look to me like it should belong on the top row (row 1, column 7.) The only oils on this chart are two red oxides (PR101,) the viridian (PG18,) and pyrrole red (PR254.) ALl the others are Golden’s paint. Some of these have since been discontinued by Golden, like cobalt teal.


Color Complements With Light or Pigments

May 11, 2011

I might have labeled this “Color Theory for Dummies,” but that title is likely already taken and sounds too insulting anyway. The point of this post is a very simplified introduction to what I know about color theory as it pertains to painting realistically. This involves the translation of colors of light into paint. In this particular post I’m going to try and show the reaction of opposite colors of light and pigments of those same colors when mixed together.

First, let’s try and recreate what happens when opposite channels of light are combined. Since digital files are made with light elements (pixels) they can accurately represent this effect, so for this example I’ll be using the Photoshop program. Color opposites, or “complements,” will be represented in the example above with a familiar artist’s color wheel arrangement of yellow at the top going clockwise through cyan, and magenta, as shown in the top left corner of this Photoshop screen. The center spokes of this wheel show the connections of these colors.

In the center is another file made up of Photoshop layers with four color complements at each corner. The center layer is a duplicate of the cyan color with its display mode set to “normal” and its opacity at 50%. The result shows a gray shade that occurs when the cyan is “mixed” optically with the red-yellow color. If I change the display mode of this layer to “screen” at a 100% opacity, the result is white, since white is all the colors of light combined.

Okay, well, that’s interesting enough, however, it doesn’t always represent what happens when we mix pigments together, since pigments do not behave by the same rules. If you mix red and green lights together you’ll get yellow, but that’s not what happens if you mix red and green pigments. Mix any of the color opposites together, such as yellow and blue, and you’ll definitely not get white. We can, however, create shades of gray when mixing pigments, but even that will take some experience and understanding of how they work together.

As artists we have to account not only for a pigment’s color characteristics (hue, saturation, and value) but also its physical properties, such as its degree of transparency and tinting strength. The color range of what we see is also much greater than what we can recreate with pigments. No matter how opaque is the white pigment you choose, for example, a white pigment won’t blind you. Also, there is no single cyan pigment on the planet. The good news is you can get fairly close, and with some occasional “slight of hand” tricks and balancing of other pigments you can create a convincing facsimile of the colors of light that you see.

In my paint swatch sample here I’m first mixing as close a match to the red-orange as I can get with the pigments I have available (I’m using oils.) I start with the lightest value pigment first, in this case cadmium yellow deep (PO43) and add a small amount of a strong tinting red pigment (PR188) to intensify the hue without darkening it too much. To create the cyan, I choose PY3 yellow tinted with titanium white, and gradually add a mix of blues in the green shade (PB15 & 16.) I occasionally check my progress by holding up the swatch to the screen to see how close I’m getting. I know I won’t be getting the same color intensity as I see on the screen, but that’s okay. In life, unless I’m looking at a light source, all colors I see will be fairly neutral as well and affected by their surrounding colors.

Now for the big reveal, I combine my mixtures of red-orange paint with the handmade cyan in equal amounts and the result has the makings of being a fairly decent shade of gray that I can tweak to be more “warm” or “cool” or as neutral as as necessary.

Even though pigments behave differently than light, it’s important to understand light also. It is, after all, what we are seeing. If you’re trying to translate a foreign language, it’s not just a string of words. You have to know what is being said.


If Your Color Wheel Won’t Roll, Maybe It’s Flat

July 11, 2010

Many art students learn how to mix their paints by looking at a layout similar to the one above. It was how I first started. What is intended to take place in the center of this wheel, its spokes if you will, are the various mixtures. I realized later that I was actually looking at just two dimensions of color, hue and chroma. Hue being the color label (i.e. red, yellow, blue-green, etc.) and chroma being how much hue is present, or what Albert Munsell called the color’s strength. Unfortunately, those students are not getting the whole story.

What becomes immediately apparent is that many of the pigments I have don’t appear on this wheel. Where’s burnt umber, or for that matter, black and white? Why are so many of my paints much darker than these on the wheel? What I discovered is I wasn’t looking at a wheel but a CYLINDER. Turn it on its side and you see it has another dimension, value. Now I can more easily figure out where my paint color sits in true color space.

There’s a fourth trait that paints have, however, beyond color alone, and that’s how opaque they are. This is a physical property pigments have that cannot be described on a color wheel, and it is critical to understand. Paints have to be used in combination figure out how the pigment behaves. It’s their fourth dimension (Eeeek! Dum-Dum-Duuum!)

Many paint companies use an icon that shows how opaque the paint is. They’re not all the same, however, and sometimes what they call opaque isn’t very. The best way to determine this is to put them to use and test them out. Add white to see what tints of the color look like, paint undiluted layers over darker and lighter value paints, scrape layers across white paper to examine their quality, and of course test them in various mixtures. This will help you determine where they sit on the “cylinder” model. I always do this with new paint.

A limited palette is very practical for painters, but if you cut it down too far you won’t be able to mix all the colors you may need. If you find yourself frustrated with how poorly your mixes turn out, it’s likely the fault of your color selection. Fit your pigments within the color “cylinder” as best you can to determine where the gaps are. I like having colors that straddle both sides of the color fence. For example, I prefer having different blues that are somewhat reddish or greenish, as well as having slightly different values. It offers me the most flexibility, even if I rarely use them all.

Books for further study:
Color Notation: An Illustrated System by Albert H. Munsell
Color Studies by Edith Anderson Feisner
Power Color by Caroline Jasper