Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Primary and secondary colors

There are three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. They are irreducible, that is, you can't mix them from some other color. If you want to work in full color you will need to have these three.
There are many painters today who have nothing but those three. Usually they use cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson or a permanent red. I myself used a three color palette for several years about twenty years ago. I however used cobalt blue, genuine rose madder and cadmium yellow light. Those are real clear colors and it gave me a look I thought was cool at the time. It also limited the number of colors I could make and gave the paintings a sort of blonde look. Today when I recommend that palette to people I suggest they use permanent alizarin instead of the unbelievably expensive genuine rose madder. If you have never used a three color palette I strongly recommend you try it for a while. You will learn a lot about mixing. There are several other surprise benefits to it. You will get tremendous color unity, as every note usually will contain a little bit of all three colors and that will really sew the piece together coloristically. Also it is really simple to find the same color that you mixed before. With only three elements it is hard to forget what was in it.

I should mention that the color system I am describing applies to pigments only. There are separate rules for the way light mixes. As painters that is not a big concern. But it is important to know that is a different system so you don't get confused if you bump into that.

Secondary colors are a mixture of any two primaries. That is red plus yellow makes orange, a secondary. Red plus blue makes purple, and blue plus yellow makes green.


Now pay attention, this is a little convoluted.


I know that's confusing, so here is an example. Suppose I mix yellow and red together and make orange. Orange is the compliment (or opposite) of blue. Blue is the one primary out of the three that I didn't use initially to make orange. Got it?

Since this is like chemistry, I am going to throw it out in small pieces for you to digest. I think I will work some kind do review into the posts too. I don't want to lose you. Just like the math I flunked every year from second grade on, this is cumulative. That is, one assumption leads onto another and each lesson will of necessity build on the last.


I have only one space left for the Bass Harbor workshop. Here is a link to where you can sign up.

I am moving my blog to Wordpress. The new URL address where I soon will be posting new entries is: stapletonkearns-blog.com. You can check it out right now but I am still in the process of moving. There will be a redirect of the URL stapletonkearns.blogspot.com that you are using now and all the links and feeds should still work without your changing anything. I also will leave this blog up just in case.


mariandioguardi.com said...

While painting and mixing I have gotten to the point where I observe a color and mix it without thinking of the theory behind it all. But it's all there all the time.

However, your posts have got me thinking about a new theory to try on my own, not for every painting,but just as an experiment. And I'm thinking of this: for the highest values/ lights use a single pigment possibly mixed with some white. For mid values, reduce all the mid value colors to secondary colors and for shadow colors use tertiary colors. Whit being allowed. I am going to try this and answer the question of whether or not I can get something believable using this system that I just made up or does it look to artificial?

I'll send an image of the result; whether it be success of failure.

Lucy said...

This chart looks a bit odd. Some of the opposites don't look like familiar compliments. For instance 10YR looks like a cad yellow. It's opposite on the chart 10B looks like manganese or cerulean. Those two mixed would yield a green. Some of the opposites look more like Ogden Rood's chart of additive mixtures, like 10OR and 10BG.

It's all helpful though. I think artists should know color theory. In most cases it becomes second nature when one gets to know the pigments and how they behave. The charts and color wheels go off into another section of the brain.

Marian, I look forward to seeing your experiment.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is not the best chart. I will hunt down a better one. A lot of those I liked were copyrighted material.

Bob Carter said...

I went through a three-pigment phase, too, and found the strengths and limitations you noted. It's a great way to learn color mixing. Today, when I lay out my modified Gruppe palette, ultramarine, permanent madder deep, and cadmium yellow medium are the first in the row, because if all else fails I can probably get close to the note with them (within limits). Also, I seem to be able to get the cleanest three-color mixes with them. Learning color theory is, indeed, a culmulative process, just like chemistry, and in both cases it really helps to start with first principles.

Karla said...

Hi Stape,

The new blog looks great. So glad to see a search feature there. There is just such a wealth of information on your blog it is great to be able to do a search.

billspaintingmn said...

Hi Stape! I'm still reading, just not much to say...but thanks!

Ceeli said...

Hi Mr. Kearns, I've been keeping up with your blog for a few months and I love learning from it.

I know you already know all this, but the way that light mixes and how pigment mixes is highly connected. I don't know whether or not it's useful to think of additive and subtractive as intertwined, but perhaps it lends one a better understanding of why the primaries red, yellow, and blue are chosen. (Namely, because they are the closest pigments to the ideal C,M,Y, which cover the entire color space?)

Also, there are some (partial) additive processes that can happen with pigment--ie pointillism. This mixing works similarly to additive light mixing. (http://www.huevaluechroma.com/044.php)

My knowledge of color theory is limited to that previous website and the color wheel so I know I'm pretty biased/deficient with this. What're your thoughts on learning additive mixing?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Let us know how that works.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am laying out the principles REAL SLOW LIKE.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have always had a search feature. It is just in a different place. It must be easier to find now.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I might get to those things, but for now I want to stay REAL basic.