Colour can be confusing to the beginner (and even to those of us who have been painting for a long while!). I was bamboozled by colour theory and all the writings and books and information on it for years. I have condensed what I need to know down to the three primaries, the three complementaries, and how they interact with each other, to simplify how I can use colour.
There are only three primary colours – red, blue and yellow.
A complementary colour is one made up from a mix of two primaries- so there can only be three complementaries. On a colour wheel, a complementary is directly opposite to its primary.
Red and blue make purple.
Blue and yellow make green.
Yellow and red make orange.
Red’s complementary is green.
Blue’s complementary is orange.
Yellow’s complementary is purple.
So we basically have six colours to play with, remaining aware of the fact that within this mix are important considerations of tone, and the breadth of available pigments.
When a primary and its secondary are placed together, they sing. This is how I can create focal points or give excitement to my work.
When a primary and its secondary are mixed together, they cancel out each other and this is how I make my greys.
When glazed over each other, they “grey” the colour underneath the glazing.
Here are some exercises for getting to know how a primary and its secondary love to get together. Approach them with a sense of fun!
Exercises on Colour Complementaries – these are written with the use of pastel in mind, but you can easily do the same exercises in acrylic or oil, on scraps of canvas paper.
- Yellow and purple: Cover a scrap of colourfix paper (I use Art Spectrum Colourfix paper for my pastel work – it is made in Australia and comes with either a coarse or smooth surface, takes loads of pastel layers and can take wet media) with a layer of thinly and evenly applied yellow ochre. Using all the purples, mauves, lilacs etc in your pastel supply, including very dark cool crimsons, create a design which leads the viewer to the focal point, – this focal point must have at least one area of straight strong yellow ochre. You will see that the underlying yellow ochre slightly tinges the purples, ensuring that they all are in harmony. You can place layers of strong pastel if you want pure colour in amidst this harmonising.
You may use white pastel to soften the tone of some areas, and you may use the original yellow ochre at any point again in creation of the design.
If you like this exercise, go on to create a larger work, for example, a yellowed sunrise over a lavender misty mountain range.
2. Red and green: On a scrap of colourfix paper, draw a red object, for example, an apple or tomato, or red box etc. Fill in the area within the object with a flat red bright colour. Using only your green pastels, model the object and introduce tone. Use a very dark green for the shadow, yellow greens for the lighted areas and so on. Repaint any areas that you feel need the original red touches again.
We are often distracted by colour when considering tone, so when making selections for dark or light, hold the pastel up to the paper over the object and squint at the object – this will blur the image and help you concentrate wholly on whether the pastel is dark or light enough. If using paint instead of pastel, place your mixture on your palette knife and hold it to the object, squinting for the same purpose.
Lastly, use a bright yellow and then a white, to show the full light area of the object, and the highlight.
If you like this exercise, go on to create a larger work, for example, a fully developed still life of red fruits, objects or flowers.
3. Blue and orange: Using many and different pigment blues, from dark to light, in your pastel supply, and on a scrap of colourfix paper, create a flowing blue design which covers all of the area of your total design. Make one small area quite dark (almost black) and prominent somewhere within this total blue coverage. For purposes of this exercise, it is probably not wise to place this dark shape in the middle, or right on the edge of the blue.
Place a geometric shape in your choice of an orange shade, to become the focal point of your design within the sea of blue, and which balances the dark blue area in the work.
If you like this exercise, go on to create a larger work, for example, an orange boat on blue waters, or a geometric city scape or abstract.