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Color Theory for Beginning Painters

Updated on June 18, 2020
The visible spectrum
The visible spectrum | Source
Daler-Rowney Georgian Oil Paint Set
Daler-Rowney Georgian Oil Paint Set | Source

The difference between basic color theory and color theory for painting

If you disperse light through a prism, it produces a spectrum. Each color in a spectrum has a different wavelength, there are seven. They are violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Of these seven, there are three primary colors; blue, yellow and red. Colors of light are absolute. There is only one red, one blue and one yellow. This color theory is the basis for color printing, photograhy and digital composition. In printing, pixels of true color mix in the eye. This is known as optical mixing.

Paint on the other hand, has to be phisically mixed. Pigment is mixed with oil or egg, or whatever binder you desire to make paint. It is important to understand that pigments are not pure. There are different versions of the primary colors. When purchasing paint, you will find many different yellows, different reds, different blues. What should you choose? If this is your first experience in buying paints, most art supply stores have starter sets. Look at the selection of colors in the set. In a set of twelve (acrylic or oil) you will likely find cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, prussian blue, cerulean blue, viridian, raw umber, ivory black, and titanium white. Some kits use similar colors so it's ok if you don't choose these particular colors. In my personal experience, this particular palette is very common.

How to make a color chart

Mixing secondary colors

Now that you have your basic palette of paint, it's time to experiment. You will notice that each color has a bias. One red is more orange, the other leans toward blue. Lemon yellow is more green than cadmium yellow. Ultramarine is more red than prussian or cerulean blue. If you want a vivid secondary color, you need to choose colors of the same kind of bias. In other words, if you are trying to make a bright orange you should be using a red and a yellow that both lean toward orange.

Making a color chart is a great way to explore your palette. This will help you understand the many values of each color in your chosen palette. You will see how they interact with each other as you begin blending. Notating what colors you have mixed will make it easy for you to reference different hues and how you made them. Now get out there and start creating!


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