Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Primary Colors

As we all learned in elementary school, there are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Traditionally, we’ve also been told that yellows and reds are warm, while blues are cool.  But like everything in the study of art, it’s not that simple. Let me explain.

When I started to mix colors seriously, I had such a hard time. Nothing seemed to work. I’d try to mix my blue and yellow and I’d get a sick green. My blues and reds were a very anemic violet—more like a cinnamon. It wasn’t until I learned about color temperature that things improved.

What I didn’t understand was that the three primary colors have cool and warm attributes, depending on the pigment you choose. Mixing warm colors with warm colors and vice versa, really helps. Look at the colors below and hopefully you will see variations in temperature. They're primary colors, but distantly different. One may lean towards a red (warm), while another may lean towards a blue/green (cold).

Yellow: Lemon yellow and cadmium yellow
Blue: Ultramarine and cobalt blue
Red: Cadmium red and alizarin red
Source of colors: Pigments through the Ages.

Sometimes it's easier to understand color temperature by looking at paintings directly. Here are two examples of cool and warm paintings. Can pick which one is which?

When mixing colors, you can create new warm colors by combining two warms. Conversely the cooler colors (and paintings) can be made stronger by mixing cool with cool. However, the real fun and perhaps certain frustration begin when you play with mixing cools and warms. If you want to play with this more, you can find the colors listed above at many art stores. Try mixing them first-hand. I can guarantee you’ll learn a lot and have fun too boot. Want to learn more about pigments, then go to: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/

Next month, we’ll talk more about secondary colors.

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