Sir Isaac Newton was the first person to develop the colour wheel as we know it. He created the first circular diagram in 1666. Since then, artists and scientists have studied and designed many variations on the traditional ‘colour wheel’ as we know it today. There is a surprising amount of debate about the validity of one variation over another but honestly, any circle of colour that presents a logically arranged sequence of colours and hues has merit.
There are also categories of colour based on the basic colour wheel, basically divided into three parts.
Primary Colours: The primary colours are easily the most common and make up the foundation of the world around us in terms of colour. The primary colours are red, yellow and blue and cannot be mixed using any other colours. The primary colours, however, make up the rest of all the colours we see and use.
Secondary Colours: At its most basic form, colour theory tells us that if we mix equal parts of two primary colours then we will create green, orange and purple. These are your secondary colours and are thus made using the primary colours as a base. However, depending on the paint you use and the quality of the pigment, it may take a higher ratio of certain colours to create a true middle tone. For example, in many brands of paint, yellow is a weaker pigment. Therefore, an equal ratio of yellow and red or yellow and blue is more likely to be influenced by the stronger pigment of red and blue so you would need more yellow to balance it out.
Tertiary Colours: A tertiary colour is an intermediate colour and is a step between a primary colour and a secondary colour. It’s made mixing a higher ratio of one colour over the other. Another easy way to look at it is by mixing an adjacent primary and secondary colour together, you will end up with the tertiary colour. By adjusting the proportions of the primary and secondary colours you can create a wide range of subtle colours. Essentially you can further versions for the tertiary colours by repeatedly mixing each neighbouring pair until you have a seamless, continuous transition.
Something else to consider is that the particular hue of your colour is important. There isn’t only one option in terms of a shade of yellow, for example. For example, The colour blue has many many variations even as a primary colour. We obviously have primary blue but ultramarine blue, prussian blue or pthalo blue are all different iterations of the same colour. So the particular hue of your primary colour will influence the outcome of your mixed colours, whether they’re secondary or tertiary colours. These differences may be subtle but it’s important to know that they will happen and how to predict the outcome. The best way to learn this is to practice and experiment but make colour charts for yourself in a small notebook or make colour swatches as you’re painting and take notes of the colours mixed and the ratios that you’ve used to get there.
So with these primary factors taken into consideration, what we are going to look at now is how to apply these colours to your artwork and everything you can do with colour theory as an artist. First, we need to look at colour harmony and what that means. Harmony itself is an arrangement of pleasing parts, whether it be music, poetry, colour or even a platter of cheese and dried fruit. In a visual sense, harmony is something that is then pleasing to the eye. It creates a sense of order, a balanced visual experience and is pleasing to the eye. If something is not harmonious it’s either boring or just chaotic. Harmony has to be something that is not extremely overworked, otherwise, it isn’t stimulating but extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony should be dynamic.
Colour Formulas for Visual Harmony
Complementary Colours: Diving even deeper into colour theory, we come across one of the most important parts of colour mixing. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. In their most basic form, they are a primary colour and a secondary colour that is made by mixing the two-remaining primary colours. This is a small formula to remember if you tend to forget what the complementary colours are. So let’s look at red as an example. Because red is a primary colour, its complementary must be a secondary colour. Both orange and purple can be made using red, therefore green must be complementary to red. Therefore, blue is also opposite orange and yellow is opposite purple. These are the core complimentary colours but in essence, you could take any subtle variation of a colour and find its complementary but locating it on a colour wheel.
So now that we have covered the basics of mixing to create every colour under the sun, we have to think about how to make these colours lighter and darker. In colour theory, this is called making a tint or a shade. A tint is a colour that appears lighter so we would add various levels of white to create a spectrum of true colour to white, true colour being a primary, secondary or colour. A shade is a colour that appears darker, so we have to add black to get those darker tones. A tone is a colour that has grey added into it to create a more subtle variation of a shade or a tint. Toning a colour neutralizes some of the brightness of a colour without taking it too far down the shade or tint scale.
How to use the power of colour in your art
The power of colour is both emotional and practical. On an emotional level, colour can affect how someone feels when they look at your art, whereas on a practical level it can help a painting or artwork stand out from a crowd. Certain colours can evoke certain emotions and the colour tone of a painting can determine the mood that your painting sets. For example, red can symbolize many different things. It can represent fire, danger, passion or blood and is a bold, energetic and powerful colour. Green. on the other hand. has very different connotations, Green can represent nature and the environment and thus, in turn, the idea of growth and organic, natural senses. However, it is also the colour of envy, which has entirely different connotations. A mood of the painting can be cool, warm or neutral, In essence, warm colours are reds, some browns, yellow, orange, or earthy greens. Cool colours are blues, greens, non-red browns, blue-toned purples, amongst many others. The tone of your painting can determine how someone feels when they look at your work. The www.arttherapyblog.com/ has a really great post with a more in-depth break down of each colour. Check it out here!
The world of colour is massive and you could dedicate your whole life to studying colour and still be amazed by what you learn. The real fun part is just experimenting and learning as you go. Make colour swatches as you paint, take photos of things that you like the colour of and just see what works for you. Remember that the colours you choose affect the overall feel and mood of your paintings and it can be hard to choose a theme or colours for your artwork. So, check online for some ideas but here are a few websites to start with!