• Wendy Barratt

Red and yellow and pink and green...

Understanding how to mix all the colours of the rainbow... and more!


So sorry about the radio silence on the blog front... I got a but side-tracked... but I'm back and raring to go on a few posts about colour!


We have never seen so many wonderful rainbows appearing at our windows and so taking this theme, this is the first of a series of blogs on the art of colour mixing - starting with an understanding of the basics. Once you have grasped this simple concept, you will be able to mix almost ANY colour you want from just a few tubes of paint. Although it is easy to order paints online, if you have a set few tubes of paint, you always have the option of mixing your own whilst you're waiting for the postman to arrive!


I learned this simple theory many years ago and for me it was a real light-bulb moment and has served me well ever since.

A primary colour is a colour which cannot be made by mixing other colours together - they are Cyan, Magenta and Primary Yellow. From these three primary colours we can create three secondary colours: Green, Orange and purple.

Cyan + Yellow = Green

Magenta + Yellow = Orange

Cyan + Magenta = Purple

By changing the balance of these mixes, we can then create tertiary colours. Please look at the colour wheel below and if you happen to have these three colours, do have a go at making your own colour wheel. It may look simple but by actually MAKING one, the theory of colour mixing will start to register. Keep your colour wheel to hand whenever you are painting as it will come in VERY useful as colour mixing often goes against our natural instinct.


The colour wheel below shows the three primary colours, cyan, magenta and yellow (marked with the number 1), three secondary colours, purple, orange and green (marked with the number 2) and six tertiary colours which have various names but essentially are: plum, ultramarine, viridian, leaf green, cadmium yellow and vermillion.



Look at your colour wheel and notice that colours next to each other all harmonise with each other. You will also see that one side of your wheel has warmer colours and the other cooler colours. Also notice that ALL of the colours on your wheel are pure rainbow colours and that each colour is made up of either just one pure colour or two colours mixed together, NEVER all three.


Which brings us on to the subject of complementary colours. Complementary colours bring out the inherent qualities of each other. This means that an orange will look oranger when placed next to a blue and visa versa. This applies to all complementary colours. On a colour wheel it is simple to find a colour's complimentary colour - just look for the colours placed exactly opposite each other... for example, magenta and green, yellow and purple etc.


Keep these complimentary colour relationships in mind when making a painting as you can intensify a colour by placing it's complementary colour right next to it.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889


Van Gogh's portrait above, shows how he used a combination of blues and oranges - the blue pushing the orange hues of the face forward giving a very striking and dramatic effect. Look at other great works of art and look for clever uses of complementary colours.


But what if you don't want to use a pure colour which appears on your colour wheel? Most colours in nature are a de-saturated version of a pure colour and most students just starting out in mixing colours tend to immediately grab a tube of black paint to darken a colour. Remember, black is a colour and it tends to have a blue hue... Black WILL darken and dull a colour but it will change the integrity of the original colour. For example, if we wanted to make a yellow darker and added black, it would make it a dark, dull green.


But what if you wanted to mix a nice rich earth colour - a yellow ochre or burnt sienna or a deep green leaf colour?


We will take yellow ochre as an example - it's nearest colour on the colour wheel is yellow, but it needs to be dulled without losing it's integrity. To do this, just add a small amount of it's complementary - purple!

You can see here how many intense, rich, earthy colours you can mix by just adding more and more purple. You can mix literally hundreds of these earth tones and one thing that makes them different from the colours on your colour wheel is that they contain a bit of all three of the primary colours. Yellow ochre is yellow + purple (magenta and cyan). By adding a third primary to your mix, you start to create an earthier or 'broken' colour. Look at the work of the Bloomsbury Group - their whole colour palette was made of earth colours - See the painting (left) of Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant in 1915.




Each mix using complementary colours will eventually become a neutral 'brown'. At this stage, mix in a bit of white and see what wonderful greys you can make.


When you take ANY colour on the colour wheel and add a tiny amount of it’s complementary colour, you will notice how the colour gets ‘knocked back’ or 'broken ' and dulls slightly whilst at the same time it keeps it's integrity and richness.


Just by playing with these three colours you will realise that you have the biggest box of paints in the world just in three tubes!


Go and have a play - it's a perfect lockdown therapy!!!


Next week I will show you how the primary colours, that we often have in our painting kit, fit into the colour wheel (Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue, Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow) With this knowledge you will know which blue, red or yellow to use in order to make your perfect mix!



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