How to Make a Color Wheel—and 3 Other Color Exercises for Beginner Painters
The famed artist and Bauhaus professor Josef Albers was a color theory pioneer, having spent years of his life developing lessons to help elucidate the way colors appear and interact. He advised students to perform his exercises with pieces of colored paper, rather than paint. “Color paper avoids unnecessary mixing of paints, which is often difficult, time-consuming, and tiring,” he wrote in his 1963 handbook Interaction of Color. He continued: “This is true not merely for beginners alone.”
As Albers warned, mixing paint colors can be extremely tedious and frustrating––but for painters, it’s an essential skill. With practice, it can become a meditative, creative, and rewarding part of the painting process. So for those brave enough to begin stirring up hues, we’ve outlined four steps to improve your knowledge of color.
Learn the language
A page from Moses Harris’s The Natural System of Colors. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In order to understand color, you should learn its language. Every color, also known as a hue, has three qualities: saturation, temperature, and value.
Saturation describes how intense a color appears, or in color theory terminology, the level of chromas in a color. A highly-saturated red will be vivid and bright, whereas a less-saturated red will appear dull or washed out. Temperature refers to a color’s warm and cool qualities. Blue, green, and violet are typically referred to as cool hues, while yellow, orange, and red are typically warm hues. It’s important to keep in mind that within a given color, the temperature can vary significantly—for example, a green with blue in it is cooler than a green with yellow in it.
Value (or lightness) refers to where a color falls on a black-and-white scale—or how much black or white is mixed into a particular color. “If one took a black-and-white photograph of a Monet, you would see the value distribution within the colors used,” offers William Miller, a technical assistant at the Rhode Island School of Design.
By mixing a color with white, you produce a tint; by mixing a color with with black, you produce a shade.
Pigment, the physical material that creates color in a paint, has many unique qualities, too, such as transparency and tinting strength. Transparency refers to how thin or opaque a paint is, and tinting strength refers to the power of the pigment that is in a paint. For example, a dab of Phthalo Green, a hue with a high tinting strength, will dramatically alter the color of a large amount of zinc white, a hue with a low tinting strength.
Begin with a limited palette
Image courtesy of Jo Sittenfeld/RISD.
Miller suggests that beginner painters start with a limited palette, or simply just the primary colors. “There is no substitute for starting with a limited palette, and experiencing the range of capabilities of that limited palette,” he says. “It is a base upon which you can build.”
When you look at tubes of paint, some will be single-hued, while others will have multiple hues. For example, a tube of Cobalt Blue is single-hued, whereas a tube of Cobalt Blue Hue is a mixture of seven pigments, such as Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, and Zinc Oxide White.
“I’ll hold up a tube of Cobalt Blue to my students and say, ‘This is organically grown blueberries,’” Miller says, “and then I’ll hold up a tube of Cobalt Blue Hue and say, ‘This is artificially-flavored blueberry syrup—it’s not the real deal.” While buying multi-hued tubes may be convenient later in your painting career, they’ll do little to help your color-mixing education, so start with a few single-hued tubes.
For more experienced artists looking to take the next step in understanding paints, simply flip the tube over. The back of every paint tube lists what pigments are inside. Instead of listing a familiar hue’s name, like Alizarin Crimson, it will include a code, made up of numbers and letters; in this case, PR83.
Make a color wheel
Image courtesy of Jo Sittenfeld/RISD.
Making a color wheel is a tried-and-true method for learning about the visual color spectrum. The visual color spectrum typically refers to the six colors that we see in a rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet—and a color wheel is a circular representation of that. A color wheel can be used as a visual learning tool for understanding the relationships between hues, and their individual attributes.To create a basic color wheel, draw a circle onto a piece of paper, canvas, or board. Then, use a ruler and pencil to divide the circle into six sections. Paint three of the sections with the three primary colors––red, yellow, and blue––leaving a triangle empty in between each of the colors. Then, fill in the blank spaces with the secondary colors—orange, green, and violet; place orange between red and yellow; green between blue and yellow; and violet between red and blue.
These colors are called secondary because they can only be created by mixing two of the primary colors together (i.e. mixing yellow and red creates orange; mixing yellow and blue creates green; and mixing red and blue creates violet). You can either mix your colors with a brush, or another tool such as a palette knife. If you choose to mix with a palette knife, you can blend the colors together with the knife’s tip.If you’d like to expand your understanding of color even further, make a color wheel with 12 sections. Begin this color wheel by adding the primary colors, leaving three blank sections between each one. Then, place the secondary colors in the middle spaces between the primary colors. Next, mix secondary colors with primary colors to create colors to place in the empty triangles. For example, mix orange with red to create a red-orange, and then mix orange with yellow to create a yellow-orange.
This more detailed color wheel can help you visualize a wider range of colors, and will strengthen your knowledge of different hues and their properties. If you really feel like challenging yourself, split up the wheel into even smaller sections; the more sections, the more it begins to resembles a continuous spectrum of color.
Image courtesy of Jo Sittenfeld/RISD.
Once you’ve started to get a handle on the relationships between hues and their individual attributes, it’s time to put those colors to use in an artwork. When you’re mixing your own colors, it’s helpful to keep a few rules in mind:
- Always mix strongly tinted hues into weakly tinted hues. For example, it takes less black to tint white than it does white to tint black. So if you take a moment to consider your paint’s tinting strength before applying it to the palette, you’ll end up wasting less paint.
- If you’re using acrylic paint, it will dry significantly darker than it appears while wet. To make sure you are achieving the correct value, plan ahead and mix colors so that they are slightly lighter than you’d like them to appear in your piece once it is dry.
- If you’re trying to make a hue darker, it’s not always to your advantage to do so with black. Instead, try mixing complementary colors (orange and blue, yellow and purple, red and green) to achieve deeper colors. You can even create a subtle array of blacks just by combining Ultramarine and Burnt Umber.
- Limit your use of white. Miller cautions artists against using a lot of white in color mixing, as it can easily disrupt a color’s saturation and value. “People mix a lot of white into their paints to try and extend the volume of their paint,” he explains. “But it’s better to take it easy on the white and to just mix more of a saturated color, and begin to deploy that.”
Most importantly, the best way to become adept at color-mixing is to be patient with yourself as you embark into the complex world of color. As Miller puts it, “One needs to experience each and every pigment’s relationship to all of the others in order to learn how to mix in your own way.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified William Miller as a professor of color at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a technical assistant.