Hi and welcome back. In the previous article we went through the basics of color theory. In today’s article we’re going to expand on them and discuss color in more detail through the concept of color wheel.
So what is a color wheel? It is a circular diagram of color hues illustrating the relationships between subtractive/paint colors and their mixing properties. In other words, it shows how the subtractive colors interact with each other when mixed.
If you read my first article on color basics, you’ll know what triads are. The main triad on the color wheel is the primary triad, consisting of Yellow, Red and Blue. These colors of the primary triad cannot be mixed from any other colors while all other colors can, technically, be mixed from them.
The secondary triad, consisting of Orange, Green and Violet, is a result of mixing the primary colors in pairs, that is yellow and red results in orange, yellow and blue in green and red and blue in violet.
Traditionally, there is a third triad, a tertiary triad. It results from mixing the secondaries in pairs. Resulting colors are then Citron (orange and green), Russet (orange and violet) and Slate (green and violet). Below you can see a very traditional triangular diagram that used to be used to demonstrate these relationships.
This is a very simple and effective thinking about color triads. However, from a modern standpoint, it is outdated and can be limiting. That being said, I find myself going back to this concept very often when I paint. You can see an example of a tertiary triad being used in a painting scenario below. Notice that I used secondary triad of orange, green and violet to produce a wide range of tertiaries. This subtle and fairly limited palette can be very pleasing and effective.
Moving on, let’s take a look at another color diagram. And this time we are going to look at a circular diagram, which is more in line with the concept of color wheel. Below is a basic color wheel as you might have seen it before. It shows the primaries and secondaries as the two main triads. Notice that the colors of the triads are always located equally apart from each other. In-between each primary and secondary you can find a number of “tertiary” hues.
One of the upgrades when compared to the triangular diagram is the expansion of our tertiaries. Notice that there’s a number of hues in between these two triads. Beside each primary there are two tertiary hues. These six tertiaries result from mixing one primary with one secondary color (or two primaries in unequal amounts), for example Yellow and Orange resulting in a Yellow-Orange. This term states that the color in question is an orange that leans towards yellow. These tertiaries effectively expand our expressive range, while keeping in harmony with the major chords.
The biggest upgrade, however, is in locating the color harmonies. Harmonies are going to be discussed in the next article and you’ll see there how the circular nature of the wheel helps in this regard.
Despite its improvements though I propose bypassing the classical circular color wheel shown above as well. The reason is that I find it to be quite limiting as a diagram, especially in explaining intensity and most importantly in regard to the position of actual paint colors. What’s more I find it quite insufficient in providing enough objectiveness and overview of the color spectrum and how it functions. It doesn’t give you enough context. In this respect I find it as limiting as the color triangle, although it is moving in the right direction.
And so the color wheel I propose using is shown above. It is naturally a circular diagram as well but instead it is open and tackles color placement within the circle as easily as on its outside.
The other change as compared to the common color wheel is the primary triad. On the common circle you can see the more traditional yellow, red and blue hues being used as primaries. I did this on purpose to demonstrate a point. On the common wheel you cannot determine whether these primaries are “correct” and how they stand in the context of the color spectrum as a whole. In other words there is no context. We are missing the bigger picture.
Therefore the strength of the modern color wheel is in establishing context. Bellow you can see illustrated two primary palettes. On the left is the modern primary triad that aligns with the CMYK concept, on the right is the still very commonly used primary palette used by artists today that consists of yellow, warmer red and warmer blue. While this palette is not faulty, per se, in modern color theory it is not considered a primary triad as you can judge yourself from the placement of its hues. This palette is, in fact, made up from one primary (Yellow) and two tertiaries.
What I want you to understand by showing you these examples is that the position of the primaries is given. And the colors that are located on the primary spots are, in fact, Yellow, Magenta and Cyan. We can move around on the wheel and locate the hues we want to use but we must accept that they are not primaries. As you can see above, if you were to use a warm red and warm blue as your primaries, which is very common, the color wheel clearly indicates that it is not a primary triad. Instead you use primary yellow, tertiary red-orange and tertiary blue-violet. While this may be a perfectly valid palette, it is not a true primary palette.
The concept of color wheel best represents and explains not only each individual color within each respective triad and their interactions but the spectrum as a whole and the relative temperature of all included colors. Temperature-wise the wheel is split into two parts, warm and cool. The diagram below illustrates the two sides of the wheel.
Colors from Violet to Yellow-Green are generally considered cool and colors from Red-Violet to Yellow warm.
However, if you read my article on warm and cool primaries you already know how temperature isn’t as straightforward as may seem. The article is solely focused on this topic and I highly recommend you to check it out. What it basically discusses is that even though colors from Violet to Yellow-Green are generally considered cool and colors from Red-Violet to Yellow warm, there’s always the question of context.
In absolute sense yellow is always warm and blue is always cool. This goes for other colors of the spectrum when we use general color names such as red, yellow, green, etc. On the other hand, when we judge a specific hue we need to get closer and be more specific in locating the hue within the spectrum and most importantly, establish a context. Therefore we say that a color is relatively cooler or warmer in comparison with another color. What this means is that, let’s say, a warm blue (say French Ultramarine) is indeed warmer than a cool blue (say Cerulean Blue), but the same warm blue is actually much cooler than a violet. So when placed next to a violet, the same warm Ultramarine appears to be a cool color, while next to a Cerulean it appears to be a warm color.
To help you picture these distinctions here’s an image illustrating how a warm blue (French Ultramarine) is perceived depending on the context.
High & Low Intensity Hues
Next I want to look at intensity as this is another aspect where the modern color wheel diagram shines.
As an example, let’s take a muted primary triad of hues that roughly correspond with the following paint colors: Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Indigo and see how the two circles illustrate the problem. As we know, these hues are muted, that is their intensity (chroma) is reduced.
First color wheel is the traditional circular diagram. On it we place the hues as our primaries and mix the resulting secondary triads as well as our tertiaries and get a pretty extensive palette. The diagram below then explains relationships of these three primary colors and their resulting mixtures.
What this diagram doesn’t show is the relationship between the full chroma hues and the muted ones. When we place the two side by side we cannot visualize their relative distances and their places on the color spectrum as a whole.
To answer these concerns one may do something like what we see on the diagram above. We have our bright primaries on the outside and our muted primaries on the inside. Often diagrams of color wheels illustrate intensity in similar way. However, I find it highly inaccurate. This kind of diagram does follow the basic principle that the colors on the color wheel lose intensity as they near the center of the wheel and are at their brightest on the outside, but it doesn’t do it too well as there is way too much inaccuracy.
Now let’s look at the modern color wheel and see how it deals with the hue placement within the circle. The highest intensity paint colors are located on the outside of the circle. Now notice how clearly the modern circle shows the position of the muted hues within the circle as opposed to the standard wheel, which gives no indication of their relative position within the color spectrum. On the other hand, the standard wheel has one upside and that is that it can readily show secondaries and tertiaries resulting from mixing the three primaries.
Now all I expect from this diagram is to help you visualize how the muted hues function in the context of the color spectrum as a whole. The common color wheel doesn’t give you any information as to the relevant position of the hues you’re working with. Yes, it helps you expand the palette and produce secondaries and tertiaries but it brings you this information without proper context.
In the end we need to remember that color wheel is just a tool that helps us make sense of color relationships. In other words, it organizes them into a system which we can easily read and use to organize colors properly. Some have naturally a very refined color sense more than others and can do without ever consulting color wheel to harmonize color well. Regardless of whether that’s you or not, understanding the concept of color wheel answers the whys and hows because color wheel gives form to the abstract, felt phenomenon that is color.
Paint Colors and The Color Wheel
Now that we established the idea of modern color wheel and how hues are positioned on it, you may wonder how one goes about finding the exact position of paint colors within the wheel. Fortunately, there are at least two resources that already did the work for our benefit. The first one is the website handprint.com. I highly recommend you to check it out if you want to study color theory in more depth in your own time. The color wheel below is directly linked to the website and is free for personal purposes, so you can visit the website and download it if you like (by clicking on the image).
I only show the “artist’s color wheel” here to illustrate the concept and to link students back to the website handprint.com, run by Mr. Bruce MacEvoy. The color wheel is in no way of my production and I take no credit for it.
The same goes for the the other resource I recommend, which is the Stephen Quiller Wheel. This one is not free but it is indeed priced very reasonably and I can only recommend it. There’s also a smaller version available that is included in (at least) one of Mr. Quiller’s books. I found mine in the “Color Choices” book and the book itself is a worthy read. The color wheel included is smaller than the one you can purchase separately but it works very well.
My general advice to a beginner would be to start with a limited palette of three primary colors and produce all other colors on the color wheel by mixing them. You need to learn to control your mixes and refine your perception of minute color variations. This way you not only learn to produce the basic range of colors of the color wheel with only 3 colors but improve your color sense in general. This is a challenging but very rewarding way to familiarize yourself with color.
Now basic limited primary palette of yellow, red and blue produces secondaries and tertiaries only by mixing the three primaries. Therefore there is a fair amount of consistency when you master this palette. However, most painters use a much wider range of paints, including premixed secondaries, often tertiaries as well. I personally use secondary paint palette of Pyrrol Orange, Dioxazine Violet and Phthalo Green. Intermixing these among each other as well as with the primaries (Winsor Yellow [benzimidazolone yellow], Permanent Rose [quinacridone PV19] and Winsor Blue [phthalocyanine PB15:3]) produces far different results and expands the variety of produced hues.
Therefore I recommend first working with the limited primary palette and then expanding your palette by including premixed secondaries. These six paints can produce a very wide range of hues covering a huge chunk of the color wheel.
The choice of your actual primary setup is, of course, up to you. You can read on the topic quite a bit but I find that the choice of the primaries is very personal and not at all absolute. Most certainly there are paints that provide the most versatility possible and as I said I recommend you to start with them. My primaries currently are Winsor Yellow (PY154), Permanent Rose (PV19) and Winsor Blue GS (PB15:3) which align very nicely with the modern primary triad discussed above.
I complement my palette with premixed secondaries of Phthalo Green (PG7) and Winsor Violet (PV23). These two are very deep and rich colors, both very low value so darks can be produced very effectively. They also mix extremely well with the rest of the palette. I also now use Pyrrol Orange (PO73) since I discarded Cadmiums from my palette. I’m not as happy with it as I was with Cad Orange but I’m getting used to it. And that’s pretty much my palette.
I hardly use any other paints. I almost never use earth colors, except Gold Ochre. (Though there are paintings where I only use earth colors but those are not part of my core palette.) I occasionally also use a touch of Pyrrol Red. For a long time I used Cobalt Blue as my primary blue but ceased the practice due to heavy metal toxicity and its mixing capabilities. Now I use Phthalo Blue as my primary and am in process of testing Prussian and Indanthrone Blue as my warm blue.
The one alternative color I use most often is Permanent Alizarin Crimson. That is for its darker value when I need a low value primary alternative, since Permanent Rose is middle value.
- Winsor Yellow (PY154)
- Permanent Rose (PV19)
- Winsor (Phthalo) Blue GS (PB15:3)
- Pyrrol Orange (PO73)
- Phthalo Green (PG7)
- Winsor Violet Dioxazine (PV23)
Notice that all the paints listed here are single pigment paints. I talk more about pigments in my article “How to Set up Your Watercolor Palette – How to Select Your Paints” and the reasons why single pigment paints are superior. In short, single pigment paints produce cleaner mixes because the more pigments we mix the more intensity we lose.
That all being said, once you are familiar with the general concept of color theory I personally encourage experimentation. I advise that you select your paints so you can produce mixes that suit your style, in other words, that work for you, in other words, that you like. It all depends on your personality and the way you think and work. There’s so many variations on each of the primaries that you can create an enormous variety of secondaries and tertiaries. The one thing to remember is that all mixtures you produce on your palette are tied to your selection of your three primaries. I don’t want to go into it too much here but I highly recommend you to check out my article on warm and cool primaries if you’d like to learn more. In fact, I recommend you to revisit the whole series “How to Set up Your Watercolor Palette” for additional info.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this article and found it beneficial. Please let me know in the comments down below if you have any questions or comments. Consider hitting that “donate” button and share with your friends on social. It helps a lot.
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