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Colour Properties

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Colour properties and colour theory when painting.

When the sun shines and it's raining we see a rainbow, the basic colours of which are - Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet (natures' palette). Traditionally, for convenience, these colours are arranged in a circle of six colours (Indigo is not used), to form a colour circle or 'Colour Wheel'.

Leaving aside the physical attributes of the paint, we need to look at its colour properties, in order to help us sort out colour for our painting.

When we talk of colour for our paintings we usually use the following terms - warm or cool, light or dark, bright or dull, strong or weak, contrasting or complementary. This in itself tells us something - in painting we are often looking for, 'an opposite, compared to another,' be it temperature, tone, strength, etc., this equals contrast. Contrast in some form, is usually what make a painting 'speak'.

Let's start by looking at some of the properties concerned with colour. The paint colour has a name to identify it, often referred to, as its Hue or Colour, i.e. red, yellow, blue. Red, Yellow and Blue are referred to as the Primary colours on the colour wheel.

Colours can be warm (red, orange, yellow) the overall feeling of the picture is warm poppy Or cool ( green, blue, violet) the overall feeling of the picture is cool panises in oils
this is referred to as the Temperature of the painting. This of course is also relative to the colour, you are judging each colour against, in your work.
geranium flowers Each colour has a Complementary colour -
that it's opposite colour on the colour wheel e.g. - red (warm) is opposite green (cool).
monochrome painting This painting is basically 'monochrome' - of the one colour.

When two complementary colours are placed side by side they Contrast with each other, the colours complement each other and seem to be more vibrant. Two complementary colours when mixed together form a greyed or Neutral colour.

It also has a Value or Tone, which is its apparent lightness or darkness in relation to another colour. Purple is darker than white and is said to have a lower value. Yellow is lighter than black and is said to have a higher value.

Chroma, Intensity or Saturation are words, that are often used, to indicate the brightness or dullness of the colour, you can have a bright or dull colour with the same intensity.

This can all seem very confusing, but these properties apply to colour whatever the media used. If you are having trouble with these properties, it could be a good idea to start with the Hue, Temperature and the  Complementary properties first, then move on to Contrast, Value and Chroma. It's much easier to take it stage by stage.

Traditionally the six colours have been divided into the three 'Primary' colours - Red, Yellow, and Blue, and three 'Secondary' colours - Orange, Green, and Violet. 'Secondary' because, by mixing two primary colours together they make another colour, classed as second in order.
Mixing a 'Primary' and a 'Secondary' colour together makes yet another colour, a 'Tertiary' colour, third in order, and so on.

This only works if you use a paint colour that is bias towards the colour being made, i.e., to make violet you would need to use a red that is 'inclined' towards violet, and a blue that is 'inclined' towards violet. Using a red or blue with a different 'leaning' will not result in a clear, clean violet.
Therefore to mix the three secondary colours you would need six tubes of paint; two yellows, two reds and two blues.

 As artists, it is perhaps better to work with the six main colours as having equal importance as far as colour mixing is concerned. Understanding the principals and properties of colour, helps us to decide what colour is to be used to express our feelings for the subject we are painting.

colour chartsSuggestion - take two primary colours, red and blue for example and make yourself a chart.
By mixing the colours together yourself you will learn far more than by reading about colour mixing.
Learn as much as you can, then put it into practice, this consolidates the learning.
Find out more about colour mixing on this page.

Copyright© Jacqui Blackman 1999


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