Color is perhaps the artists most important tool. Let's be honest, it can make or break even a well designed and composed painting. If the artist lacks quality color skills the finish product doesn't have that exciting, make me happy experience.
The best solution for curing most issues is to simply take the time and understand the basics.
Art schools will force students to spend months doing small studies with basic geometric shapes before considering to move into every-day subjects. And for good reason! It's necessary.
Self-taught artists get in such a rush to paint, paint, paint finished art. I'm guilty of that, too. It was a nasty cycle that ends in frustration, and usually taking some unnecessary time away from the easel just to cool off.
As a teacher to thousands of students I see it all the time. I have to admit it's like looking in the mirror but it still baffles me that one would disregard the fundamentals even-though these are skills that allow an artist to paint with freedom, style and a carefree attitude.
Create two color-wheel charts
There are two ideas of thinking when it comes to making a color-wheel. One is simple and only uses three primaries. The other is more complex as it utilizes six hues. Here's a quick look and breakdown.
Basic color-wheel using three colors.
Here's an example of a basic color-wheel using ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow medium and cadmium red light.
As you can see the secondary colors are just okay. The green has some gray in to while the violet is the same. That's because the primary hues used are all warm. I'm not saying you can't make some awesome art with this palette because you certainly can.
But you may want to understand how to create a more saturated and true green. Or, maybe you want the violet to pack more punch! And yes, you can have those things but not without understanding the difference between warm and cool hues.
Split primary color wheel
In this version I think you will agree the secondary hues are cleaner. That's because they have less gray, or neutral bias.
As you look at the chart notice the symbols used for the primary hues. There's a 'W' and a "Y' beside each other. They stand for warm and cool.
With a split primary color-wheel you have one each of a warm and cool primary. This means making the wheel with six hues instead of three.
It also means having more control over the results. As you can see the green is vibrant. The violet is more saturated and lively.
To make the chart I used the same three warm primaries as with the basic color-wheel chart and added Hansa yellow, phthalo blue and alizarin crimson for cool hues.
How important is color?
Color is right up there with basic drawing skills. Once you understand how to draw it's time to paint. If you want to hold a brush you need to address color. It's a natural progression for any artist.
I struggled with color in the beginning years but quickly realized I was making the same mistakes over and over again. That's when I put the brush and palette down and started to do some research.
To fix my issues I knew I had to face reality and that meant facing my muddy and overly colorful art. So, I took some tape and started hanging them around my creative space. I soon began to see exactly where I was going wrong.
The problem? I didn't understand basic color mixing!
Yes, I had seen the color-wheels and several videos that demonstrated how to create them but I always shrugged it off because I thought it was a bit silly to take time and create a few for myself.
Of course that was my ego getting in the way. And it happens to all of us. Needless to say I started experimenting with color-wheels (as seen above) and soon began to understand more about mixing colors.
I also began to observe more closely my subjects. I looked a bit deeper into the shadows and areas of sun-drenched light to see the hues and levels of saturation.
Then I started to realize the power of value and tone as well. Over a year, or so, of continued practice, and no I didn't do it every single day, I began to take more control over my artwork and more specifically; color and value.
Once I had some solid foundational color skills it was much easier to paint with freedom and confidence. It actually helped me achieve a new level of expressiveness because now I could manipulate colors much more than before.
Pushing the boundaries.
As I continue my creative journey I never stop experimenting with color. It's a powerful tool and no longer a thorn in my process. To experiment more I often convert my subjects/images to a grayscale. This allows me to think more arbitrarily. Color images can easily make my choices too stiff, or predictable. It's a contemporary approach but it's also solidified by the foundational skills I developed by simply taking the time to learn.
Below is an example of how that works. The left image shows the black and white used for the painting, the middle image is the final painting and the right image shows the flowers with color. You can now see how I used arbitrary colors and a more contemporary approach that focused on value and good colors control to paint the art.
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