Posts Tagged ‘primary colors’

Reconsidering the Color Wheel, Part 2

Friday, June 15th, 2012

In order to understand the pigments in my own watercolor palette better, I decided to chart my paints. I wanted not only to indicate the complementary pairs but to record gradations of intensity, carrying the color from one high-intensity hue, through the balanced gray, across the wheel to the high-intensity complementary hue. In the process, I had to correct some of my own erroneous assumptions, like the yellow/purple pairing.

Munsell style color circle

As I wrote last time, rather than relying on the old tried and not-so-true three-primary color wheel, I turned instead to the color theories of Albert Munsell.

Since not all the paints in my palette corresponded precisely with the major and minor hues in the Munsell circle, I chose those that seemed closest. I ranked similar colors outside the circle, roughly in order of hue, to help me better judge what each of their complements would be without having to chart my entire palette. Not having a single purple-blue paint to complement my Winsor Lemon, I combined Brilliant Blue Violet and French Ultramarine Blue to create the appropriate blend.

I did not use any ready-mixed gray in the color wheel but made a swatch of Payne’s Gray, outside the wheel, for comparison purposes. No black or white paint was used. If you want a list of the specific paints I used, send a request to

Reconsidering the Color Wheel, Part 1

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Most of us learned about the “triadic” color wheel back in grade school (though we didn’t go so far as to call it that). That’s the one that shows equally spaced primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—separated by secondary colors—orange, purple, and green. Because of this early and well-ingrained training, the concept of an alternative color chart can be difficult for some of us to grasp.

The Munsell color system, in contrast, spaces yellow, red, and blue at less regular intervals around a circle and includes purple and green as additional “major” hues located between red and blue or blue and yellow, respectively. Then, centered between each pair of these five hues is a “minor” hue that combines the two major hues that flank it. Hence, the Munsell circle reads: red, red-purple, purple, purple-blue, blue, blue-green, green, green-yellow, yellow, and yellow-red, which brings us back to the original red.

The Munsell color system is considerably more complex than this, incorporating value and chroma variations as well as hue to differentiate and identify specific colors. But you have to start somewhere, so I looked first at the most basic hues.

The Munsell color circle is particularly useful in identifying complementary hues that will produce a neutral gray. In childhood, most of us were taught that the complement of any primary color is the secondary color that appears directly opposite it on the color wheel. However, these pairs of complements don’t always produce a neutral gray when combined. Yellow and purple, for instance, made an orangey brown, not gray. I knew that in order to make a neutral gray the purple would have to be bluer to balance out the warmth of the yellow. The purple-blue indicated in the Munsell circle proved a much more satisfactory complement to yellow. So I have begun using the Munsell system to find truer complements for all the colors.

Next time I’ll write about how this applies to my own watercolor palette.

A palette to my taste

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Palette setup

Although my paint drawer includes several tubes of both primary and secondary colors, I find that I tend to actually use far fewer for any given painting. My clutch of most often used tubes includes two of each of the primary colors, three greens, two browns, and a purple. For each of the primaries, I prefer to have one at each end of the warm-cool spectrum, and (especially for blues) some options in between. The greens also include both warm and cool versions, but sap green is the only green I ever use without mixing in some other color to modify it. I rarely incorporate either black or white except when it is premixed into a multi-pigment paint or I need the black to achieve an extremely dark blend.

Whether I start with a warm-slanted palette or a cool-slanted one depends on my anticipated approach to the subject matter.

Occasionally, I include some other color, such as sepia, but most of the time my working palette is limited to only about six colors. Mixtures of these basic hues can create any variation I might need for a given painting. Maintaining a limited palette helps me ensure a sense of color unity throughout the painting.

The palette illustrated above includes, beginning at the lower left and moving clockwise, sepia, burnt sienna, [an unfilled slot available for an additional brown, such as burnt umber or brown madder], alizarin crimson, permanent rose, yellow ochre, [another open slot available for a additional yellow, usually new gamboge], lemon yellow, emerald green [though I might change this on occasion to a Hooker’s green], sap green, Winsor green (blue shade), indigo, Winsor blue (green shade), cobalt blue, French ultramarine blue, Winsor violet, and ivory black [though this spot may be opened up, also, for a different spur-of-the-moment choice].

I have also illustrated my most-used brushes, which include three #8’s (2 rounds—one synthetic, one sable—and a flat synthetic, which I use as a scrubber), a natural-hair sumi-e brush, a #30 synthetic, a toothbrush (for spatter work), a hake (pronounced “hah’-kay”) brush, a #2 Lizard’s Lick, and a #3 liner. The hake brush is used only to apply washes.

I always keep a sponge in the corner of the palette tray, as shown here, where I can wick off excess moisture from my brushes as I work. The same sponge can be used to wipe out the mixing tray after a painting has been completed. I rinse it out carefully and return it, still moist, to the tray. This helps keep the remaining paint in the cups from drying out too badly before my next painting session.

Because I tend to travel frequently and leave this primary palette at home, I do not use it every day and the paints and sponge both tend to dry out in the interim. That is why I don’t fill the cups as many other painters do. I prefer to work with the creamier consistency of fresh-squeezed paint, so I tend to squeeze out only what I expect to use in the next day or so, though I often leave any residue from previous days’ work in the cup. The exception is if the remaining paint in the cup has become contaminated with other colors by my failing to rinse the brushes adequately between colors. At that point I wipe out the offending colors, leaving as much as I can of the unsullied remainder.

If you liked this article, you may be interested also in my upcoming articles “A Traveling Studio,” “Selecting Paints,” and “Staying Out of the Mud.”