My approach to color begins with the idea that every color on the color wheel can be mixed from the three primary colors?red, yellow and blue. Secondary colors?orange, green and violet?result from mixing two primaries. And tertiary colors?such as blue/green, blue/violet and yellow/orange?result from mixing one primary and one secondary color.
As my first step toward passionate color, I group all of the tube colors as one of the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. For example, if a tube color looks “reddish,” I call it red. With that in mind, opera, permanent rose, alizarin crimson and cadmium scarlet are all primary reds. Cobalt blue, French ultramarine blue, Winsor blue, peacock blue, turquoise blue, blue-gray and neutral tint are all primary blues. And cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, cadmium orange, Naples yellow, burnt sienna and burnt umber are all primary yellows. Of course, many of these are pretty far from what we think of as a primary color, but this approach lets me come up with some very interesting, creative secondary and tertiary mixtures.
Along with color theory and a knowledge of the color wheel, you also need to understand the personality traits of the pigments you1re using. A critical note here: each tube primary on the market contains a little of one or both of the other two primaries. The purest primaries on the market contain only one of the other primaries. For instance, scarlet lake is a relatively pure primary red because it contains only red and yellow; opera is a relatively pure primary red because it contains only red and blue. Likewise, French ultramarine blue is relatively pure because it contains only blue and yellow. These relatively pure primaries produce the brightest secondary and tertiary mixtures.
Conversely, the relatively impure primaries contain all three primary colors and yield varying degrees of neutralized secondary and tertiary colors. For example, many artists think of Winsor red as a true primary red because it looks like what we visualize as red. But Winsor red includes both blue and yellow in its makeup. Those two colors produce green?the complement of red. Because of this, Winsor red is slightly neutralized, making it difficult to mix bright oranges and violets with it. This isn1t to say that one pigment is better than another. On the contrary, the lesson here is simple, if you want bright mixtures, use the relatively pure primary colors; if you1re after a more neutral look, use the primaries containing all three colors.
Joanne Moore is managing editor for The Artist?s Magazine.