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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #10


Let's state at once that there's no such thing as a one-and-only ideal palette, that is, set of colors. Each artists must decide for himself which colors suit him, his subjects and his temperament best. Some artists use dark colors, others use mostly light ones. Artists' tastes also change in the course of years. It is, however, important to know what colors are generally accepted by professional artists as satisfactory in respect to variety, permanence, brightness, and covering power.

One point should be brought up. Manufacturers offer many shades which can be mixed from other colors, because there may be a demand for such extra colors by muralists or decorators. Such artists often have to do large panels and they need big quantities of certain colors. They find it easier, and more reliable, to buy such hues ready-made than to mix them.


Now here I am about to run into a problem. Those of you who have followed my lessons know that I advocate the use of a limited palette. Particularly for the beginning student, because I want the student to get to know paint and how to mix the colors. However, having said this, I also realize that once you have become familiar with your palette, you may want to extend your out-of-tube selection.

The three primary colors - red, yellow, and blue - are enough for the physicist, but don't suffice for the artist. How can an artist work without white? Even in transparent watercolor, where purists never employ white paint, they do use white areas - the white of the paper on which they work. There are some artists who think that black is not a color, but how can you obtain certain shades of colors without mixing them with black?

Long before Newton came forth with his theories of light and color, Leonardo da Vinci knew that philosophers considered white the receiver of colors and black as deprived of color, but he asserted that the artist needs six colors: white, the color of light; yellow, the color of earth; green, the color of water; blue, the color of air; red, the color of fire; and black, the color of total darkness.

The concept that earth is yellow, water is green, air is blue, fire is red, may sound naive to us, but Leonardo was fundamentally right in his view against the philosophers. Sir Isaac Newton had enough sense not to impose his theories on artists, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German genius, denounced Newton's ideas on color with the same blind fanaticism with which he expressed his admiration for Napoleon. According to Goethe, "Colors are a manifestation of light and dark. There are two fundamental colors: yellow, and blue; one is next to light, the other next to darkness. Red was produced when the two extremes were united." Best known as a poet, novelist, and playwright, Goethe was also a scientist and an artist. One wonders if, as a painter, he ever tried to obtain red by mixing yellow and blue! And what was the result, if he tried?

It's well worth remembering such historical arguments, because they prove what a chasm exists between artistic practice and scientific theory. Some artists do base their work on careful calculations, formulas, the belief in an established law that governs artistic creation and everything else in the world. But the vast majority of contemporary artists dismiss this academic concept, initiated by Socrates, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, who declared, about twenty-four hundred years ago: "Anything that cannot be measured, weighed, and calculated, is nothing. It certainly cannot be art."

His statement may be valid for the precise, idealized art of his own country and age. But who can measure El Greco, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Cezanne, or Picasso? Great artists don't follow prescriptions. They prepare their own formulas, if any, and the best of them change formulas, time after time. Theoretical knowledge is a sound foundation, but not the ultimate goal.

It's understandable that the painter, in whatever medium he may work, prefers a comparatively small set of colors. Where would he keep sixty oil colors? What size palette would he need for them? Certain artists preach the use of only the primaries, plus white; while others work with six colors: red, yellow, blue, green, white, and black.


The names, red, yellow, and blue, encompass vast territories of colors. There are two fundamentally different reds: crimson (a dark, cool red), and vermilion (a yellowish red of high brilliance). There are at least two very different yellows: a pale, or lemon yellow, and a deep, or medium yellow. A deep yellow mixed with white will never give you a truly bright light yellow; and a light yellow will lose its yellowishness as soon as you mix it with any darker color. It's difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to work without cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, and phthalo blue. Each of these has a noticeably different color, even though each of them is called blue.

It's hardly possible to describe the differences between these hues, just as one cannot describe the difference between three beautiful women whose hair, eyes, and complexions are alike. All you can do is tell their names.

A little experience also makes it clear that a ready-made orange is brighter, purer than any you might mix from red and yellow. It's much better and simpler to start out with a ready-made green than to mix it from yellow and blue. The same is true for pure violet. The subtle, but vital differences between colors of the same basic name come out most clearly in the mixtures, when you mix one color with another.


Although the basic principles of colors and mixing are identical in every painting medium, there are differences you ought to remember.


 Alizarin crimson Yellow ocher Chromium oxide green Cadmium red medium
Ultramarine blue Cobalt violet Cadmium orange Cobalt blue
Burnt sienna Cadmium yellow lt. Phthalo blue Ivory black
Cadmium yellow med. Phthalo green Titanium white

The above set enables you to mix any possible color and shade, except special chemical colors, such as
luminous and metallic ones. Such colors are not normally employed in the fine arts, but might be desirable, occasionally, in commercial art.

It should be noted that there are still artists who believe that black is not a color, and insists you shouldn't use it.


The palette for casein, tempera, and gouache is exactly the same as the one in oil painting. Names of colors, size of tubes are identical too, and so is mixing.


Watercolorists, using white paper, utilize the white of the sheet wherever white is necessary. If they make a mistake, they scrape or scrub it out, so the paper shows white. To lighten colors, they use water or a lighter paint.

Not every aquarellist is a purist. Many of them use white paint, but only for highlights, never for mixing. If they do use white, they buy only the finest possible kind. Nothing is more catastrophic than to use the wrong white, and to find, a few weeks later, that the pure white has turned gray, yellow, or pink.

With the exception of white, all the colors listed for oil, casein, tempera, and gouache are also needed in watercolor painting. Aquarellists, however, like to have twenty or twenty-two colors. The reason is that extra colors are easy to handle and to carry, because watercolors are small and light, whether you buy them in tubes, pans, or cakes. The more colors you have, the easier it is to work in this rather delicate medium.


Alizarin crimson Yellow ocher Chromium oxide green Geranium lake
Ultramarine blue Violet Rose madder Cobalt blue
Raw sienna Cadmium red med. Phthalo blue Burnt sienna
Cadmium orange Viridian green Venetian red Cadmium yellow lt.
Phthalo green Payne's gray Cadmium yellow med. Hookers green deep
Ivory black Gamboge (indian yellow)    


Poymer is a collective name for all plastic colors, regardless of their brand names.

Alizarin crimson Ultramarine blue Chromium oxide green Chromium oxide green
Cadmium red med. Cobalt blue Cobalt violet Cadmium orange
Phthalo blue Burnt sienna Cadmium yellow lt. Phthalo green
Mars black Cadmium yellow med. Hooker's green Titanium white
Yellow ocher      


Although pastel is not like regular paint - it's not applied with brushes, and doesn't dry the way you expect other paintings to dry - it's still considered one of the painting media. In exhibitions, it's part of the watercolor section.

Mixing pastels is possible and necessary, but a large number of colors is strongly recommended. You just cannot pile pastel up indefinitely, as in oil and polymer. You'd ruin the paper with too much rubbing, and the pastel powder would soon begin to roll off, because it's held only by the tooth (texture) of the paper. In other media, one layer of paint adheres to the other.

Whenever possible, work with exactly the right shade of the right color. Soft pastels come in assortments of twelve to two hundred and fifty colors; semi-hard pastels in packets of twelve to seventy-two sticks; other shades are available in your art supply store. The paper collar on each stick gives you the name and number of the color. Save these collars or jot down the numbers, so you can but what you need, without trying to figure out exactly what color it was. As a starter, you ought to have about fifty soft, and half a dozen semi-hard pastels.