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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #2

A WHEEL OF COLOR

Starting with rock-bottom basics, make a color wheel. The though of this probably takes you back to sixth grade. But, let me tell you that I have often had very advanced students who could not even explain to me the elements of the color wheel! This is insane. After all, some of the best minds in human history have delved into color wheels -- for example, the great English physicist and mathematician Issac Newton and the German poet and scholar Johann Goethe.

 


What is the purpose of constructing a color wheel? Simply put, to set in your mind the structure of color. The three primary hues -- yellow, red, and blue -- are the basic building blocks of color. Theoretically, all other colors are derived from these three. Next come the three secondary hues -- orange, violet, an green -- born of primary colors. And then follows the third generation, the six tertiary (level three) hues -- yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green. The color wheel has a total of twelve hues, arranged like the numbers on the face of a clock.

Use your colored pencils to match the color wheel to the right (you will likely need to follow the colors according to the ones listed in the small wheel . The colors are not accurate on the web). Bear down hard with your colored pencils to produce the most intense hues possible.

Those of you who know color wheels will see that I have used the usual order for colors on the color wheel. I believe this is the correct placement in terms of the complicated crossover system of the brain, the visual system, and the language of art.

The left side of an image is addressed by the dominant right eye, which is controlled by the left hemisphere (stay with me on this one; it is complicated!) In the language of art, the left side of an image carries the connotations of dominance, aggression, and forward movement. The right side, scanned after the left side, is addressed by the left eye, controlled by the right brain. The right side of an image, in the language of art, carries the connotations of passivity, defensiveness, and blocked movement.

In this zig-zag fashion, the left hemisphere, right eye, and the left side of the color wheel are linked to the sun, daylight, and warmth -- and also to dominance, aggression, and forward movement. Conversely, the right hemisphere, left eye, and right side of the wheel are linked to the moon, nighttime, and coolness -- and thus also to passivity, defensiveness, and distance. Most color wheels are oriented in this fashion, apparently purely on intuition.

The purpose, then, of constructing the color wheel is to set in your mind which colors are opposite each other on the wheel. Blue is opposite orange, red is opposite green, yellow-green is opposite red-violet. These opposites are called complements. The root of the word "complement" is "complete." Perceived in proper relationship, complements seem to satisfy the needs of the right hemisphere and the visual system for completion.

You can use your color wheel to practice determining which hues are complements. This knowledge should be learned so thoroughly that it becomes as automatic as 2+2 = 4.

AN IMPORTANT POINT: have confidence in your color choices! Guided by some basic left-hemisphere knowledge of the structure of color (for example, the use of complements), your right hemisphere mode will know when the color is right. Within the guidelines, follow your intuition. Try out hues on a scrap piece of paper. Then say to yourself, "Does this feel right?" and listen to what you feel. Don't argue with yourself.

Bear in mind that color most often "goes wrong" when students without knowledge of color use too many hues. They often throw together a variety of hues, chosen at random from the color wheel. Such combinations are difficult -- if not impossible -- to balance and unify, and even beginning students sense that something isn't working. I encourage you to use a limited palette until you have a wider experience with color.

Having said that, I will reverse the thought and suggest that at some point, you may want to go wild with color, throwing everything together to see what happens. Buy a sheet of brightly colored paper and use every color you have on it. Create discordant color. You may be able to make it work -- or you may like it in its discordant state! Much of contemporary art uses discordant color in very inventive ways. Let me emphasize, however, that you should attempt discordant color by design and not by mistake. Your right hemisphere will always perceive the difference, perhaps not immediately, but over a period of time. Ugly color is not the same as discordant color. Discordant color is not the same as harmonious color.

LET'S DO AN UGLY CORNER IN A CITYSCAPE

Now let us try a cityscape. Go out and find a truly ugly corner. (Regrettably, ugly corners are all too easy to find in most of our cities.) Using the perceptual skills of seeing edges, spaces, and relationship of angles and proportions, draw exactly what you see -- including signs, lettering, everything -- placing great emphasis on negative space. One of the great paradoxes of art is that subject matter is not of prime importance in creating beauty.

Read the following directions before you start:

Find your corner, the uglier the better.

Sit in your car to do the drawing, or use a folding stool to sit on the sidewalk.

You will need an 18" X 24" board to draw on, and an 18" X 24" piece of ordinary white paper. Draw a format edge about an inch from the edges of the paper. Use a pencil to draw the cityscape. A viewfinder and a transparent grid will help in sighting angles and proportions.

Draw negative space almost exclusively to construct the drawing. All details, such as telephone lines, lettering, street signs, and girders, are to be drawn in negative space. This is the key to success in this drawing. Remember that negative space, clearly observed and drawn, reminds the viewer of that for which we all long -- unity, the most basic requirement of a work of art.

When you have finished the drawing, return home and choose a piece of 18" X 24" colored paper or colored cardboard. Transfer your on-site drawing to the colored paper, using carbon paper or graphite transfer paper, available in art supply stores. Be sure to transfer your format edge to the colored ground.

Now color it with a complementary arrangement. Choose two colored pencils that harmonize with your colored paper, one dark and one light. Allow the tone of the paper to be the mid-tones. This will provide a satisfying color scheme because the color is balanced.

LET'S EXPAND A BIT

We have explored complementary color schemes. Two additional ways of arranging harmonious color are monochromatic schemes and analogous schemes.

Monochromatic color, meaning variations of a single hue, is an interesting experiment with color. Choose a colored paper and use all the pencils you have in hues related to that color.

Analogous color is an arrangement of hues close to one another on the color wheel -- red, orange, and yellow; blue, blue-green, and green, for example.

MOVING ON TO A PASTEL WORLD

Your next purchase should be a set of pastels, which are pure pigments pressed into round or square chalks using a minimum of binder. You can buy a basic set of twelve chalks (ten hues plus black and white) or a larger set of up to one hundred hues. But be assured that the small basic set is sufficient for the exercises we will do here.

So run out and buy a set of pastels and I will meet you back here in a few days. We are now beginning to move into the really fun part of learning color. It will be exciting. See you...