Let’s Gogh: Understanding color theory

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From baking bread to going on hikes to morning yoga, people everywhere have been picking up new hobbies to pass the time during quarantine. As someone who has spent my entire living memory taking art classes, I’ve received a flurry of texts this month asking for art advice.

My whole life, I’ve had people tell me they wish they were good at art, but they aren’t “talented” like me. But I’m here to break that stigma: I don’t think people are born naturally good at art. It’s something you get better at with practice, just like any sport or instrument. But if you never try, you’ll never learn. Thus, I’m here this week to walk you through some basic color theory. Check out my first part on how to draw here.

As a note, I talk a lot about paint here, but these theories can be applied to pastels, colored pencils and virtually any kind of media.

THE BASICS


Understanding the basics of the color wheel is the first step to becoming a bonafide artist.  Photo courtesy of Linda moving ahead on Flickr. Thumbnail photo courtesy of    Callum Hill    on    Unsplash   ,

Understanding the basics of the color wheel is the first step to becoming a bonafide artist. Photo courtesy of Linda moving ahead on Flickr. Thumbnail photo courtesy of Callum Hill on Unsplash,

The color wheel: Real quick, let’s remind ourselves of the color wheel. The primaries are red, blue and yellow. By mixing those together, you get the secondary colors: orange, green and violet. If you mix a primary and secondary color together, you get a tertiary color. These are named in a primary-secondary color format, like yellow-green, red-orange, blue-violet, etc. Add white and black to your palette, and you can pretty much mix any color you need.

Mixing brown: To create the color brown, mix any opposing colors on the color wheel. Orange and blue, red and green or yellow and purple all make the color brown. 

Shading and toning something down: Using the opposites on the color wheel also works for shading and desaturating colors. If your red is way too vibrant and doesn’t look natural, you can tone it down a bit by adding a bit of green. This also works for shading. If you’re shading an apple, the darker parts of the red could be mixed by adding that green. 

Mixing with white: White paint will make your color lighter, but it will also desaturate the color. It takes away some of the pigment, so the only way to get that back is adding some of your original color again. Think about it this way: Adding white to red makes pink. We consider this an entirely different color from red, so it isn’t always the way to go if you need to lighten up your color. For example:


Mixing various tones with red is the key to achieving the shading of this rose.  Photo by    Carlos Quintero    on    Unsplash   .

Mixing various tones with red is the key to achieving the shading of this rose. Photo by Carlos Quintero on Unsplash.

The lighter red areas on this rose wouldn’t be made by adding white. Instead, they’d be made by mixing some yellow in to make a more red-orange color. 

Using black: It can be super tempting to try to make a color darker by adding black, but be wary of it! Most blacks have a blue undertone, so a lot of your colors will end up looking purple. Black is also a very flat color, and most shading we see in real life isn’t actually black, so it will take away a lot of the realism in your work. Shade using the opposites on the color wheel instead; your art will look much more dynamic.

“Straight from the tube”: This is an expression in art. Typically, you should never be using colors straight from the tube. Don’t simply pour out blue paint and throw it on the canvas and call it a sky. Pay attention to color matching! Add some white to lighten it up and take away some of the pigment. Is the blue too unrealistic and bright for a sky? Does it need a little orange to tone it down? 

Green: Green is the most important color to never use straight from the tube. The greens we see in nature are often muted, whereas green paint comes out looking super bright. You wouldn’t color a tree with a highlighter, right? I’d suggest either mixing your own each time or adding a little red to your green paint. Either way, pay attention to the color you need and try your best to mix it.

PRACTICE EXERCISES

The color wheel: Here is a printable color wheel you can fill in. Whether you’re painting or using colored pencils, challenge yourself to only use your primary colors to fill it in. 

Swatching: Whether you’re using colored pencils or paint or anything else, I recommend swatching. No matter what media you’re using, you’ll likely have several different versions of each color. Start testing what colors you get when you mix different combinations and label them with which colors you used. What’s the difference in the orange you make when you mix crimson red and sunburst yellow versus the one you make when you mix scarlet red and yellow ochre? Compiling a massive chart will help you later when you’re trying to figure out exactly what combination of colors you need to create the color you see. Eventually, this will become second nature. 

Brown object: This is a project they made me do in high school: They made us draw a brown object, but took away our brown colored pencils. So, your task is to draw or paint a composition of a brown object without using a brown pencil or brown paint. Mix it yourself! Refer back to your swatches to see which browns to use in different areas. Is one of your browns more suited to the shadows you see? Is another more suited to the highlighted areas?

Related Content:

Let’s Gogh: How to draw and understanding the basics


Courtney Gavitt is the digital editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at courtney.gavitt@uconn.edu.

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