We learn the color wheel as children. The most basic version of the wheel has the primary colors of red, yellow and blue and the secondary colors of orange, green and purple. We look at that wheel to see how secondary colors are mixed from the primary and to see the complimentary (opposite) colors.
To learn to mix color effectively we break down any color we see into these six colors. In this way we understand the composition of each color and how to use it in our artwork. For example, instead of saying “brown” we observe that the most dominant color in brown is orange and to make brown we would mix blue in with the orange. So instead of saying “brown” we say orange-blue (or as Jim Faber used to say “orangish-blueish.” It tells us how to mix the color. With much experimentation we learn how to compose color. With time we begin to recognize exactly how much of what color needs to be used.
It is absolutely necessary to have pure pigments or our color mixing will end up with muddy or grayed colors. While these colors are useful we won’t understand how they were made and how to mix the exact color we are trying to attain. In the “Introduction to Acrylics” post I explain the paint colors I use from Liquitex. No, I was not asked to do a commercial for this brand. I have just had such great success with it, that I prefer to use it because it’s colors are so pure. I’m sure there are many other fine brands.
Complimentary colors (the opposite on the color wheel) cause the juxtaposition of the two to create a real visual spark. Opposite colors sing when seen next to each other. This is something Vincent Van Gogh understood in a magnificent way. I have been told to see his later paintings in person in a museum setting almost hurts the eyes because the colors are so vibrant. “It pops” as we artists would say.
Speaking of Van Gogh, to grow in one’s knowledge of color, pick out a favorite artist’s work and really study what you see. Remember to really look at the color – not just what you “think you see.”