Painting Lessons - Basic Paint Color Behavior
and Theory

To mix color you have to have a basic knowledge of color theory and a hands-on understanding of how paint colors behave with each other.  It is important to understand that when mixing paint, as you are creating a painting, you draw upon your knowledge of color theory and your understanding of how paint colors behave; however it is more of hit and miss and try again to achieve the right color.
Studying the color wheel below is a good place to start learning color theory.  The first thing you should note is the primary colors: Red, Yellow and Blue.

Primary Colors

Theoretically all colors can be mixed from these three colors.  However theory and practical application are very different.  If you were to ask what is pure yellow? I would have to answer “ the absence of red and blue”. The same would be said of pure red, it is the absence of yellow and blue and pure blue is the absence of red and yellow.  To simulate the primary colors in the color wheel below I used warm and cool hues of each color.  For primary Yellow I mixed Cadmium Yellow and Lemmon Yellow. Mixing Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson to create a primary Red and the Blue by mixing Phthalo Blue and French Ultramarine.

An example of why it takes two color red paints to achieve a color closer to a primary red, Cadmium Red paint is a warmer red as it has more yellow then Alizarin Crimson paint, which is a cooler red with a blue under tone. By adding them together in almost equal proportions you begin to nullify the yellow and blue in each resulting in a color that is closer to a primary red.

The idea of warm and cool color is critical to understanding color theory and practical application of paint.  It is important to have a basic understanding of color theory and to spend time mixing and experimenting with the paint you are working with.

Secondary Colors

The next thing you should notice in the chart is that between the primary colors are the secondary colors. If you look between two primary colors you will see a secondary color.  By mixing any two primary colors you will get a secondary color: Orange, Green, and Violet. 

Here is how it works; by mixing the following primaries you will create secondary colors:
Red and Yellow (primaries) = Orange (secondary)
Yellow and Blue (primaries) = Green (secondary)
Blue and Red (primaries = Violet (secondary)

Complimentary Colors

Another important aspect of color is to understand complimentary colors.  Complimentary colors can be found on the color wheel by looking directly across from one color to the color on the opposite side of the wheel.
The following are the basic complimentary color pairs:

Primary Colors Complimentary Colors
Yellow  Violet
Blue Orange
Red Green

Complimentary colors are very important in painting.  They can be used to increase the intensity of each other when placed side by side.  An example would be orange with its complimentary blue next to it, it will look much more intense then if surrounded by white.   Another important aspect is when compliments are mixed together they create rich neutrals or grays.  With a small amount of one mixed with the other you can achieve shadow tones.

Color Wheel

Color Wheel (Theoretical)

Below is an application of using complimentary color to create shadows. If you are painting a red apple you can create the shadow side by mixing a little green and a touch of blue with the red to create the shadow.

Still Life Painting by Edward Burke

Edward Burke
Still Life in John’s Studio – Oil on Canvas