Colors are essential to an artist. But you already know that.
As much as most artists would love to just choose any random color and get to painting, choosing the right color combinations is actually as much of a science as it is an art.
Because depending on the colors you choose, they have the power to create more depth and character in your paintings.
Certain color combinations can even evoke feelings your audience can experience, making your finished result that much more rewarding!
But to get that result, you’ll need to understand color theory basics. I know, I know it sounds complicated. I promise it’s actually pretty simple!
While I talk all about color theory in The Roadmap to Watercolor, I want to walk you through the most important concepts you should know about color theory and the color wheel to create watercolor magic!
What is color theory?
Color theory is a set of “rules” based on the effects that happen when combining certain colors together. These rules don't just apply to watercolor but are universal to almost every art form you can imagine.
You’ve most likely heard of the primary colors — red, blue, and yellow.
Mixing these colors can bring out an array of other colors with different tones and hues which creates the color wheel.
Which leads me to my next point.
What is the color wheel and how do you make a color wheel?
The color wheel is a tool based on color theory that shows the relationship between primary colors. And if you split the wheel in half, it can be divided into two sections: warm and cool.
First, you start with primary colors — the most foundational colors on the color wheel. If you mix all three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), you create a color that is very close to black.
However, if you mix different amounts of two out of the three colors, you get the secondary colors (green, purple, and orange).
And, by mixing a secondary color with a primary color, you get tertiary colors.
What are complementary colors?
Complementary colors are colors that are across from each other on the color wheel.
For example, color combinations like purple and yellow, blue and orange, red and green would all be considered complementary.
These are important to know because these color combinations create the most noticeable contract compared to any other colors on the wheel.
So if you’re looking to create colors in your painting with high color contrasts, complementary colors combinations could be a great place to start.
Why is there more than one type of red, blue, and yellow?
You see, I could just say that by mixing yellow paint with blue paint, you’ll always get green — but that’s not necessarily true.
That’s because there is no primary color that is completely pure. Or another way of putting it, every primary color is biased (either being cooler or warmer in nature).
Or ANOTHER way of putting it…every red, blue, and yellow color always leans toward one of the other two primary colors. So every time you see primary colors in your watercolor palette, you ALWAYS want to identify the bias.
The picture below explains it best:
With yellow you want to ask yourself:
Does this yellow have more blue in it? That means it has a cool bias and wants to turn green. (Or in other words, this yellow leans towards green because it’s closer to green on the color wheel)
Does this yellow have more red in it? That means it has a warm bias and wants to turn orange. (Or in other words, this yellow leans towards orange because it’s closer to orange on the color wheel)
With red you want to ask yourself:
Does this red have more blue in it? That means it has a cool bias and wants to turn purple. (Or in other words, this blue leans towards purple because it’s closer to purple on the color wheel)
Does this red have more yellow in it? That means it has a warm bias and wants to turn orange. (Or in other words, this red leans towards orange because it’s closer to orange on the color wheel)
With blue you want to ask yourself:
Does this blue have more yellow in it? That means it has a cool bias and wants to turn green. (Or in other words, this blue leans towards green because it’s closer to green on the color wheel)
Does this blue have more red in it? That means it has a warm bias and wants to turn purple. (Or in other words, this blue leans towards purple because it’s closer to purple on the color wheel)
Once you’ve figured out your primary color’s bias, what’s next?
Your job as the artist is to identify which primary colors and biases you need to mix for your desired outcome.
On the left color wheel, you’ll notice all the mixed primary colors lean toward the same bias. This is what causes the mixed colors to look bright, clean, and vibrant.
- The cool yellow and the cool blue both have a green bias.
- The warm blue and the cool red both have a purple bias.
- And the warm yellow and the warm red both have an orange bias.
As long as your primary colors have the same bias, your color mixture will look clean and vibrant!
However, with the right color wheel, all the mixed primary colors lean toward different biases. Each color wants different things.
- The warm yellow has an orange bias and the warm blue has a purple bias.
- The cool blue has a green bias and the warm red has an orange bias
- And the cool yellow has a green bias and the cool red has a purple bias.
The result is mixed colors that look dull, grey, and muddy. So again, the trick is you want to mix primary colors that have the same bias, if you want to create a vibrant color. If you need a more muted version of orange, green, or purple, simply use primaries that lean toward a different bias.
Easy enough right?
When should you use the color wheel?
Knowing the theory behind the colors gives you more control so you can achieve your desired color. The color wheel is a guideline you can use to play around and use any color combination that works best.
You can always use a color wheel when painting so you can refer back to it whenever you’re unsure of what color to use.
Interested in learning more about the color wheel and color mixing? You’ll definitely want to check out My Watercolor Mixing Cheat Sheet to give you an overview of how to take your mixing skills to the next level!
Or if you’re ready to go all-in on your watercolor painting journey, join The Roadmap to Watercolor course.
You’ll learn all about watercolor supplies. watercolor foundational techniques, color mixing 101, blending painting from a reference, and SO much more!
I hope to see you on the other side!