Practical Color Theory, Part 1
Red, a King Dethroned
The Whimsical work of Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939
Dawn of a New Year
Tackling New Media
Practical Color Theory, Part 1Behind the Art
by Melissa Acker
Well, here we go folks; a brand new column to start off the new year! You might think that color theory is boring, but I personally find that just playing with colors can be fun, and some of my favorite color combinations I've found just by playing around with paint.
In this article we're going to explore different ways of combining colors to create shadows. It's one thing to be able to recite the color wheel and the complements; it's another to actually know what that means and how to apply it with your materials. Sounds complicated? It's not really. Just stick around for a bit and I'll show you what I mean.
Basic color theory
First off, I hope everyone is familiar with your basic color wheel. The most basic you can get pretty much looks like this:
I know I know it's terribly un-even. Anyway... here’s a quick summery of the color wheel for those who may be unfamiliar. Clockwise from yellow: yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, red-violet, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange.
The primaries are the three colors that cannot be mixed by any other colors. They are yellow, red and blue. When you mix the three together, you get complete the color mix and get black.
The secondaries are the colors you get when you mix any two primaries together; they are green, violet and orange.
The tertiary colors are what you get when you mix a secondary color with the primary color next to it. They are yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-violet, blue-green, red-violet and red-orange. You'll notice the primary color is listed first in the name of the color.
And last for now, the complements are the colors opposite each other on the color wheel. The basic complements are yellow and violet, red and green, and bue and orange. When you mix a color with its complement, you are actually mixing all three of the primaries, and therefore you create black (in practice they will be greys, but you can get black if you make the concentrations dark enough).
So, knowing that, how might you go about applying it?
Putting it to work for you
Over the years, I've seen three basic methods used to make areas darker. They are:
I'm going to use all three methods, in two different mediums, to illustrate the differences between them. It should be noted that these are rough color studies and not finished paintings; in a finished piece I could use upwards of twenty-thirty colors!
First off, colored pencil! When working with colored pencils, I always layer, layer layer. I almost always do a layer of the local color last to bring the piece together and keep the colors from looking too stark. Colored pencil can get dirty looking pretty quickly when you're working with light areas, so be very careful.
So here's our little dragon! In this first series, the local color of the dragon is red. In this first example, I've used black for all the shading. I applied a layer of red, then black, then red on top again to soften the color. I left the red quite light in the light areas. What do you notice first off? Well the biggest advantage to using an actual black pigment is that your values can be very dark quite easily. No messing around here, the dark shadows are definitely dark. The next thing you might notice is that the color, particularly on the yellow wings, looks very dead and a little unappealing. Black unfortunately has this effect.
In our second example, I used first laid down a layer of red-orange for the light areas, then a layer of red to establish the local color. Next, a layer of red-violet for the dark areas, then more red on top to bring it together. I prefer to work this way in colored pencil, otherwise the difference between the colors can be too stark. So what's notable about this version of our dragon? The first thing I notice is that he seems to be glowing; the red-orange areas contrast against the red areas and it's very vibrant. The next thing I notice is that there is very little contrast in general; the dark areas aren't very dark at all. If I had been using a blue local color instead I might not have had the problem, but look at the yellow wings; the orange hardly darkens them at all!
Our third example, and done with the complements. I applied a layer of red, then green, and then red again to tone down the color. I find it very important to layer over the complementary color with the local color again. Otherwise it can look just awful. I used violet to darken the wings. What do you notice in this version? Looking at the overall value pattern, you can see that there is a fairly decent spread of values, ranging from light to fairly dark. Not quite as dark as black, but pretty close. The wings and scales are dark as well, but still vibrant and not dirty like the black made them look.
Well there's our colored pencil examples done. Let's move on to the watercolor ones!
Watercolor again has to be done in layers, but it's more for control than because that's the way the paint works. If you are comfortable working wet-in-wet and don't mind a very (very!) soft-feeling painting, you can work finish a painting all in one step; indeed some artists do! For this exercise I worked in about three layers each, mostly to build up value.
Time to play around with blue! Again, our first example is done with black pigment to create our values. The results are similar to our colored pencil example; the values are indeed quite dark, but also a little dirty, especially the yellow (yellow hates black; it hates it a lot). You might notice that the shading on the wings looks somewhat green; I think that the black paint I use must have some blue pigment in it, and when I mix it with yellow a slight greenish tint emerges.
Our second example; I used a blue-violet to darken the body and an orange color to darken the wings/scales. Look how beautiful the shadow on the dragon is! This is what we mean by a deep, brilliant color; compare it to the prior example and see which one you like better. On the other hand, the wings again have very little value; there's only so dark you can make an orange!
The last example for today. I used an orange color mixed with blue on my palette and applied the mix in a dark concentration. If I had just applied the orange on the dragon without mixing it first, it would have looked way too orange. The wings and scales were done the same way, with a violet color mixed with my yellow on the palette and applied on the paper. Now that shadow on the dragon's body is what we call a neutral; it has some color to it, but it's mostly a grey. It's not as dark as I could have gotten it (I used Windsor blue on the body; had this been an actual painting I would have some ultramarine and maybe Payne's Grey in the orange mix to make it really dark). That is what we mean by a beautiful neutral color; your eyes just want to look there and explore!
And now it's time to wrap it all up! So what did we learn?
Well we learned that it's very difficult to use black without it looking dirty and artificial. Now don't go throwing out your black paint yet, because there will come a time when that is exactly the effect you're going for! But in general black should be the lonely, rarely-used color on your palette.
What about using adjacent colors to add value? As we saw, you can get some very vibrant combinations using this method. Adjacent colors all get along well together. On the other hand, it can be restricting, and depending on the color, it can look flat.
You might have guessed that using the complements to shade is my favorite method; but it's also a time-honored one, used by traditional artists for a very long time. It can be tricky to handle, but every artist should get comfortable with them. It will make your work better! Neutrals are your friends!
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