Primary Madness

Color theory — especially color-mixing — can make an artist crazy. At least it’s making this artist crazy, so I now present to you today’s painting, Primary Madness, an abstract made by using a variety of primary colors. In fact, this painting is made up of 9 different primary colors. No, wait. Make that 11 since I added two additional colors to my palette.

There are, of course, only thee primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. This is probably the first thing all of us learned about art back in our grade-school days. As artists, however, we become acquainted with ideas of color temperatures and we become familiar with different pigments, so that blue isn’t simply blue. It’s a cool blue or a warm blue. It’s phthalo blue, cerulean blue, ultramarine, or any one of a dozen other blues in the color family.

Recently I painted a blue abstract based on the “color family”, grabbing a variety of different blues — plus black and white — and brushing them onto a canvas panel. It was a very enjoyable experience.

In a somewhat similar manner, I had fun painting “Primary Madness”, using a variety of pigments from each of the primary color families. Going back to the idea of color temperatures, we know that reds and oranges are considered “warm” colors, but that we can have both “warm” and “cool” varieties. Blues and greens are referred to as being on the “cool side” of the color wheel, but again, we have both “warm” and “cool” pigments.  The color wheel below shows how the 6 basic colors — our primaries and secondaries — are divided into warm and cool.

Yes, yes, of course, you know all of this already, just as you also know that we get our secondary colors — orange, green, and violet — from mixing two different primaries. You probably also know that if we mix all three primaries together we get a nice muddy color, which is what also happens if we mix complementary colors, because by mixing complementaries (a primary and secondary) we end up with all three primaries together. I was so proud of myself when I figured that out a few years ago.

Now, here is where it gets both interesting and confusing. Once we’ve learned these basic color theory concepts, we have to deal with them, try to put them to use in our art and, ideally, know a bit about what we’re doing and why. Happily I’ve made it to this level, more or less. I’m aware that warm colors tend to advance and cool colors recede in a painting, although I’m still not at a level where I can fully use that knowledge. I’m working on it.

The color wheel below shows both warm and cool primaries — as well as a warm and cool green. Adding the green to this color wheel confuses the issue a bit since it’s not actually a primary color. In my painting exercise this morning, I used only reds, yellows, and blues. This is a helpful reference, though.

Now, I’m moving beyond warm and cool primaries.  I’ve encountered an even higher level in color theory and color mixing, and indeed it’s making me crazy. It’s the concept of neutral primaries. I can grasp the concept, but I have no clue as to the purpose. When, where, and why would we want to use a neutral primary?

neutral primary, you see, is made by mixing a cool primary with a warm primary. Doing this was the first part of my exercise this morning. Here are the primary “combinations” I laid out on my palette.

Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Red

Lemon Yellow and Cadmium Yellow Hue

Prussian Blue and Ultramarine

After painting a brushstroke or two with each — and truly seeing the color temperature differences — I followed the exercise instructions and mixed each set of primaries together for a neutral, a color that is neither predominantly warm nor cool.

My big problem here is that I did the how, and but I don’t know the why behind these neutral primaries. Is there a purpose in doing this? Is there a reason I might need a temperature-neutral primary color? Despite doing a bit of online searching, I haven’t come up with any answer to my question.

Of course, my color-mixing playtime didn’t stop with mixing neutrals, and here is where it all gets really crazy. With three varieties of each primary — a cool, a warm, and a neutral — the possibilities for creating secondary colors increases greatly. Instead of simply knowing that “yellow and blue make green”, I have to wade through nine different greens composed of various combinations of warm, cool, or neutral pigments! Yikes!

How do we make sense of it all? Well, there is a bit of science involved here, and it goes right back to what I wrote earlier about mixing complementary colors, or making mud by mixing all the primaries.

Each primary has a “bias”.

Cool reds have a blue bias.

Warm reds have a yellow bias.

Cool yellows have a blue bias.

Warm yellows have a red bias.

Cool blues have a yellow bias.

Warm blues have a red bias.

I’ll point out here that blues are always difficult to classify. There is much debate over which ones are cool and which ones are warm, and I can understand why now that I’ve learned about color bias. Both cool blues and warm blues will have a slightly warm bias, — either yellow or red — so what we perceive as “temperature” is quite relative. One blue might be “cooler” than another, but all blues will still have a bit of warmth.

So, in mixing, we look at not only the primary hue but also the underlying color bias. Using a warm red to create orange would work with a warm yellow because neither of these pigments contain a blue bias. If we try to mix a cool red or a cool yellow, we’re going to get a dull color because we’re actually introducing blue to the mixture — all three primaries are there.

For a clear green, we’ll need to mix a cool blue with a cool yellow, since neither of those has a red bias. And for violet, a warm blue mixes well with a cool red. So, yes, there is a rule here in color mixing. Look at the color bias and be sure your secondary color mixing doesn’t introduce all three primaries.

It’s actually helpful to forget about “warm” and “cool” and think instead of the color bias. So on my palette I actually had Red-Blue (Alizarin Crimson) and Red-Yellow (Cadmium Red). I had Yellow-Blue (Lemon Yellow) and Yellow-Red (Cadmium Yellow Hue.) I had Blue-Yellow (Prussian Blue) and Blue-Red (Ultramarine). It’s a different way of looking at my primaries, and for purposes of color mixing, this could indeed by very useful.

As for those “neutral” colors I made, I didn’t care much for them. I can see now why each looked a bit dull. Because of the color biases, there were small amounts of all three primaries in my mixes, even though I was mixing “red with red”, “yellow with yellow” and “blue with blue”.

Of course, by this point in my painting, my brain was screaming and the madness was setting in. I was slapping paint on an old canvas, mixing and blending colors, making lots of mud, and cackling with glee. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was fun!

I added two additional pigments, as mentioned earlier. I grabbed Naples Yellow — considered a warm yellow — and played with it. I hated everything I mixed it with! Mostly, though, I missed cerulean blue, which has become one of my “go-to” colors in art recently. So I grabbed it. It’s considered a cool blue, but by that point I didn’t care. My brain was on overload and I was going into experimental mode.

So I slapped on more paint. I added a bit of cold wax medium. I splattered on a bit of oil. I got out a scraper, played with a palette knife, and wiped a few places off with tissue. I turned the canvas from side to side. I made streaks with the brush here and there. I just played like some crazy maniac — which is exactly what I was at that point.

And, in the end, I liked my “Primary Madness” because it shows my adventurous side as an artist. There were no rules to what I was doing, nothing I could do “right” or “wrong”. Some places have very little paint left on the canvas. The paint is thicker in other places, but that’s part of the art behind this.

Gradually as I worked on this, I thought about design principles, and I tried creating aspects of balance, harmony, and rhythm. Finally, I decided that enough was enough. I’d learned a lot about color theory and especially about color mixing. It was time to step away from the easel and let my painting be what it was.

To me, it’s interesting. To me, it’s different. To me, it’s creative. To me, it’s artistic. As I’m moving more and more into this realm of painting for myself, I’m enjoying the art I’m making because I’m seeing my own unique approach to art coming out.


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