Color Theory Ultra Basics

Color Theory: Ultra Basics!

I get asked a ton of questions about color theory from painters as this is a key area of painting where many people struggle. I cover it when I teach classes, not as a specific section, but throughout the entire class discussing color choices and why I pair certain colors together.

I just received a question from Chris Suhre who's followed me for a long time and asks for my advice periodically throughout the year. He just took a color theory class with Legion of the Cow and was surprised to hear they use complementary colors together for shading and wanted to know my thoughts on it.

I do use complementary colors in shading for most things. There are a few times when I don't. I also try to keep my shadows cooler than my highlights.

Now, some of you may be super confused right now. I can see the quizzical looks at the screen. Let's back up and explain a few things.

Color-the various visual perceptual properties in humans that result in individual categories of red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, etc.

Primary Colors-Colors that only occur in nature and can't be mixed into creation. Red, Blue, Yellow

Secondary Colors- results by mixing the Primary Colors together. Red + Blue = Purple, Red + Yellow = Orange, Blue + Yellow = Green.

Tertiary Colors-result by mixing Primary and Secondary colors together to get an intermediate step. The primary color name always comes first in the technical name. Red-Violet, Red-Orange, Blue-Violet, Blue-Green, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green.

Warm Colors-colors whose visual properties we associate with fire; Red, Orange, Yellow

Cool Colors-colors whose visual properties we associate with cold; Blue, Green, Purple

Complementary Colors

Now that we have some basic terminology down, let's discuss what complementary colors are. 

Most people think the word they are using is "complimentary" which means using praise to indicate you enjoy something. When someone is wearing a beautiful scarf you compliment them on their ensemble. However, the word we are actually using when discussing color pairing is "complement" which means the individual components make up a full set. You may think this is a knit pick but in reality it clears up a lot of confusion.

If that's the case, what are the components that go together? Two complementary colors make up the full set of primary colors. That means that in two colors you have red, blue, and yellow in the presentation. It is also the pairing of a warm color and a cool color.

Red is the primary complement to Green (Blue + Yellow)

Blue is the primary complement to Orange (Red + Yellow)

Yellow is the primary complement to Purple (Blue + Red)

A visual representation to understand complementary colors is to look at a color wheel. Pick out a color you like on the color wheel and then trace your finger to it's exact opposite. That is a complementary set of colors. 

Still with me? I hope you are ready to move on. Now we discuss how this gets applied to painting and shading.

Shading using complementary colors

For ease of following my examples please keep in mind when I paint I often start from my middle tone as my basecoat and shade down two or three times. I will write my examples using this sort of terminology to explain my process.

If I'm painting a surface bright red such as P3 Khador Red Base then I will use P3 Sanguine Base as my first shadow. It's a dark red that has a slight purple tone to it. Kind of like a dark magenta. The second shade is when I mix in the complementary color of P3 Cryx Bane Base which is a very dark green. When I mix Sanguine Base and Cryx Bane Base together they create a neutral color. The technical term for this resulting color is a "chromatic grey/brown". 

What happens is when two complementary colors are mixed together, the intensity of the pigments cancel each other out and create a very dark, neutral color that makes your shading look a lot more natural.

Another example, is if I use a rich blue for my basecoat such as P3 Cygnar Blue Base. Then I shade using P3 Exile Blue (a darker blue) and P3 Umbral Umber (chocolate brown). Now, you may be confused. We just established that blue and orange are complements. Where does the brown come from? If you have something like Photoshop or even MS Paint on your computer open it up and look at the color wheel on it. The orange section on the color wheel fades into brown tones. 

That means that Umbral Umber and Exile Blue are a complementary set. When I mix the two of them together they form a really dark grey. Almost black but not quite as intense or artificial as black.

Now, one area where I might not follow this rule strictly of using complements for shading is when using yellow. If you try shading yellow with purple you're going to have quite the headache on your hands. Most people try it and end up with a yucky mess. I know that's what happened when I tried it. My process with yellow would be basecoat with yellow like P3 Sulfuric Yellow, shade with an orange brown such as P3 Bloodtracker Brown and then add some dark purple (a custom mix) to the brown for the darkest shadow. Additionally you can also use something like Magenta (Red-Violet) to shade yellow but it will turn a very bright orange in the shadow. 

This mini would be an example of using Yellow for the basecoat then Magenta and Purple for the shading colors. You can see just how bright the hair and mermaid tail are. 

When I teach color theory I tend to advise people not use black for shading. This was the way I learned in art school to create the right amount of contrast between dark and light colors so the dark colors appeared black anyway. That doesn't mean you can't use black, just try to use it only to intensify shadows you've been mixing. Black looks especially good on metals. And obviously, if you are painting a surface that is meant to be black, use black as your basecoat and then highlight up from the basecoat using some color in your mix somewhere.

I hope this helps a few people out there. Please let me know if you have questions or would like a follow up to this to discuss more areas of color theory. This is a really basic primer.

If you want to do more investigating on your own about color theory I recommend two books:

Color By Betty Edwards (make sure to do the exercises in this one!)
Figopedia by Jerémie Bonamant Téboul


Happy Painting!