When winter is in full swing, there is no better time to consider color! Even in winter, color is everywhere. It jumps out at us from a group of children playing in the snow with their brightly colored hats and scarves, and it falls deep into the background of the soft lavender hills in the distance. It weaves itself throughout our homes, our landscapes, and city streets. But how do we use these colors in our creative processes – be it painting, weaving, sewing, or decorating? How can we make colors come to life in the middle of winter?
The artist’s basic color wheel (which differs from the subtractive wheel used by printers which has magenta, yellow, and cyan as its primary colors) helps us define what we are seeing, and how to make a world of color work for us. The idea behind the color wheel starts with three primary colors (red, blue, yellow) evenly spaced around the wheel. These colors are considered primary because they can not be created by mixing other colors. Historically, for artists, they were considered the building blocks for all other color choices.
As you most likely learned in your kindergarten class using glasses of colored water (although you may have forgotten by now), mixing two primary colors together creates the secondary colors of purple, green, and orange. Then, by looking across the wheel, this establishes your complementary color combinations: red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. Artists consider these complements to encompass the whole spectrum of colors, since when they are mixed together (e.g. red mixed with green) they produce grey. (Or what we used to call in art class – “mud,” at which point we knew it was time to go clean our brushes!)
If you need a little (and I mean little) science to back this up for you, consider the effect of the complementary colors on your eyes (more specifically the cones and rods inside your eyes).
Take 20 seconds to stare at the orange square, and then stare at the white space to the right of it (or a blank white wall or white sheet of paper) for 20 seconds. What do you see?
You are likely to see a faint blue square shape – the complement of orange. If it doesn’t work for you, it works best if you color in a red or orange square with markers on a plain piece of paper, so feel free to try it again. And remember: I said a little science! It’s also fun to note that the faint square your eyes produce is the same shape as the original colored shape at which you were staring. For more information (and another more complex eye test), go here.
But what can these complementary colors do for you? For early artists it was a great way to deceive the viewer. When blue pigment was scarce (i.e. expensive), an artist could make a grey sky look more blue by using an orange color next to the sky. A color complement is just that: it brings out its complement in surrounding colors, making it brighter and more vibrant.
So, if you want those colors to pop off the page, you can place complementary colors next to each other. Or if you want to hint at a color, you can use a complement to bring out color from something more neutral. It is also a great way to help a viewer travel through your painting, your quilt project, or even your room! Watch your eye travel from an orange pillow, to a blue vase, to an orange and blue quilt lying across your favorite chair. Using even a little bit of color complements can brighten any home!
Going further into the color wheel, we can mix primary and secondary colors together to give us a broader range of colors (tertiary colors) from which we can create color schemes – color combinations that work well together (e.g. using colors that are side by side on the wheel with one or two complements).
Another way to do this? Shop by COLOR! Choose two or three colors near each other in the Etsy color chart, and then venture out to find a complement! It’s a great way to look at a variety of colors to find your color scheme and also get to look at the items that go with them. Understanding your color wheel will make the process of finding colors that work together easier, but as you create your color combinations for your painting, your room, your afghan project, and more, it is important to realize that there are other factors at play as well (lights and darks, warms and cools, the emotions of color – more on that later). However, understanding your color wheel will be a great start to any project!
Look for the next installment in Jenlo262’s series on color theory, coming soon!