Project: Understanding Colour

Exercise 1: Mixing Grey – anachromatic scale.  For this exercise, I created a range of tonal values from white to black.  Each had to be distinct and not blend into its neighbour.  Then, I had to look at the difference in perception of a mid-tone grey when juxtaposed with a very light or very dark grey.  The images below demonstrate this.  A particular tonal value can be perceived in different ways, depending on its environment.




Exercise 2: Primary and Secondary Colour Mixing

This exercise follows on from the colour trials that I did using soft pastels during the first part of the course. For this exercise, I used a grey ground based on the mid-tone grey from the previous exercise. I began by sorting available acrylic paints into primary groups. Having identified the most intense of each colour group (medium yellow, brilliant red, ultramarine), I then made scales of gradual change from one colour to the other. Midway along the scale, secondary colours are formed. Although in ther image below, medium yellow does not appear the most intense, it was the purest yellow of those that were available at the time and does produce good orange with the brilliant red but a slightly murky green with ultramarine.  Thus, medium yellow is slightly cool while ultramarine is slightly warm and contains a little red. This is borne out by the violet produced when ultramarine is mixed with brilliant red.


This exercise was repeated twice more with different selections of primary colours to compare the secondary colours produced with those produced in the exercise above.

a) Lemon yellow / cerulean blue / cadmium red – these produced a range of beautiful pastel colours.

b) Deep yellow / crimson / phthalo blue – these produced more intense colours, a purer green but a muddy brown when the crimson was mixed with phthalo blue. However, this is useful to know both to avoid muddy brown if it is not wanted or to have a quick way to produce it should it be needed.


The exercise was repeated using gouache (below) because the colours are beautifully vibrant but also matte so give a completely different finish from the acrylics. All the colours used produced luscious secondaries, except for two combinations:

–  vermilion and prussian blue, which produced a range of interesting neutrals from a brick shade to a muted blue.

–  Again, ultramarine did not produce the brightest greens with golden yellow but a range of muted olives / yellow-greens.

However, I could imagine using both of these depending on the context.


The next part of the exercise was the hardest: to repeat the exercise above but to maintain a single tonal value.  I tried this using two different combinations of primary colours. Firstly: deep yellow, phthalo blue and cadmium red.


Here is the same image altered to grey scale. This was very tricky – I tended to go too pale with the greens and too dark with the mauves. On the whole, I tended to add too much white.  When seen in grey scale, some of the swatches are clearly similar to the tonal value of the grey background and a couple are darker but, in fact, they should all be slightly lighter. The difficulty seems to be at the points where the colours are shifting noticeably from one to the other, which requires a greater tonal adjustment than expected.


This exercise was repeated using medium yellow / ultramarine / brilliant red. This time around I achieved a more consistent result but it isn’t uniformly atonal and gradually becomes darker towards the red…  As this only took up half a page of A4, I have integrated the coloured version with a monochrome version into a single image for easy comparison:

Screen Shot 2014 01 19 at 21 53 21

This exercise took hours and, in the end, I had to stop and move on.  It will become intuitive with practice, over time but it is difficult right now. I used a camera set to black and white to assist with this.  Each range was adjusted at least twice before I moved on.  One of the difficulties with this was that acrylic dries darker than it appears when wet.  The main difficulty lies in seeing colours as tonal values.

Exercise 3: Broken or Tertiary Colours

This exercise used two complementary colours to create a range of tertiary or broken colours as successively more of its complementary were added to a colour.  Titanium white was added to maintain tonal value across the range of colours. Lovely smoky, misty colours were made, which could create a mood or atmosphere in a painting against which the pure colours could really sing out.  An extended range of tertiary colours created from complementary colour pairs was a part of Exercise 4, below.


Exercise 4: Complementary Colours

Firstly, a colour wheel was created, employing 12 colours, based on Chevreul’s theories.  I used Reeves acrylics for this and used a gesso ground for the circle.  2-3 coats of paint were necessary to achieve sufficient depth of colour. The colours in the inner section of the wheel are semi-neutrals made with the adjacent hue and a little of the complementary colour.  A range of beautiful earthy colours were created, any of which could be used to balance the brightness of the pure colours in a limited palette of complementary colours.


An attempt was made to adjust the complementary pairs from the colour wheel so that the tonal value of the one colour matched the lighter one in each pair… This was particularly challenging for tonal values in the middle of the range and took several goes. If the match is perfect, the two colours will be indistinguishable when reduced to greyscale. As can be seen below, this was only achieved for the lightest colour, medium yellow, with the violet made very pale with the addition of much titanium white.  Yellow-orange / blue-violet was the pair that took most time to adjust and it is still not quite right.  Even the addition of a small amount of orange, shifts the tone into the mid-range.

Screen Shot 2014 02 01 at 16 42 26

The following exercise explored tertiary colours produced when two complementaries are gradually mixed.  Any of the ranges shown below could be explored as a complementary palette, and show how a “limited” palette is not so limited after all. I particularly like the yellow to violet and the red-orange to blue-green ranges. Using white with either of these would extend their range further.


Two books that have proved / will prove useful are: Ian Sidaway’s Colour Mixing Bible and Stephen Quiller’s Color Choices. These exercises took a couple of weeks to complete and I was inspired by the creation of colours to buy more paints… I used Ian Sidaway’s book to select paints that would give tints that I could not produce from the small range that I already had. I could not have made useful choices without having done the exercise described above. Stephen Quiller’s book is particularly good for illustrating the impact of palette choices; how these can alter the mood of a painting, and our perceptions of the same subject. Another book that looks at the creative use of colour in composition and design is Jean Dobie’s Making Color Sing.

Having procured more paint, I carried out an exercise in which I attempted to put them all the colours in tonal order, lightest to darkest.  I used a series of temporary sticky bands in my sketchbook to position and repositions small swatches of colour.  It is probably not perfect, but it gives a good idea of the broad relationship betwen colour and tone. When I see them together like this, the tonal development from light to dark, independent of the colour, becomes a little easier.  Because the colour swatches are moveable, I can add any new paints to the page.  This should help with learning to see colour as tone when developing colour and tonal contrasts in a painting.  It can be a resource while I am developing my intuition about the colour / tone relationship. Overall, judging the middle tones is hardest right now, which logically is the way it should be.  However, comparing two light tones or two dark tones is also challenging, and lightening to the correct extent – when the same tonal value is needed – requires practice.

Screen Shot 2014 01 24 at 19 31 33

Something not included in this exercise is making shades by adding successive amounts of black, although I would rather create darks by blending colours, rather than using black paint. However, I will try it out at some point.


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