Ava Jarvis Art
Ink and Watercolor Artist
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Art Process Blog

Ava blogs about the art process, art tips, and general art musings.

How to Explore Color Mixing: The Color Ring

Hello, glamorous and free spirits, it's me, Ava Jarvis, eternally curious art student seeking out how to explain to myself how art works. Hopefully my pontificating can help you, too. 

Today's topic: why learn color mixing? 

The reason's obvious for traditional media; you don't have the rainbow color picker digital art programs do. 

But I think it applies to digital media as well. Color relationships are important, of course, but not knowing how colors interact with one another leads to pain when it comes to blending or using brushes with transparency.

Digital media's color mixing is different from traditional media in terms of actual color interaction, but I've come up with a nice way of exploring how color mixing works for whatever medium you choose. Even in traditional media, different pigments, formulas, and brands will give you different results.

Now, let's explore the Ring Method for swiftly exploring palette options.

First, let's take our reference picture. I try to print mine out these days as opposed to relying on a screen, because it helps impress upon me how color reproduction in art isn't an exact science.

Let's pick the jolly three fruit picture, for simplicity. 

I'm using my Akashiya watercolor brush pens which, while a nice and large set, doesn't quite give me all the flexibility I could want.

Pens from left to right: indigo, sky blue, red, yellow, pink, rose, yellow ochre.

You'll notice that the main colors in this fruit picture are yellow, light to light-ish green, and a red-purple. 

In most reference pictures, you'll have a harder time isolating the important colors to form your overall color scheme. But it's important to isolate around three to four main colors that you want to center your color composition around, for the purposes of color harmony and not producing a confusing picture. 

(Unless confusion's what you're going for, of course.) 

Now, I could look for close approximations of these colors in my brush pen set, or I could use color mixing to create colors that aren't in my palette but are expressed in the picture. Usually mixing colors close to primaries yields better results than mixing colors close to secondaries. I'm sure there's a colorspace reason for that. 

Now, primaries can come in a number of temperatures, like cool reds or warm blues. Having different temperatures makes it easier to judge how colors theoretically will interact, which reduces the number of experiments to carry out. 

Let's consider my sky blue and my indigo. These are my favorite blues so far—the typical royal/pure blue is good for intensity, but for fruits and flowers more subtlety is usually welcome. These blue primaries can mix with a yellow primary for the green, and a red primary for the purple. 

I have two yellow candidates—a hansa-type yellow and a yellow ochre. And I have three red candidates—a red, a rose, and a pink. 

Now that I have my primary candidates, let's do some directed exploration using the ring method.

First, I draw rings with the lightest colors. They're somewhat thick, but not too thick, allowing for plenty of interior room.

So hansa yellow circle, yellow ochre circle.  I'll do the same with the reds: red, rose, pink. 

I'll apply each blue option to one half of each circle: light blue above, indigo below.

Now I'll use my water brush to blend and spread the colors and see what we get. Blending at this part should be done according to however your media works, or what techniques you want to apply: the idea is that you should be able to blend the colors towards the center to get an idea of the range. The circle rim lets you know what to expect from glazing (e.g. layering colors on top of one another). 

So the hansa yellow and bright, or sky, blue produce this lovely intense yellow green. When I spread it out, I can see the difference between a glaze (where the colors directly overlap) and a mix or blend (where the colors are spread out together outside and inside the circle). 

The hansa yellow and indigo produce a darker green, a very earthy green, when glazed. When blended, they are a more subdued yellow green—but not a vivid or darker green. 

Yellow ochre produces more muted results with both sky blue and indigo. Differences are very subtle. 

Let's look at the purples. Red and sky blue produce a reddish purple, with a light red blend; but indigo and red produce a lovely deep red-purple. 

Rose is far more floral of a purple when combined with sky blue or indigo. The difference between the two blue mixtures isn't noticeable. 

The pink and sky blue or indigo produce a blueish purple, a lavender—pretty good for certain fuzzy plums and flowers, but not for these particular grapes. 

You can see how we have some nice options to go with. In this case, as a personal preference, I'd probably go for the brighter yellow-green (so that's a hansa yellow with sky blue) and that juice red-purple (so that's red with sky blue). 

I could choose different options, though, depending on how I want to cast the mood of the piece. 

Now, let me show you the greens and purples I do have in my kit. Let's call them my direct greens and direct purple/magenta. 

Notice how vivid they are. In the right work, they'd be perfect. But in this work, they're a bit garish—although one could undoubtedly choose to do this picture with them, there wouldn't be as much harmony in the colors. There's nothing wrong with garish—but choosing garish is something you should be conscious of, rather than being backed into.

One thing to note, too, is how value plays into color selection. It's entirely possible to have midtone mumbles—that's James Gurney's term for a picture whose color values are too close together, even if the colors themselves are otherwise different—in a color work. 

For maximum analysis, let's put these color selections through a desaturation filter. 

You can see that the direct vivid green has a value similar to the direct vivid peony (magenta), which won't work out so well. But the direct light green is so light that it fades into the paper. A good balance is actually either yellow or yellow ochre, mixed with either sky blue or indigo. 

The red/blue mixes are all a good color value away from either of the yellow/blue mixes. For best value spread, either the red or the rose mixture could be used. 

And then the fun part is the painting! Well, I think this part is pretty fun too, as a matter of fact—working out these color experiments puts me into mind of not the subject I'm depicting, but the possible mood casts I want to use in my depiction. I know that doing art that perfectly reproduces a photograph is considered highly skilled, but I look to do more than that. Yes, even with, essentially, bowls of fruit.

By the way, if I was starting all over again with art? Instead of spending $400 to get a budget-line Wacom tablet and an additional $100 on top of for software, I'd go with two 5.5" x 8" Strathmore visual journals (one bristol, and one 140lb watercolor paper), a 2H and an HB pencil, one set of disposable india ink pens, a student-grade watercolor set with 12 colors, and a waterbrush of medium size (around a size 6 in most watercolor paint brush brands).

Digitizing my traditional art at this size isn't a problem—a good phone camera plus GIMP will give you everything you need. Scanners not required. 

Hope this rambling was helpful!