I painted the wheel at left, below. As you recall, it has the full-intensity hues arranged around the outside edge, gradating to neutral gray in the center. It uses the traditional subtractive red-yellow-blue pigment primaries.
This painter's color wheel goes back for centuries, and was influenced by the theories of Goethe and Newton. Two of the astute commentators on this blog, ZD and Painterdog, correctly pointed out that the traditional painter's color wheel is technically obsolete and even somewhat arbitrary and dogmatic, but I still have a fondness for it.
On the right is a mathematically correct digital color wheel based on the red-green-blue “additive” primaries of light. Spaced halfway between RG and B are cyan, magenta, and yellow, the subtractive colors used in printing inks.
My photographer friend Tobey Sanford created this wheel (downloadable here). It may be less familiar to traditional painters. It places the component colors differently around the wheel, but for the purpose of exploring the world of color, especially on our computer screens, it will serve us better in some respects, and we’ll see it again from time to time on future Color Sundays.
Regardless of which wheel we use, most color schemes are built from three component colors or primaries arranged in a triangle called a triad. The area inside the triangle is called the “gamut.” It includes all the possible mixtures from those three primaries, whatever they are.
The primaries don’t have to be red, yellow, and blue. You can use any three colors as primaries, even orange-green-purple—which in fact is what early color photographs called “autochromes” used.
In the case of the limited palettes we looked at a couple weeks ago, for example, we talked about using a less saturated pigment like yellow ochre instead of cadmium yellow. This reduced or muted yellow corresponds with a point well inside the margin of the wheel.
By using a paper mask and rotating it around the wheel, we automatically get interesting reduced gamuts, each with a dominant full-intensity hue and two subordinate, weaker “primaries”.
The mask sets us free to choose exactly the color schemes we want. We’re not limited to the haphazard choices of existing tube colors in limited palettes; instead we can use the mask to analyze or invent any gamut.
The equilateral triangle that I call the “atmospheric triad” is only one kind of color wheel mask. There are other shapes, and each of these basic shapes carries its own personality, regardless of the component colors. Atmospheric triads are moody and subjective, great for “color scripting” a graphic novel or a film.
When you rotate the triangular window around the color wheel, you can see the color groupings change, yet each one seems complete to itself. It suggests the feeling of walking from a room lit by incandescent light into another room lit by fluorescent light, and then stepping outside into the blue twilight. Your brain shifts from one color environment to another. I’ll talk more about the brain physiology behind color adaptation in a future Color Sunday.
Here’s a color mask that crosses over the center a bit more, which I call the “shifted triad.” It’s shifted toward red, which means the subjective gray or neutral (N) in the composition is also shifted toward red. The secondaries (S) are what you get when you mix the dominant full-intensity red with the weaker blue-violet and blue-green primaries (P).
Here’s a complementary scheme, similar to what we’ve seen before. The complementary gamut, regardless of its component colors, suggests an opposition of elemental principles, like fire and ice. At the same time, it’s fairly stable, because its neutral coincides with the center of the wheel.
This one is called “mood and accent.” Most of the picture is in one color mood, with just one accent area from across the wheel and no intermediate mixtures. By the way, note that the octagonal color wheel mask and the color wheel slide into the top of the aluminum U-molding.
You could also pick an accent color that’s offset from the complement. It looks less natural, and therefore perhaps more attention-getting.
What happens when you create a mask that shifts the color balance off the axis? To me it feels like one of those diminished seventh guitar chords, or a dollop of sour cream dropped into sweet squash soup.
What effect do you feel with a split complementary arrangement, avoiding secondaries? To me it seems vibrant and attractive, but also a little unsettled and jarring.
What if the mask selects colors all to one side of the wheel? To me it gives a sense of brilliancy, purity, or weirdness, not something you’d find in nature, but great for otherworldly science fiction.
There’s no limit to the kinds of masks you can cut, and then the infinite combinations you can generate when you start rotating a mask above your own wheel.
Next week, I’ll show you how to take a gamut you’ve selected, and prepare the paints on your palette so that you can use those exact colors in your own painting. The beauty of this method is that it jolts you out of any color mixing habits, and at the same time it forces you to stay within the limits you’ve chosen.
Tomorrow: Mountains Underfoot