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Colour - Get It Right, First Time


We have all experienced this when we were starting out: You are well along with a new painting when you realize that Something is Wrong! The problem will be due to one or both of two things: An unbalanced composition or a lack of colour harmony. In another article, I showed you how using what I call 'The Star' can help you avoid design mistakes from the outset. Now, I would like to show you the very best tool you will ever find for getting your colour composition right, every time.

You already know there are only three Primary Hues: Red, Yellow, Blue. Where they merge, they create the Secondary colours: Orange, Green, Purple. These are the major colours we see when light is projected through a prism, separating into its different wavelengths. A strip of these colours can be joined to make a circle: The Colour Wheel. Looking at a rainbow, or at a scene in nature, you will notice that many more colours than these are discernible.

And so, the basic principle of The Colour Wheel has been expanded to include the Tertiary colours: Red Purple, Blue Purple, Blue Green, Yellow Green and so on. Using this advanced model, you can make far more accurate colour matches.

Take a ruler and pencil a line joining any colour with the one opposite it on the Wheel. Each is the Complement of the other. For instance, the complement of Red is not Green, but Blue Green. The colours Adjacent, or next to, Red are Orange and Red Purple. If you pencil a wedge shape - or 'slice of the pie' - to include the Adjacent and the Dominant hues at the wide end, with the Complement at the pointy end, you will have the basis for a sound colour composition.

If you were to analyse any successful painting you see - in a museum or gallery or art journal - you would find the artist has used colours that fit into this wedge shape on the Wheel.

Taking that pencil again, draw an equal-sided triangle starting from the Dominant hue. The bottom corners of the triangle will be over the two Discord hues. Used sparingly, these colours will give your painting a pleasing contrast that enlivens the work. The final, and very important, element of your colour composition is made up of the Neutral hues. They are made by mixing a colour with varying amounts of its Complement.

Experiment by drawing a line between two colours, adding just a little more of the Complement to each as you work towards the centre of the Wheel. You can see how lively are the greys you can mix this way. Because they are made from the colours you are using in your painting, they will give the work a satisfying cohesiveness, while letting the eye rest from the dominant hues. A grey made by mixing White with Black is dead, artificial, and does nothing for your artwork.

So here is your 'recipe' for a colour-balanced painting: Dominant hue: comprises the bulk of the composition. Adjacent hues: equal amounts of both, but use less of each than the Dominant. Complement: very small amount (diminished in Chroma - more on that later.) Discord hues: equal, small amounts of each. Neutral hues: mixed from colours used in the painting.

Dorothy Gauvin is an internationally acclaimed Australian painter in oils who specializes in an epic theme of Australia's pioneers. See models of the Colour Wheel that you can freely print out and experiment with on her website at

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Max Pixel
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