The look of paint when it comes out of the tube can be very different to how it reacts when we start painting with it. This is especially true with darker colors like blue and red. The lighter colors such as yellow often behave much as we would expect.
When we think about painting with the primary colors red, blue and yellow, we have to dig a little deeper. Small amounts of other colors are hidden within each paint pigment. This gives each color a color bias.
The Color Wheel is Can Be Misleading
The color wheel is an excellent tool. It is handy to have one in our studio for quick reference. I use mine often because remembering all the complementary colors when I am starting a painting is something that I am not interested in doing.
If we take color theory at face value, however, we could be in for frustration when trying to mix the color we want.
What is Color Bias?
Almost all colors have a bias towards another color. For example, blue pigment can have a red bias or a green bias in comparison to another blue pigment.
Color theory states that we can mix all three secondary colors with the three primaries, red, blue and yellow. However, this will only work if a pure primary color is used. Pure pigments are materials that are usually mineral based and are taken from the earth. Examples are lapis lazuli (blue) and iron oxide (red).
We can’t find a pure red paint, for example, that will make both a good orange (when mixed with yellow) and a good purple (when mixed with blue). This is because the red will have a bias towards either orange or purple due to the chemical impurities found within commercial pigments.
In the above painting I wanted to use the complementary colors of red-orange and blue-green. I chose Golden cobalt teal and Liquitex cadmium red light. I chose this particular red because it is a red-orange right out of the tube. It is made up of naphthol AS-OL, arylide yellow and titanium oxide.
So a red that has an orange bias (cadmium red) will mix a bright orange, but will not mix a bright purple. A blue that has a red bias such as ultra-marine blue would not be good to make a bright green, but it would be good to make a more muted green.
The secret to effective color mixing is understanding the different pigment qualities of paints so we can match the color we want every time.