• Tour of the color wheel


    1 : LIGHT YELLOW (primary) :

    Winsor Yellow PY154 or Cadmium Yellow Pale WN PY35 or Hansa yellow medium DS

    This hue is a tangy, bright yellow, the color of lemons and canaries, which often takes on a distinct greenish appearance, especially at darker values.

    The visual color wheel locates hansa yellow light (PY3), cadmium lemon (PY35) and the benzimidazolone yellows (PY151, PY154, orPY175) at the "primary" yellow point.

    Note that none of these yellows can be used in neutralizing mixtures with blue violet; they all make dull greens.  

    2 : DEEP YELLOW (tertiary) :

    Hansa yellow deep PY65 DS or WN, cadmium yellow WN

    The visual wheel places hansa yellow deep (PY65), cadmium yellow deep (PY35) and nickel dioxine yellow (PY153) at this location, but many cadmium paints labeled yellow orange or yellow medium are also close to this hue.

    A less intense but very lovely alternative is quinacridone deep gold (PO49).

    The yellowest hue that can neutralize mixtures with blue violet; mixing complements for cool colors really start at this hue point and continue through purple.

    Finally, this is the hue point at which the yellowestearth pigments are located — the many "yellow" iron oxide pigments (PY42 or PY43, marketed as raw sienna, yellow ochre, mars yellow or gold ochre). Even less intense is raw umber (PBr7).

    3 : RED ORANGE (secondary) :

    Pyrrol Orange PO73 DS

    Especially intense and powerful hue. Best exemplars are pyrrole orange (PO73) or the slightly warmer cadmium scarlet (PR108) or cadmium red orange (PR108).

    The less intense pigments in this color category include the "red" iron oxide pigments (including venetian red, indian red and light red, allPR101) and the synthetic organic equivalent quinacridone maroon (PR206; Daniel Smith's quinacridone burnt scarlet and Winsor & Newton's brown madder).

    Pigments that fall between deep yellow and red orange color points: cadmium orange (PO20) and benzimidazolone orange (PO62) are the most intense, while among the duller but very useful paints are quinacridone gold (PO48) and the extremely useful burnt sienna (PBr7), a moderately dull, orange iron oxide pigment that is a mixing keystone in the "warm" color range. Even darker and less intense is burnt umber (PBr7), which can be used in place of burnt sienna in any mixture that you want to take to a darker and duller color (although it is oddly ineffective at mixing true grays with most blue paints).

    Naphthol scarlet (PR188) and pyrrole scarlet (PR255) are very intense pigments on the red side of this color point. It's interesting that artists tend to have a distinctive preference in warm paints: some (Caravaggio, Turner, Gauguin, Matisse) seem to like red orange focal hues, while others (Van Gogh, Rubens, Rembrandt) seem to prefer a deep yellow.  

    4 : MIDDLE RED (tertiary) :

    This is close to a "pure" red that leans neither toward orange nor violet.

    The visual color wheel places quinacridone magenta (PR122) or quinacridone violet (PV19) at this location. (It's remarkable that the entire color span from middle red to red violet, formerly represented by a shoddy gang of fugitive organic pigments, has been handsomely replaced by different shades of a single modern and lightfast pigment: quinacridone.)

    Notice that cadmium red medium (PR108) or pyrrole red (PR254) correspond to the average conception of unique red or a pure "red" spectral hue, and that the range from scarlet to deep red is visually quite small — about the same as the distance between the yellow and green shades of phthalo green. And there is quite a crowd of "warm red" pigment alternatives between the red orange and middle red points on the wheel.

    These include the cadmium reds (PR108), naphthol reds (PR112 and PR170), quinacridone reds (PR209 and PV19), perylene scarlet (PR149), perylene red (PR178), perylene maroon (PR179). Notice that in the visual color wheel the red and yellow spans of the spectrum are approximately the same size: deep yellow is the middle boundary between the two. Most of these reds mix strong blacks with phthalo green BS (PG7), and strong dark grays with cobalt turquoise or teal blue. I find it useful to divide the warm colors in two groups — the paints that can or cannot mix a green color with a greenish blue paint such as phthalo cyan or phthalo blue GS. Yellows up to cadmium yellow deep can, and reds down to benzimidazolone orange cannot.  

    5 : MAGENTA (primary) : This is a distinctive bright, bluish red hue that is easy to recognize once you've seen it. It corresponds to the hue that J.W. von Goethe called purpur, a term that is mistranslated as "red" or "bright red" in the English edition of his Farbenlehre. It has no monospectral counterpart, but must obtained by mixing roughly equal parts of "red" and "blue violet" wavelengths. Unfortunately pigments with this hue are darker and/or less saturated than the spectral light mixture, giving paints at this locating a relatively purplish or pale color. An excellent choice for this point is cobalt violet (PV49); the only other pigment alterative is manganese (mineral) violet (PV16), though it is too blue and too dull to make useful mixtures with the warm pigments. (I don't consider the hues from quinacridone magenta to ultramarine blue, and the complements from phthalo green YS to cadmium lemon, to be either warm or cool.) Some "accomplished" artists continue to use the fugitive magenta and carmine pigments, including alizarin crimson and rose madder genuine. But apparently they do so witha furtive conscience: posing as an interested buyer, I've found that a few don't notify their collectors of the lightfastness issues related to their choice of paints.  

    6 : PURPLE (tertiary) : A relatively rare hue encountered most often in certain flowers or gems. It has no spectral counterpart, but is obtained by mixing "violet" (400nm) wavelengths with a very small amount of "red" light. This location is represented by either dioxazine violet (PV23), the red shade of ultramarine violet (PV15), or cobalt violet deep (PV14). Few artists use these mineral purple pigments because they have poor tinting strength, are not especially bright, and are strongly granulating; many avoid dioxazine violet because it tends to fade in some watercolor paint brands. To avoid these problems many paint brands offer the color as apurple convenience mixture of a rose or magenta quinacridone and ultramarine blue. Points 5 through 7 of the wheel are also confusing to learn because the apparent hue of a paint depends on its lightness and/or chroma: magenta paints appear to redden with increased chroma, and blue violet paints appear to shift toward purple. This is especially noticeable in quinacridone violet (PV19), which has the same spectrophotometric hue as quinacridone magenta (PR122), but appears distinctly bluer because the color is darker and less intense. A similar hue difference appears between indanthrone blue (PB60) and ultramarine blue (PB29).  

    7 : BLUE VIOLET (secondary) : Here we enter the blue hues, corresponding to amonospectral hue at around 440nm. The "blue" shade of ultramarine violet (PV15) and the mystically dark indanthrone blue (PB60) are the best pigment representatives for this hue and the visual complements for "primary" yellows at point 1. The very popular pigment ultramarine blue (PB29) is placed between points 7 and 8, where it is the visual complement of a middle yellow to deep yellow hue). The nearness of ultramarine blue to a violet color is revealed by the fact that the blue shade of ultramarine violet (PV15) is very close by.  

    8 : MIDDLE BLUE (tertiary) : This point approximately corresponds to the average conception of "unique" blue or "pure" blue. It corresponds to a monospectral hue at around 465nm. The few pigment exemplars at this point include cobalt blue (PB28), phthalo blue (PB15) and iron [prussian] blue (PB27). The visual wheel also locates the warm shades of cerulean blue (PB35) or the green shade of phthalo blue (PB15:3) approximately at this color point. Pay special attention to brand variations in color when selecting paints around points 8 and 9 on the color wheel. Mixing complements for the blues at point 8 are typically deep yellow and middle orange, and their dull "earth" equivalents such as raw sienna or gold ochre.  

    9 : CYAN (primary) : This is a bright, light greenish blue, also unmistakable once learned, representing the "primary" cyan in paint mixing. It corresponds to a monospectral hue at around 480nm, which is close to the wavelength of maximum transmission (and therefore the color) of water ice (though most landscape water contains suspended matter that shifts the color toward green or brown). For this hue there is one good pigment choice — phthalo turquoise (PB16) — although a very green phthalo blue (PB15:3) or the discontinued phthalo cyan (PB17) also serve well, in paints and in printing inks. Manganese blue (PB33) is more granular but also a good hue substitute, as are cobalt turquoise or the greener shades of cerulean blue (PB36) and cobalt teal blue (PG50). The mixing complements for all these paints are typically a red orange or scarlet hue, especially in the dull "earth" colors.  

    10 : BLUE GREEN (tertiary) : This hue is a lovely dark green with just a hint of blue, and corresponds to a monospectral hue at around 495nm. The visual color wheel places the dark and intense phthalo green blue shade (PG7) and the lighter and less saturated viridian (PG18) and cobalt titanate blue shade (PG50) at this location. The mixing complements for this point are usually middle or deep red, and the fact that red and blue green are such antagonistic colors in color vision (lying at opposite ends of the r/g opponent contrast) means that many of these neutral mixtures are especially dark and rich.  

    11 : GREEN (secondary) : This green corresponds to a monospectral hue at around 515nm. The visual color wheel puts phthalo green yellow shade (PG36) and the much duller and more opaque chromium oxide green (PG17) close to this point. Winsor & Newton used to market a yellow version of cobalt titanate green (now discontinued, PG50) at this hue. All the rest of green paints at this and the next point are convenience greens that vary widely in transparency, saturation and lightfastness. (The pros and cons of these and other green pigments are dished up in the page on mixing green.)  

    12 : YELLOW GREEN (tertiary) : To close out the color wheel, there is a long slog of green and more green until we come back to cadmium lemon. This yellow green corresponds to amonospectral hue at around 555nm — which is the chromaticity of our peak daylight sensitivity. Despite its sun bright character, yellow green is an unpopular color in everything from clothing to cars to home decor, and there are no pigments available to provide it: the vivid greens, leaf greens and yellow greens marketed in this hue are all convenience mixtures of phthalo green (usually PG36) and a bright yellow. I find sap green (listed as a convenience mixture under PG36) is more convenient to use, and it is also an excellent mixing and visual complement for dioxazine violet. Note that the perceptual difference indicated the visual color wheel between phthalocyanine green PG7 and cadmium lemon is almost exactly the same as that between quinacridone magenta and ultramarine violet. And the mixing complements for all these yellow green colors are the purple colors directly opposite on the visual color wheel.

    At first reading, this survey of the color wheel seems to cover a confusingly large number of pigments and colors. The differences between scarlet and brown, or yellow and ochre paints — what I call the unsaturated color zones — also complicate color judgments on the "warm" side of the color wheel.

    But don't despair. The simple exercise of mixingpaint wheels is a great way to learn these color variations and the major color differences that result from mixtures of paints from any two color points. And you will find that painting experience will gradually clarify and strengthen your grasp of the color wheel, and with it your confidence at navigating the complexities of color space.

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