I highly recommend making small color wheels using only three colors. Label them carefully with both the manufacturer and the name of the color.

Possible combinations of six pigments, warm and cool

Professional grade can differ greatly from student grade.  A “hue” will contain more binder and less pigment.  Manufacturers also differ significantly.

Looking at photos of color wheels is not the same as making your own.  by making your own you will immediately understand the characteristics of the pigments, the transparency or opacity, the tinting strength and the tendency toward warm or cool.  The mystery of mixing greens and purples will vanish.  The little color wheels can be carried with you when you paint en plein air.

In The Color Scheme Game Workshops, I ask the students to bring one tube each of any red, yellow and blue watercolor.  Each student makes one color wheel.  We end up with a variety of pigments being used and a variety of oranges, purples and greens to compare with one another when the color wheels are completed.

The ideal limited palette includes a warm yellow, cool yellow, warm red, cool red, warm blue and cool blue.  With those six pigments almost any color can be mixed, including all the beautiful neutrals.  A few of my favorite colors that can’t be mixed are the cobalt violets and the turquoise blues.  when travel space allows, I usually bring viridian and burnt sienna for convenience and economy.  I can mix those two colors but it is more costly in time and money to do so.

I used the following colors to make the eight wheels shown above.

Aureolin (Winsor Newton) – cool yellow, transparent, professional grade

Gamboge Hue (Grumbacher) – warm yellow, slightly opaque, professional grade

Phthalo Blue (Sennelier Aquarelle Extra Fine) – cool blue, fairly transparent, professional grade

Ultramarine Blue (Cotman) – warm blue, slightly opaque, student grade

Carmine (Holbein) – cool red, transparent, professional grade

Cadmium Red Light (Grumbacher) – warm red, opaque, professional grade

At first glance the Aureolin and the Gamboge Hue might appear identical.  However, their unique characteristics become apparent when mixed with other pigments.

Note that no matter what the proportions of cadmium red light to phthalo blue might be, one will never arrive at a purple, only variations (often beautiful) of browns and grays.  There is too much yellow in both the cadmium red light and the phthalo blue.  The yellow negates any purple that might be tempted to appear.

The following are the eight combinations possible with six pigments, a warm and cool of yellow, red and blue:

Warm yellow, warm red, warm blue

Warm yellow, warm red, cool blue

Warm yellow, cool red, warm blue

Warm yellow, cool red, cool blue

Cool yellow, warm red, warm blue

Cool yellow, warm red, cool blue

Cool yellow, cool red, warm blue

Cool yellow, cool red, cool blue

It’s worth the time to create the color wheels.  Please believe me!  Let me know, after making the wheels, if you agree.


Correlating each color, in its full intensity, to a percentage of gray on the value scale is often challenging.  Often, it is a new concept for artists, especially beginning artists.

Diamond Shaped Color Value Chart

The above chart is not a perfect example of basic color value as it applies to a twelve hue color wheel, but it serves as an example of a valuable exercise in relating color hues to values.  I highly recommend taking the time to create one.  I also suggest that you use quality watercolor paper when doing this so that you don’t run into the same problems I did when laying down the washes.

The images on left and center are the chart in its first and second stage.  The image on the right is the finished chart (the one shown in the middle) converted to grayscale in my computer.  I will, in the near future, create the same chart in either acrylic or oil so as not to complicate matters with the issue of transparency and dilution of hue intensity.

Diamond color value charts: Watercolor media.

The left side of the brain designs color wheels for the right side of the brain to acquire skills for use as an artist. Logic doesn’t always produce the results that the left side of the brain predicts.

An "I should have known that" moment

Although the colors of the images I post are not true to the actual color wheel due to my scanner and my processing of the images, it is still obvious that the values of the colors are not falling into place as I had planned.  I tried to keep the colors working from cool to warm / warm to cool, as is most familiar, while simultaneously presenting the colors by light to dark / dark to light.  What I love about creating these wheels is that I learn, either as a reminder or as something new, more about mixing colors and why I have encountered problems in the past when nixing pigments.  For me, learning more about the science of color and light has helped enormously.  Still, my left side of the brain refuses to get with the program.

I knew, based on previous color / value charts that the Manganese Blue would have to be moved to the other side of the greens.  Apparently I had applied both Viridian and Permanent Sap Green in a thicker layer on my original chart.  In this chart, the transparency of the pigment altered the value of the pigment and Sap Green appears darker in value than Viridian, something I will remember when painting. The second alteration that should have been made was the switch of the purple hue that results from mixing Alizarin Crimson with French Ultramarine Blue.  Of course it will be a darker value!  Even the left side of my brain should have known that. More light waves are being absorbed, or canceled out, resulting in a hue of darker value.

Another observation to be made by actually creating the wheel rather than just studying mine is the muted hue that results when the Cadmium Red Light is mixed with the Alizarin Crimson.  Why?  Because all three primaries have been introduced, neutralizing the color mixture.  Alizarin Crimson has red and blue.  Cadmium Red Light has red and yellow.  When all three primaries are present, a bit of everything is absorbed, resulting in a more neutralized, less saturated color.

The first part of Lesson one was to create a color wheel showing full intensity of primary colors (yellow, red and blue) and secondary colors (orange, purple and green).  See previous post: Color as Value Lesson One.

The second part of lesson one is to make a value scale overlay that will be used for the color wheel in Lesson One as well as the color wheel you will create for Lesson Two.

Using a compass, draw a circle one inch larger in diameter than the circle you made for your first color chart.  My color chart is 7″ in diameter.  My value scale overlay is 8″ in diameter.  Within that circle, draw another circle the same diameter as your color wheel (7″).  Draw an inner circle 1/2″ in diameter.  Divide the section between the inner circle and the 7″ circle into eight equal bands of circles.  Paint the first band black and leave the outer band white.  Paint each of the inner six bands a progression of gray value.

Grayscale overlay for Color Wheel

With a protractor, Mark off the circle to form pie shapes alternating 25 degrees and 35 degrees. Using a razor or #1 knife, cut out the 35 degree sections leaving the outermost circle intact.  Place the grayscale overlay on top of your color wheel.

First Color Wheel with grayscale overlay

Squint at the color wheel with overlay to determine the intrinsic value of each primary and secondary hue.  If you have access to a scanner, scan the wheel with overlay (or photograph it) and change the mode to grayscale in your computer.

Grayscale mode

Compare what you thought the value of the hue is to what the grayscale mode shows as its value.

Practice Exercises:

There is little point to spending so much time making color wheels unless you put them to good use.  With your focus on value, not hue, take one or two objects and paint them using only the six pigments, full strength, that you used to paint the color wheel.  I have posted a few examples and will add more as time goes by.  Feel free to send me your images if you wish them to be considered for posting on the page of examples for Lesson One.

Color variations withing simple value shapes:

A few extra high key shapes make all the difference

before the little high key shapes were added to the dark mass on the left

Before the small high key negative shapes were added between the tree trunk in the dark shape on the left, the eye was abruptly stopped and at the point where the light value, mid distance strip met the first foreground tree trunk on the left.  After adding the small negative shapes between the trees, the eye moves back and forth between the mass on the left and the distant mass of trees, taking in the subtle changes of color within the masses.

A touch of warm color in the shadow can be very effective:

Morning Sketch - Ink and watercolor wash

I lost the freshness of the sketch by over-rendering the objects on top of the dresser and by not leaving more light valued shapes in the objects.  To contrast the Payne’s Gray wash I created contrast with light valued, warm washes of scarlet red as cast shadows on the wall.  Shadows are usually thought of as cool rather than warm.  In this case, as in many cases, reality must be discarded for the sake of the painting or sketch.

'A Dance for Dionysus' - Watercolor and Acrylic on Canvas

Earth tones and strong value changes to emphasis shapes …

My figurative work is usually loose and playful, fluid and experimental.  ‘A Dance for Dionysus’ was one of the first paintings where I began by toning a canvas with poured and splashed watercolor washes and worked into it with acrylic paints that I had mixed myself to a fluid state so that I could also pour and splatter the acrylic.  I had been curious to see if I could manipulate acrylic as I do watercolor.  I had tried with oil paint, but I lost all vibrancy of color when I diluted it to a consistency I could pour or splatter.  Glazing with oil over watercolor washes worked somewhat, but the process was too slow for the energy that drives me when the figures begin to appear within the layers of paint.

For these paintings I don’t use models or photographs.  I look for the suggestion of figures within the patterns.  Sometimes I will work out the twists and turns of the bodies in my sketchbook.  Sometimes I will jump right in and work directly on the painting without a quick study of position.  I find that most models aren’t able to get into the dynamic positions I desire.  As the painting progresses, a story begins to unfold.  When my paintings reach this storytelling stage, I must be alone to be alert to the tale being told.

Next Page »