When teaching about mixing color, how often have you heard art instructors use the phrase “warm and cool colors?” Most likely, you have heard it often.
What does “warm and cool colors” really mean when you mix a color? Don’t you find this confusing? I know I did when I was learning about mixing color. To this day — after 25+ years of painting — I still don’t refer to a primary tube of paint as warm or cool when I mix paint. It’s not relevant.
Why is Color Bias Easier to Understand vs Warm & Cool Colors?
What language do I use instead of following this trend or mantra? I teach and use the phrase “color bias.” Why? Because it is a straight forward way to describe a primary tube of paint versus trying to identify it as warm or cool.
What is color bias? I am referring to the hue that influences a primary color. For example, a red-blue, a green-yellow, orange-red, etc. It is the adjective we artists and non-artists use to further describe a color.
When mixing color, it is much easier to describe a yellow, a red and a blue by its color leanings versus identifying whether it is warm or cool. Who cares if a blue is warm or cool – which is confusing? Identify it as a green– or red-blue and color mixing becomes manageable.
The diagram below illustrates what I mean. Nearly every primary tube of paint available carries another color with it — they carry a color bias. There are very few pure primary colors.
When stating the color bias of a color it’s easier to imagine the hue in your mind’s eye versus trying to imagine whether it’s warm or cool, isn’t it? In your everyday life you might say, “He just bought a orange-yellow car or an orange-red sweater.” You would’t say, “He bought a warm-yellow car or a warm-red sweater.”
To mix clean colors, seeing and knowing the color bias or leaning of each of your primary colors is essential.
Because if you mix paints that carry a pair of complementary colors within them, then you will mix a muddier color than you might have intended.
Here is a “test” question. Which mixture will result in a bright green? 1) a green-yellow with a green-blue, or 2) a red-yellow with a red-blue? The correct answer is #1. If you want a duller green, you would use mixture #2.
Why? You know that complementary colors, when mixed, will dull each other. Red is the complementary color of green. Hence, when mixing a yellow and a blue to create green, it is important to know if either tube carries a color bias of red.
If you want a bright green, then you choose a yellow and blue that are not influenced by red. If you want a dull green, then you do want red to be present in the yellow and blue. Does this make sense?
As painters we want and use both dull and bright colors. It’s empowering when we know how to do it! This concept is taught in greater depth in my online Craftsy video course Acrylic Color Mixing Made Easy!” From my research, I do not know of a book or another artist who teaches the concept of color bias. Please let me know if you do know of someone.
For mixing greens, download the free ebook you see in the upper right column of this blog.
Mixing Color is Facilitated by the Two-Primary Palette
To facilitate the ease of mixing color, I am a huge fan of using the Tw0-Primary Palette because it employs the use of two tubes of each primary, as seen here. It is important that each set of primaries carries an obvious color bias in each tube of paint. For example, with your two yellows one will carry a strong color bias of orange and the other a strong color bias of green. To maximize the effectiveness of the Two-Primary Palette, pure or nearly pure primary colors are avoided.
By the way, the Two-Primary Palette is also called the Double-Primary Palette or the Split-Primary Palette.
Here is an example of a set of six primary tubes that could make up a Two-Primary Palette. Notice that each of the tubes is convincing in the color bias it carries.
How can you identify the color bias of your primary paints? The most effective and efficient way is to create a pigment chart for each yellow, red and blue hue family. This exercise is described in my post How to be Intimate with Your Colors.
Below is an example of my chart of reds. Creating a chart like this is a lovely way to really SEE the color bias of each tube of paint you own. Several orange and blue reds are apparent in this chart. The fun you have as a painter is choosing the pair you want to use given your creative preferences.
I recommend starting with just two yellows, two reds and two blues. Oh, I know we like to have lots of colors on our palette. However, using a balanced palette such as the one above will open the door to color confidence while decreasing the probability of making mud.
In my next post, I will explain how the Two-Primary Palette is key to mixing the colors you desire. We will start with mixing bright and dull secondary colors. It’s a simple approach to mixing a bright or a dull green, a bright or dull orange, and a bright or dull purple.
In conclusion, I submit that knowing warms and cool colors is important when it comes to applying colors in a painting, It’s just not essential when mixing colors. Hopefully I have convinced you that seeing the color bias of a primary color is easier to comprehend and use versus trying to determine if it is warm or cool.
Let me know what you think in the comment box below.
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