Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh

Colour: Part 1 – The Basics

I’m often told that I have some kind of a talent or gift for putting colours together. I tend to disagree. Instead, I believe that this is something that anyone can learn, and like any other learned skill, comes complete with epic failures and resounding success. If it’s something that you haven’t had a lot of practice with, you are bound to make some clumsy combinations, even if you think that you have followed all of the rules. Think of it like learning to play the piano. No one, not even child prodigies, can sit down and just play without spending hundreds and thousands of hours listening, observing, practicing and repeating.
Whether it’s composing complex, multicoloured art pieces, or simply knowing what two yarn colours go together, there are some simple rules and an entire universe of inspiration to use as a resource. Let’s learn about the colour wheel and how to use it by looking at examples from Vincent Van Gogh.

Let’s explore the colour wheel. It’s a road map of colours and it’s a very useful tool for you to play with. We can use it as a source for colours, or use it to help choose colours from an existing palette.
A colour wheel is a theoretical depiction of visible colours. It begins with the primary colours: yellow, red and blue. These three colours are the building blocks of all other colours. Now, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of colour theory, there are more than just this model for colour creation, but this is the easiest to understand, so bear with me as we use this most basic model.
Now we can think about what results we will get from blending equal parts of each of the primary colours. We get orange, purple and green. These are called secondary colours.



On this colour wheel, we see the primary colours, Yellow, Red and Blue  and the secondary colours, orange, purple and green.
On this colour wheel, we see the primary colours, Yellow, Red and Blue and the secondary colours, orange, purple and green.

We can continue to blend the secondary colours with equal parts of their neighbouring primary colours and get the tertiary colours. We can carry on this way, blending an infinite number of neighbouring colours together. Any one of these are what is called a hue.

As we continue to blend neighbouring colours together, we get a set of tertiary colours.
As we continue to blend neighbouring colours together, we get a set of tertiary colours.

We can now take these hues and add either black or white to them. This changes the “value” of the hue. A hue that has white added is called a “tint” and one that has black added is called a “shade”. Easy enough to remember if we think of tinting white paint at the store or observe the darkness of a colour when it is cast in shade. 

So, now that we know a bit about the creation of hues (often called colours), let’s look at what combinations please our eyes. This is the tricky bit, because our culture and psychology play a very large part in this. But let’s walk before we run.
Here’s a look at the basic colour schemes for creating successful palettes.

1. Complementary
To create a complementary colour scheme take a hue and draw a line directly across the colour wheel. These two colours will form the basis of your palette. The trick to making a successful complementary colour scheme is two-fold.
First, these colours are often used to signify a holiday or a national flag, something of cultural importance, and therefore, we react to them in that context. For instance, the most recognizable one in the Western world is red and green. Bright red and bright green are not things that we would put together for any other reason than to celebrate Christmas and so we have psychologically reserved them for this purpose.
Secondly, there is the neurological reaction in our brains to complementary colours. Very bright, saturated examples of these colours will seem to vibrate and flash in a very unpleasant way causing us to say that they “clash”.
We can solve this if we take tints or shades of these hues, which can create beautiful, eye pleasing combinations. Pink and pale greens remind us of floral arrangements and gardens. Deep burgundy and dark rich olive colours make us think of velvet and rich tapestries. We can also feel free to combine tints and shades of the complementary colours into one palette. Keeping to this example, we can have pink, burgundy, pale sprout green and deep forest green all in one palette.

In this self portrait by Van Gogh, the artist uses the complementary colours, blue and orange, to great affect.

2. Split Complementary
Here we draw a line across from our chosen hue and then take the hue on either side of the complement. For example, let’s choose blue. Across from blue is orange, it’s complement. Instead of using orange, we will select the more yellow orange/marigold shade and red orange/ vermilion shades. We can change the value of these colours to create a pastel combination or a darker palette. We can use a variety of shades and tints together to give highlights and shadows to our creation.

This is a great example of split complementary colours. Shades of vermilion in the earth are used with blue and green, which are on either side of vermilion's compliment, which is teal.
This is a great example of split complementary colours. Shades of brick red in the earth are used with blue and green, which are on either side of brick red’s compliment, which is teal.

3. Triads
The primary and secondary colours are examples of triad colour schemes. Choose three colours that are equally spaced on the wheel and then experiment with their values. This is one of the easiest ways to make a wonderfully harmonious palette.

Greens, purples and oranges are used in a complex tertiary scheme in the painting of Irises.
Sagey greens, blueberry and red ochre are used in a complex triad scheme in the painting of Irises.

4. Analogous
This is another very easy, three colour scheme. Pick your colour, then add the colours that are adjacent on either side. If we picked purple, we would also use red purple/magenta together with periwinkle/blueberry. Lighten or darken these hues to your liking. Look at what Van Gogh does with his main colour, yellow.

Analogous colourways have the ability to give a great sense of sun and shadow. Here is Van Gogh's famous sunflowers using shades of red ochre, amber, yellow and chartreuse. A tiny hit of complementary blue balances everything.
Analogous colourways have the ability to give a great sense of sun and shadow. Here is Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers using shades of red ochre, amber, yellow and chartreuse. A tiny spash of complementary blue balances everything.

5. Monochromatic
Our last colour scheme to discuss is monochromatic. With a monochromatic scheme, we select one colour and add white or black to change it’s value. We can also choose one value of a hue and use it against a selection of neutrals. It can be one of the trickier schemes, even though you are only using one hue, because it runs the risk of being boring unless there is liberal use of shades and tints to give lots of depth.

Although Van Gogh loads his brush with smatterings of other colours, the overall effect is a monochromatic yellow scheme.

There it is. The very basics of colour theory and how to put a beautiful colour scheme together. I highly recommend that everyone make use of a colourwheel. There are plenty online. There are also many types of palette generators that create colourways for you. I tend to find it more fun to go my own way and find beautiful combinations everywhere I look. In our next part, I will talk about more complex colour schemes and other ways to find inspiration.

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