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Colour & Tone

Colour comprises three primary colours - red, blue and yellow. They are so called because you should be able to obtain any other colour by mixing various combinations of these three colours, but you cannot obtain these three colours by mixing other colours.

By mixing the primary colours, secondary colours are produced - green, orange and purple. These are shown on the colour wheel. You will see that each primary colour is opposite to a secondary colour.

However, because our paints are produced from naturally-occurring pigments, it is not usually possible to obtain exact primary colours. Therefore, any one paint will be either warmer or cooler than its nearest primary. It is consequently useful to include in your palette both the cooler or warmer paints. In practice, we should include two reds - a purply red and an orangey red, two blues - a greeny blue and a purply blue, and two yellows - a greeny yellow and an orangey yellow.

The paint manufacturers sometimes name their paints after the pigments from which they are made, but they may alternatively give them a special name. Some examples of each colour are given here:

purply red - permanent rose, alizarin crimson, rose madder

orangey red - cadmium red, vermilion

greeny blue - windsor blue, phthalo blue, prussian blue

purply blue - ultramarine

greeny yellow - lemon yellow

orangey yellow - cadmium yellow


In theory, mixing the three primary colours will produce black. However, in practice, no pigment produces a perfect primary colour, so a mixture of the three will just be muddy! You will see from the colour wheel that mixing a primary colour with its opposite secondary will also produce mud, as the mixture will again contain all three primary colours.

Clean, vibrant secondary colours may be obtained by mixing pigments, which together contain only two of the primary colours, without any trace of the third primary. The cleanest colour is obtained by mixing together the two colours closest together on the colour wheel. Again, consult the modified colour wheel above for guidance.

For example, mixing prussian blue (a greeny blue) with lemon yellow (a greeny yellow) will produce a mix containing no trace of red (in this case, the third primary). Conversely, mixing ultramarine (a purply blue) with lemon yellow (a greeny yellow) would introduce some red, the third primary, and the resultant mix would be greyer or muddy.

In addition, some colours are naturally ‘cool’ while others are naturally ‘warm’. Warm mixes are produced from warm colours e.g. to produce a warm green, start with a warm yellow (eg cadmium yellow).

Since greens comprise a lot of yellow and a little blue, it is always advisable to start with yellow and add the blue to it. Similarly, start with yellow when mixing orange, and start with red when making purple.

Let’s have a look at a few examples:

To make a warm green, start with a warm yellow eg cadmium yellow. Add some blue - you could try several to see which works best. If the resultant mix is too intense, add the complementary colour - in this case, red, which is opposite to green on the colour wheel. If it is too dark, lighten it by thinning - if using watercolour, use more water.

Likewise, to make a cool green, start with a cool yellow (eg lemon yellow), and add some blue (whichever works best), maybe some water, until you get the desired colour.

Using just the colours mentioned practice mixing the right and wrong combinations to see what happens.

Earth Colours

In addition to the six colours given above, there are some known as ‘earth’ colours, mainly because they include various degrees of all three primary colours. Consequently, they should be used with care to avoid muddiness. The most notable are raw and burnt umber, raw and burnt sienna, Indian red, and various ochres, but there are many others.

Burnt Sienna - This is possibly the most useful earth colour in the palette, as it combines with its opposite, Ultramarine, to form a range of blues, greys and browns, particularly great darks, or a  range of mossy greens when mixed with Sap Green and a range of useful flesh tones when diluted with water, with or without the addition of other colours.

Raw Sienna - Another well-used colour in your palette. An orangey brown. This doesn’t really make greens when mixed with a blue, so can be used to make beautiful skies.

Burnt Umber - A dark earthy brown, tending to orange rather than green. Produces excellent blacks, both warm and cool, when mixed with Ultramarine. Makes a lovely dark green (suitable for conifers) when mixed with Windsor Blue.

Raw Umber - A cool, dark brown, again tending to orange rather than green.

Indian Red - Generally quite opaque. Varies from a red-brown to orange-brown. Useful for flesh tones and lips.

Yellow Ochre - Not so useful in mixing as it muddies quickly when used with anything other than transparent colours.

Understanding Tone

Most of us will have seen a greyscale like the one on the BBC television test card. It shows a range of tonal values from white to black, usually about 10 values with white being value 1 and black as 10.

We can resolve many more than 10 different tones in the foreground (near to us), but the further away objects are from us, the less tones we are able to define.

There are no pencil lines in nature to separate different objects. We see them by their difference in tonal value, eg in a light coloured house against a dark background or vice versa. The greyscale tonal scale exists also in colours. To best see adjacent coloured objects it will be necessary to have a tonal value difference of at least two values.

For instance, it would be difficult to see, say, a blue of tonal value 4 against a touching green of the same value, but not so if not if one of the values was 2 or 6.

When painting a landscape put the lighter values in the background distance, and all of the values into the nearby objects. A useful observation is that the further away that objects are, the more they take on the sky colour and tone. Hence distant hills and mountains will, on a sunny day with a blue sky, themselves have a blue cast. Keep the warm colours for the foreground and the cooler colours(blues) for the distance. This will give aerial perspective to your painting.

Ian Philpot 9 April 2016

With grateful thanks to Paul Arnott and Arnold Lowrey for assistance in compiling this guide.