Why Should You Understand Colours?

I love this Chinese proverb “What you hear you forget, what you see you remember and what you do you understand.” So true isn’t it? I can be saying things to my students every class, but here and there I will get someone who tells me they have never heard it before. If I do a demonstration people say they really learnt a lot from watching me, but only when they do it themselves do they fully understand the process and complexity.

There are many steps and elements to an exceptional painting and colour is one of them… possibly the most complex one! The first shock my students experience when working with me is that I ask them to work with 5 colours and only when they fully understand these, they can start adding new ones. Believe me, I do what I teach and in 90% of my work I only use 5 colours – the 3 primary colours plus lamp black and titanium white.

So let’s talk about colours for skin tones, since we are in the middle of a portraiture course. Here are the details of some of my portraits where I only used primary colours. They are all very different.

Firstly not every red, blue and yellow is a primary colour. I started to stock primary colours in my studio because when I asked my students to buy them, they would come back with 6 colours and none of them primary. They would come with warm and cool reds, warm and cool blues and warm and cool yellows. Each of these is mixed with another colour and therefore is not a PRIMARY but a SECONDARY or even a TERTIARY colour. The primaries are called primary because there is nothing added to them.

The colours I use are: Art Spectrum Red, Art Spectrum Yellow and Art Spectrum Blue (alternatively Cobalt Blue)

Every skin tone has many variations depending on the person’s origin as well as the lighting and surroundings at the time. So we can say that human skin colour ranges from the darkest brown to a very pale colour, some with more warm colours and some with more cool colours.

Lets get the terminology right before we continue. Here is my simple colour wheel divided into half;

Colour temperature:

Warm colours: red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green

Cool colours: green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, red-violet

Below is the simplest way to start that I can think of. All of these start with the same mix of equal proportion of primary red, yellow and blue. You can choose to develop each combination warmer or cooler, or you can intermix them as you like. These can form your first skin layer after which, when dry, you gently glaze other colours.

Now you’ve read it, seen it, so to make sure you understand it – do it!

More about colours next time. Happy painting!