This is part of a lesson plan I used when I taught my young students how to mix colors on their palettes. If this is new to you, give it a try.
I keep the colors on my palette simple: 4 yellows, 4 Reds, and 4 blues. I have listed these 12 colors in the color triangle below. This simple tool enables me to know which colors to use when I want to darken a color effectively without creating mud. Some artists refer to the process of darkening colors as “cooling,” “shading,” and “graying.” This tool is also useful for lightening the darker colors effectively. “Brightening” and “warming” are other terms artists use for lightening their colors.
My 12 colors consist of 4 yellows, 4 reds, and 4 blues. My 4 yellows are Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber. My 4 reds are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Indian Red, and Burnt Sienna. My 4 blues are Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray. The outer triangle represents my highest intensity colors based on a split-primary color wheel. Split-primary colors are colors of the highest intensity (brightest) that are warm and cool colors of the same family. Cadmium Red is a warm red; Alizarin Crimson is a cool red. If I want to cool my Cadmium Red, I add Alizarin Crimson, and if I need to warm my Alizarin Crimson, I add Cadmium Red. Ultramarine Blue is a cool blue; Cerulean Blue is warm. Lemon Yellow is warm; Cadmium Yellow is cool.
I mix my own secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple). To make a bright, vivid orange, I mix Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red. To make a vivid green, I add Lemon Yellow to Cerulean Blue. And to make a vivid violet, I add Alizarin Crimson to Ultramarine Blue. If I need to darken my orange color, I can add a mixture of Lemon Yellow and Alizarin Crimson. To darken green, I add Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue. And to darken violet, I add Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Red.
Of course, there are other ways I can darken both my primary colors and secondary colors without making muddy mixes.
Think of the colors on the outer part of the triangle as colors with lots of light. The next triangle has colors with less light. These are my middle intensity colors. I use these colors to shade or “gray down” my highest intensity colors. I use Yellow Ochre to lower any of my two highest intensity yellows, Indian Red to lower either of my highest intensity reds, and Prussian Blue to lower my highest intensity blues.
The innermost triangle or third triangle has my lowest intensity colors. These are colors with the least amount of light. They further lower the intensity or brightness of my outer colors.
As I mentioned, I can darken my secondary colors this way, too. To further lower/darken my original orange, I can add either a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Indian Red, or a mixture of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, depending on how dark I want my orange. To lower/darken my original green, I add either a mix of Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray. And to lower violet, I add either a mix of Indian Red and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Sienna and Payne’s Gray. This way, I keep my colors from becoming dull looking and muddy. This happens when artists try to lighten their colors with white, and try to darken their colors with black.
Keep this handy color triangle with you when you’re mixing colors and looking for the right lightness and darkness.
Happy painting. 🙂