Explore Your Pigments with a Color Wheel—Primaries, Secondaries, Tertiaries

Watercolor color wheel exercise.
When I’m laying a wash, I want to focus my attention on creating color mingles, wet-in-wet effects and edges that are just the right degree of softness. So many things that will only happen if the timing is just right! I want design and drawing and color all worked out ahead of time, so I don’t […]
Watercolor color wheel exercise.

A complete color wheel exercise.

When I’m laying a wash, I want to focus my attention on creating color mingles, wet-in-wet effects and edges that are just the right degree of softness. So many things that will only happen if the timing is just right!

I want design and drawing and color all worked out ahead of time, so I don’t miss the magic, fleeting moment when my desired effect can be coaxed into appearing.

When I started painting in watercolor, I used just 3 colors—quinacridone rose, cobalt blue and azo yellow. I learned them inside out and sideways, so I never had to think about color-mixing. Now, in my beginner classes, I’ve added burnt sienna and ultramarine blue to make mixing darks and neutrals faster and more convenient, but I still have students begin with those three primaries and learn them thoroughly.

The main exercise we use to learn about mixing color is a color wheel. Over time, I’ve modified the usual color wheel format to allow us to work wet-in-wet within each section, letting the water blend the paint, without having to wait forever for each section to dry before proceeding to the next.

In the video below, I demonstrate the first half of the color mixing exercise I use in my beginner classes. (I’ll post another video showing the second half of the exercise, in which we explore semi-neutral and neutral mixtures, in a few days.)

I also use this exercise myself when I add a new color to my palette, or to explore possible palettes of 3-5 colors for a particular project. (I am just as susceptible to a yummy new color as any artist, but I almost never use more than 5 colors in any given painting (typically, only 3).

You can use this exercise with a primary triad that you hope will allow you to mix a wide range of pure colors (e.g. hansa yellow, quinacridone rose and phthalo blue), or a “sort-of” primary triad that will automatically give you lovely neutralized colors on part or all of the color wheel (e.g. raw sienna, naphthol red and ultramarine blue), a triad including one or more secondary colors (e.g. cobalt turquoise, cadmium orange and gamboge). You can also use more than three colors, if you like.

I am not using this exercise to teach color theory in the abstract. I use it to explore not just what colors I can mix, but how the pigments interact with one another.  As an added bonus, the wet-in-wet technique produces a lovely “stained-glass” effect, so these studies are lovely little paintings in their own right.

(This exercise video from my old Watercolor Jumpstart course has been updated and moved to the current Watercolor Jumpstart course. You can find it here.)

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