Black, blue, and cow eyeballs

Did you learn about the color wheel in a school art class? I remember it vividly from elementary school. It looked about like this, just primary and secondary colors and basic understanding of complementary colors.

I remember thinking how “ugly” purple and yellow looked together, or generally if you mixed complementary colors. I didn’t think about it much after that.

Flash forward to now. I’ve been taking an oil painting class at Compass Atelier, which is fantastic. It’s great for artists at all levels, and Glenn, the teacher, is just wonderful. His way of explaining color and light theory, as well as practical application is really compelling. In my case, it’s also been a bit earth-shattering.

Do you know that feeling when you’ve believed, if only latently, something for the vast majority of your life, and then suddenly found out it wasn’t true? For example, there was a moment in 9th grade biology–the part where we had to dissect a cow eyeball–where I remembered a Kindergarten playground incident when someone told me that when you close your eyes, they roll backwards to face the back of your head. Let that sink in for a few minutes. Now picture yourself, or me, looking at a dish with an eyeball in it, and connective tissue. It was enlightening. And gross.

Back to art. It was probably science class, or something like that, where I learned or started to believe that black is the absence of color. Maybe I got it confused with the absence of light and outer space? I don’t know. Anyway. This time around, we’re working with a more sophisticated version of the color wheel (think rings and spectrums), and the concepts of hues (color families like red vs. blue), saturation, and value. It’s a great resource for color mixing–so much so that Glenn only recommended buying at most 10 colors “out of the tube.” We need way more than that in terms of shades nuanced colors, but you can get to anything with blending!

So here’s the kicker, and the reason this post has black and blue in the title. To help us with our blending, Glenn had us plot our oil paints (Gamblin) on the color wheel. That way, you can basically use lines across the wheel to help figure which colors and in what proportion get you to the variations you want… after you figure out the tinting strength of each. For example, as I have learned, Pthalo Blue, whoa mama, is waaaaay stronger on the tinting front than, say, Cadmium Yellow, so that changes the mixing ratios.

After plotting the “regular” colors, we got to Ivory Black (more on that later–vegans, you’ll want to read this*) and Titanium White. Guess where they went? In BLUE. Granted, the saturation was super low, but yes, black belongs to the hue blue. I was shocked. You can test this, and we did, by mixing black paint with yellow. Because what do you get when you mix blue and yellow? Green. What do you get when you mix black and yellow? Green–granted, muddy, dark and not the pretty jewel tone you might normally expect, but it’s green. Add some white, or a LOT of yellow, and you’ll see it clearly. It’s harder to demonstrate with white, but at this point I’ll take his word for it.

*It’s later. Ivory Black. Titanium White. Cadmium Red. Oil paint names start with the major ingredient–what was burned/processed to get that particular color. At least one type of black used to burn ivory (!) in a vacuum chamber, and the ash was the foundation of the color. Now they use animal bones. So, if you are a strict vegan and involved with art–either as a painter or a collector, here’s one more thing to worry about. Sorry.

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