I find watercolor mixing fascinating.
In my early days as a budding artist, I would dive right into a project and rely on intuition and a bit of luck to mix my colors. My art instructor would tell me “learn color mixing before you learn how to paint”.
Did I listen ? Nope !
The results were not always very gratifying !
I would sometimes mix three or four different pigments to get the color I was hoping for. As many of you have probably discovered, when you mix too many watercolor paints the resulting colors can look faded and dull !
So I eventually learned how to make a watercolor color wheel.
A watercolor color wheel is an important first step towards understanding mixing.
I would encourage every watercolorist to make their own versions. Not only for the sheer pleasure of it, but also because they are a very useful guide to color mixing.
If you search the internet you will find a multitude of watercolor color wheels, each with their own slight variations. However, none of them seem to give a full and satisfying explanation of how to make a watercolor wheel, or explain its importance, and the purpose of color wheels in art.
Making color wheels is a lot of fun, but what’s the point ? It’s worth taking a few minutes to understand why you’re making the color wheel in the first place.
All is revealed below !
If you just want to get going and make your own color wheel you can jump immediately to the step by step instructions below.
The anatomy of the watercolor color wheel – Why 12 colors?
To get started, a little bit of color terminology is going to be useful. You’ll hear artists talk about these terms and ideas repeatedly, so getting to know the vocabulary is a good idea.
The foundation of the traditional painter’s color wheel is the primary color triad:
These are located at equal distances around the wheel with yellow at the top.
The primary colors cannot be mixed from any other combination of colors and are a vital addition to your watercolor palette.
Secondary colors are achieved by mixing one primary color with another in equal amounts. For example 50% yellow and 50% red = orange. There are 3 secondary colors on the color wheel, located at equal distances from each other, and the primary colors.
Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with an adjacent secondary color. So for example yellow mixed with orange = yellow-orange. There are a total of 6 tertiary colors on the color wheel, all located in the gaps between the primary and secondary colors. The naming convention for tertiary colors always begins with the primary color name + the secondary color name:
3 primary colors + 3 secondary colors + 6 tertiary colors = a 12 color wheel
Understanding what colors you can invent with a basic color wheel gives you the know-how for creating various color relationships.
For example, colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel are known as complementary colors. When you place these colors side by side in a painting they create the strongest amount of contrast. Two complementary colors will enhance each other and produce vibrant and exciting results. See below for a few examples.
Colors that sit side by side to each other on the color wheel create a color harmony known as analogous colors. These color hues are very close and together they create smooth and calming combinations.
You can continue to build interesting color relationships using the color wheel. Triadic colors for example are a set of 3 colors equally spaced around the color wheel (forming a triangle). They tend to create a dynamic and vibrant color harmony.
What is the purpose of the color wheel ?
These color wheels keep cropping up everywhere… Right? So you’re probably wondering why the color wheel is so essential to artists?
A color wheel is a fundamental tool for mixing colors, and it’s a way to anticipate the results of mixing watercolor pigments together.
The basis of the color wheel is three primary colors. But with watercolor paints there is no such thing as a perfect yellow, blue or red. These “primary” paints are dependant on the pigments used to make each paint. You probably have all kinds of yellows, reds and blues in your collection. Making color wheels with different combinations of primaries helps you to get to know the mixing possibilities of your palette!
The color wheel will teach you how to make secondary and tertiary colors quickly, and help you expand you mixing range by quickly identifying complementary colors. Let me explain…
How to use a color wheel to mix colors ?
Let’s take an example. Use the color wheel to identify pairs of complementary colors opposite each other on the wheel. When you mix pairs of complementary colors, quite amazingly you obtain a variety of different hues of browns!
You can do this by combining a primary plus a secondary color (e.g. yellow plus purple) or pairs of tertiary colors (e.g. yellow-orange plus blue purple). So long as the color hues are opposite each other on the wheel.
In theory you can mix any hue you need with three primary colors. Painting with a limited color palette like this helps create harmony in your paintings. It means you have to work a bit harder to mix your colors, but you will learn so much about color mixing and your confidence in mixing colors will grow!
Try mixing different color combinations with your paints to find your favorites!
let the color wheel help you choose the paints that you mix and the approximate paint proportions you need … then rely on your eye to get the right mixture.
I like to use a sketchbook and keep notes of the paint names and pigments I use. Like this I can build up a handy reference guide for mixing watercolors.
How to make a 12 color watercolor wheel – step by step
You’ll be amazed at the variety of colors you can obtain simply by making color wheels with different combinations of primary colors. Color wheels are especially useful if you employ your own personal collection of paints. You can experience for yourself the range of colors you can mix and use the wheels as a rough guide for future color mixing.
Supplies used :
- Tubes of Paints: New Gamboge, Pyrrol Scarlet, French Ultramarine
- A round plate to use as a palette
- Round brush size 8
- Two jars of water
- A sheet of test paper
- watercolor paper 300 gms / 140 lb
- 2B pencil
- A ruler, a protractor and CD (or use my template opposite)
Note that paint names differ from one watercolor brand to another. To identify equivalents in another brand of paint, you can try to match the pigments they contain in the paints I’ve used. I used Daniel Smith watercolors for this exercise. Here are some equivalents in other brands:
Winsor & Newton
New Gamboge Yellow
By convention yellow is always placed at the top of the wheel. After that, you’ll find that red and blue are inconsistently placed on either side of the wheel. I choose to place red on the right for my color tests.
Refer to the image below or print my template to use as a guide.
- Draw the layout of your color circle onto some watercolor paper with a pencil. A lot of people use a CD as a template. You can use a CD, a protractor and a ruler or If you prefer you can download my own template and trace it onto paper (I just use the good old fashioned method of holding the sheets against a window to trace – I find this is quicker and easier than measuring everything ).
- Find a big round plate to use as a mixing palette. I like this method because you can arrange your paint puddles around the circular plate in the same locations as your color wheel. (elaborate)
- Start by painting the 3 primary colors. Try to keep the tone of each color the same. Don’t forget to clean your brush thoroughly when you move on to the next color. Use the positions P1, P2 and P3 indicated on my template.
- Next mix and paint the secondary colors in positions S1, S2 and S3. Make sure to mix a big enough puddle of secondary colors and reserve some for the next stage.
- Lastly mix the tertiary colors and place them in positions T1, T2, T3, T4, T5 and T6.
- Position C0 at the center of the color wheel mixes the three primary colors in equal parts yellow, red and blue. This is the theoretical “black” but which usually results in a brown or grey color depending on the pigments in your paints.
The resulting color locations should be as follows:
- P1 = Yellow
- P2 = Red
- P3 = Blue
- S1 = Orange
- S2 = Purple
- S3 = Green
- T1 = Yellow-orange
- T2 = Red-orange
- T3 = Red-purple
- T4 = Blue-purple
- T5 = Blue-green
- T6 = Yellow-green
- C0 = “Black”
You’ve just completed a fabulous 12 color watercolor wheel…
My color wheel was created using what are considered to be warm hues. You can try repeating the process and create a color wheel using cool hues. You’ll find that the results are completely different!
You might be wondering what warm and cool hues are ? For example cool blues are those that have a green bias. Warm blues have a red bias. Cool reds have a purple bias and warm reds have an orange bias. You can use the color wheel to judge the cool or warm tendency of a color.
My suggested paints for cool hues would be:
- Lemon Yellow
- Quinacridone Rose
- Phthalo Blue (GS)
You can even try mixing a blend of warm and cool hues for yet another set of results!
- New Gamboge
- Quinacridone Rose
- French Ultramarine
You’ll have the most success using artists quality paints. I’m using Daniel Smith but you can find excellent alternatives from Winsor & Newton or M Graham for example. If you want to play around with this same mixture of warm and cool primary colors, Daniel Smith offer a sample pack of small tubes which are ideal.
Now it’s your turn ! Have fun painting some gorgeous color wheels !