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How to Paint a Color Theory Triangle

Painting for Beginners: Color Theory Basics

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The basics of color theory are that there are three primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and that by mixing these you can create purples, oranges, and greens. Like so much of painting, it's one thing to read about it and another when you first experience it for yourself. This explanation of how to paint up a color theory triangle will guide you on your first steps on the enjoyable path that is color mixing.

1. What is a Color Triangle?

The most common method for teaching the basics of color theory is the color wheel. But I far prefer using the color triangle because it's so easy to see and remember which are the three primary colors (the ones at the points), the three secondary (the ones on the flat bits), and complementary (the color opposite the point). The Color Triangle was developed by the 19th century French painter French painter Delacroix.

2. What Colors Do You Need?

Primary colors paint tubes -- Naphthol red, Azo yellow, French ultramarine blue
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans
You need a blue, a yellow, and a red. I painted the triangle in the photos here using French ultramarine blue (PB29), naphthol red medium (PR170) and azo yellow medium (PY74), in acrylics. You can use any blue, red, or yellow you've got, but some mixtures give better results than others, depending on what the pigment is. If you find a particular blue and yellow don't give a pleasing green, for instance, try different ones.

If you're wondering what PB, PR, and PY are, read Art Glossary: Color Index Numbers or Identifying What Pigment is in a Tube of Paint

3. Prepare Your Color Triangle for Painting

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Print out a copy of the Primary Colors Art Worksheet or draw one lightly in pencil on a sheet of paper. Don't make it too small, you want to concentrate on mixing the colors not fiddling to get the paint squeezed into a small triangle. Don't stress if you paint over the lines; you can always cut out the triangle at the end.

In this example, I was painting on a sheet of thick cartridge paper that had a layer of a silvery paint over it (specifically, "Liquid Mirror" by Tri Art). The reason for this was that I wanted to compare the results to a triangle painted on pure white, having heard the silver will make the colors shine. But plain white or slightly off-white paper is all you need.

4. Paint in the Yellow

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
Start by painting one of the points of the triangle yellow. It doesn't matter which one, there is no right-way up with a color triangle. Be generous with the paint as you'll want some "spare" to mix with the blue and red to create green and orange respectively.

Paint to not quite halfway across to the other two points of the triangle. Again, there's no right or wrong place to stop. You'll be mixing the color in the middle anyway.

5. Paint in the Blue

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
Next you want to paint in the blue point of the triangle. Before you pick up any blue paint, wipe any leftover yellow paint from your brush on a cloth or piece of paper towel, rinse the brush and then dab it on a cloth to dry it. Then, using blue paint, do the same as you did in the yellow point.

Paint about halfway up towards the point where the red will go, then extend the blue towards the yellow. Stop before you touch the yellow, and wipe your brush thoroughly to remove any excess blue paint (but no need to wash it).

6. Mix the Yellow and Blue

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
The reason you stop to wipe your brush before you mix the blue and yellow paint is that blue is powerful and easily overwhelms yellow. You need mix in only a tiny touch of blue for yellow to start turning green.

When you've wiped your brush, place it in the gap in your color triangle between the blue and yellow, and brush along sideways a little way into the yellow. Without lifting your brush from the paper, move it back again a little way into the blue. You should see the yellow and blue mixed where you brush has been, producing green.

Continue going back and forth a little to blend the blue and yellow. Then lift off your brush and wipe it clean again.

See also: Top 5 Color Mixing Tips

7. Continuing Mixing the Green

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
Wipe your brush clean, then pull in a little more of the yellow into the area where you've been mixing the green. Your aim is to blend the yellow and blue so you've a range of greens, from a yellow-green to a blue-green. You may find it helpful to take a fresh brush that's dry to refine the blending, brushing it gently across the surface of the paint rather than pushing hard into the paint.

If it all goes horribly wrong, wipe off the paint with a cloth and start again. If you're using acrylics and the paint has dried, you can always paint over it with some white and leave this to dry before starting again.

8. Paint in the Red

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
When you've got your yellow and blue blended to create green, wipe your brush clean and wash it so it's clean when you start with the red. As you did with the yellow and the blue, paint some red into the point, down towards the other two colors but not quite all the way.

9. Mix the Red and Blue

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
As you did with the blue and yellow, blend the red and blue together to create purple.

10. Mix the Red and Yellow

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
Wipe and wash your brush before you mix the red and yellow to ensure there's no purple or blue on it. If there is, you'll get a muddy color instead of a lovely orange when you blend the red and yellow together.

As you did with the blue and yellow, mix the red and yellow, working from the yellow towards the red (the stronger color).

11. That's Your Color Triangle Painted!

Color theory basics -- color theory triangle
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans.
That should see your color triangle painted! Pin it up somewhere as an easy, visual reminder of which are the three primary colors (yellow, blue red), the three secondary (green, purple, orange), and complementary colors (yellow + purple; blue + orange; red + green). If you want the edges neat, cut out your triangle using a ruler and craftknife, then glue it onto a sheet of card so it's easy to pin up.
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