Forest Thrones, Part 10: Lies Your Art Teacher Told You

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Okay, I FINALLY got all those little branches sculpted. So now we move on to the next step: painting.

First, I want to discuss some color theory with you, because color theory freaks out a lot of crafters who don’t have a fine art background. The first thing you should know is that this is art, not science. There are no wrong answers, just ones that don’t suit your needs. So relax.

When you were in fourth or fifth grade, you probably learned about the color wheel, and the primary, secondary and tertiary colors, right? Your teacher probably told you that you make brown by mixing a primary color with its complement. This is the first lie I want to expose.

In a theoretically perfect world, you probably can make brown by mixing complementary colors. The problem is that you can’t make paint out of theory. Paint uses pigments that come from natural things, like earth or plant matter, or chemical processes, and nobody told the earth (or your chemistry set) that it needed to make a pure blue or a true yellow. Earth has better things to do anyway. So most pigments are not true, primary colors. The result being that if you mix a color with its complement, you will most likely get a nasty, warm, troll-snot gray.

But there’s some good news. Remember I said pigments are made from earth? And what color is most earth? Brown. There are lots of brown-pigmented shades of paint that are cheap and easy to get ahold of. If you insist on mixing your own (or the mental institution will only let you have five tubes of paint), the best way to get a nice, warm brown is to mix black with orange. The brightest tangerine orange you can get will work best. (And by the way, this advice may not apply to media other than paint, such as colored pencils or even ink, but it should apply to all types of paint, since most of them use the same kinds of pigments.)

Now let’s talk about the second lie your misguided art teacher told you (give her a break, she went to college for four years so she could scrub tempera paint out of her hair every night!).  You probably learned that there are warm colors, cool colors and neutrals. Warm colors are the ones that make you think about fire: yellow, red, and orange. Cool colors make you think of the ocean: blue, green, and purple. Neutral colors are mainly black and white, though some people classify brown as a neutral as well.

The truth is, warm and cool isn’t nearly so well-defined. Sure, yellow is always warm and blue is always cool (except in relation to other shades of themselves), but you can have a warm red or a cool red. You can have a cool green or a warm green. And brown can be either warm or cool. Warm browns have undertones of red or orange, while cool browns have undertones of blue, purple or gray. In fact, one way you can think of it is as a continuum, with terra cotta on one end and gray on the other. Warm browns, on the terra cotta end, will blend almost seamlessly into a true red, while on the cool end they blend to gray (remember our troll-snot gray we got from mixing complementary colors? Here’s where it belongs).

Cool browns are really ugly. Really slimy mud and baby poop are usually cool brown. Hot cocoa is one of the few nice things that  are cool brown. I tried to get some cool brown paint at the craft store to show you, but out of scores of different colors they only had a couple of bottles that I would consider a really cool brown, and they were so dark, it was hard to determine whether they were warm or cool. Ugly paint doesn’t market well, I suppose. Plus, it’s really easy to make a cool brown, as we will discuss below.

The other part of this lie is that black and white are true neutrals. Maybe they are, in the sense that they don’t clash with any other colors, but if you are mixing paint, let me tell you a secret. Never, ever, ever, lighten a warm color with white. Not if you want the end result to stay warm. You lighten warm colors by adding yellow. You can use a really light yellow that’s mostly white, but the more white you add, the cooler your color will get until you get back to troll-snot (will somebody get that troll a hanky? Please?).

I made a color chart for you below. The darker color is a cool brown and the lighter color is a warm brown. I hope you can see, as I lightened them, that one has kind of a purpley undertone and the other is mostly orange. (You really have to develop an eye for that with practice. I can’t tell you any tricks to it.) To prove my point about white being a cool color, I lightened each color by mixing it with white and then with yellow. As you can see, even the cool brown came out warm after being mixed with yellow, and the warm brown turned into a cool gray when mixed with white.

Finally, let’s talk about trees. You need to decide if your tree came from a happy, warm, bunny-filled summer forest; or a creepy, chilly, fog-filled winter forest. You want to use a warm brown for the former and a cool brown for the latter. I’m going to drybrush my trees to maximize their texture, but I’ll get into that in the next post.

I hope this little intro to color theory hasn’t freaked you out too much. I’m really not an expert on these things — I just have a two-bit art degree and the experience of being a graphic designer and crafter for more years than I’m likely to admit here — it just pains my heart when I hear people fret about color theory, because it’s really easy, and you really can’t do it wrong. You just need to experiment and develop your own judgment, taste and style.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.

4 thoughts on “Forest Thrones, Part 10: Lies Your Art Teacher Told You

  1. Thanks for posting this (reminder) along with your throne update.
    I remember back when I painted with watercolour and couldn’t figure out why my mixes looked bland. I found a great little watercolour paint mixing book that explained the same thing as you did… warm and cool reds, blues, yellows. My colors became brighter and less murky afterwards though I did have to purchased two sets of “primaries”.

  2. Great post, you made me really laugh when you said, “…or the mental institution will only let you have five tubes of paint” God that’s so funny.

    I don’t really understand what you described, hopelessly bad with color. But I remember when I painted my tree I was shocked that it was taupe and not brown at all! Shocked I tell you. If you would have asked me what color tree trunks were I would have said brown.

  3. Ann — I’d love to know the name of that book. I can’t remember who taught me the trick about lightening with yellow, but my college art teacher was impressed by it.

    Shelley — I’m glad you got a giggle. One never knows who is reading one’s blog…. And the thing about your trees being taupe instead of brown doesn’t surprise me either. With my trees, I’m going for beauty rather than realism, but even so I’m finding I can’t paint them too warm or they just look weird.

  4. I know I’m way late commenting, I’ve only just run across your posts though. Nice tips! My stepmother is a high school art teacher and my aunt has written color theory text books that are used in many schools. (Color Matters for one, by Jill Morton) Even without their direction I ended up ‘getting’ and enjoying the nuances of color all on my very own. I’ve always imagined it to be genetic since many people give me funny looks when I point out a color to be cool because you can tell it has just a teensy smudge of white or blue in it. (A cool yellow?! Preposterous!) I made sense of it thanks to Photoshop. Nothing like nudging the cursor around to find the shade you’re looking for to teach you about the complex nature of color. Thanks for pointing out the cool brown. I kind of like it! When you first mentioned it all I could think about was a purplish grey so I went to look it up. I like ‘muted’ shades sometimes so that nice light cool cocoas are fitting. Something like birch trees with some muted shade colors for leaves or animals…or even with some fitting cool pastels could be divine for something light and sweet. I find it difficult to think of most colors of definitively ugly. The only way I can think of colors as ‘ugly’ is when people put all the wrong ones together or overkill it with saturations. I’m all for bright and bold but some colors are just wrong and then oversaturated. I think I see this more than anything with bad graphic design. But alas, I’m sure it’s simply a matter of taste.

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