What is colour Theory

Colour theory for coloured pencil artists

The scientific principles of color theory are complex; therefore, we'll simply address how they apply to colored pencil artwork.

When we pick the pencil colors for our drawings, we adhere to color theory techniques. However, using pencils rather than paint makes things a little more tricky. 

We cannot place two different colours in a pan and physically stir them together (unless we use watercolour pencils). Instead, we layer each colour to create an optical mix due to the transparency of our pencils.

Paint manufactures include the pigment contained in the paint on the tube. However, this is not the case where pencils are concerned. We have no clue as to the ingredients. Companies do this to ensure a wide variety of hues, tones, and tints can extend the colour range they provide to the consumer. 

For youngsters, this is ideal because they can use a wide variety of colours right out of the box.

However, artists like you and me can find this selection of pencils limiting even if we buy a tin with up to 150 colours in it.

Often we want to gradually shade an area from light to dark without altering the hue or base colour. Picking three or four reds from the tin, for example, will be unlikely to give the effect we want, as the pencils contain different pigment mixes. 

If you have limited knowledge of colour theory, this might be an issue. So let's start right at the beginning, and by the end of this page, you will hopefully have a better understanding.

What are the primary colours?

You may remember the primary colours from your school days. They are...

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

The general understanding is that you cannot create these colours by mixing others.

In school, you learned that mixing the primaries will give you secondary colours, as follows...

  • red and yellow equal orange 
  • yellow and blue create green 
  • and blue and red make purple

If we had pencils with pure pigment in them, this would undoubtedly be the case. 

However, if you open a tin of 120 pencils, you will find many yellows, many reds, and many blues.

  • Which do we mix?
  • How much of each?
  • Will all reds mix with all blues to create vibrant purples?

How do I mix secondary colours?

Do something for me. Take all the red pencils out of your tin and lay them side by side. Which of them strikes you as pure primary red? If you have another brand of pencils, do the same with those.

The chances are that some of your "reds" will lean towards the oranges (we call these warm colours), and some will look more like purple or burgundy (cool colours).

What is going on?

Samples of red pencil variationsThe "red" pencils in my Faber Castell tin

The manufacturers want to give you a choice of colours, so they mix a bit of yellow in some reds. In others, they add a smidgeon of blue. 

Why is this an issue? It makes creating bright secondary colours more difficult.

Purple, green, and orange are our secondary colours. You will find them in between the three primaries on a basic colour wheel, and in between them you will find tertiary colours (but we will discuss those on a different page). Any three colours that are adjacent to each other are classed as analogous colours and any two that are opposite each other are complementary

What colours make purple?

Blue pencils from my tinSome of the "blue" pencils in my tin

If you try to mix a red with some orange in it (warm), with a blue with some green in it (cool), you will not get purple. Instead, you will end up with a sludgy mix. Not what you were after!

If you pick up a red that leans towards blue (cool) and a blue that leans towards red (warm), you have a better chance of success.

Pencils mixed to produce purples"Purple" mixes compared to "purple" pencils

Which of the mixes I created above look purple to you? Try covering up the single colour swatches on the bottom line and take another look. 

When layering these colours I just picked red and blue pencils at random from my tin.

What colours make green?

Of course, the same goes for blue and yellow mixes.

Some yellows lean towards orange as we have already discussed, and some blues lean towards green. Make the "wrong" choice and layer them, hoping to get a bright green and you face disappointment. You will do best to pick a greenish-yellow and a greenish-blue.

Yellow and blue mixes make greenYellow pencils and green mixes

What colours make orange?

At the risk of repeating myself, you need yellow and red pencils that lean towards orange to get a bright orange result.

Pick a yellow that leans towards green and a red that contains a blue bias and, you've guessed it. Mud!

red and yellow makes orangeOrange mixes

What colours make brown?

If you have done the experiments above, you will have already discovered the answer to this question! Mix any three primaries together, and you get brown. Even here, to get a clear brown, you need to ensure you have equal amounts of each primary.

You might at first think you are mixing two primary colours. But if one of your pencils has the third colour incorporated within the pencil core, then all three will be present in varying proportions.

Three primary colours mixed produce brownThe three primary colours produce browns or neutrals when mixed

But do we need pure browns? Or would a slightly greenish-brown be better for that wooden shed or a purple-brown for the bark of that tree?

As an animal artist, I have an extensive collection of "brown" or neutral pencils ranging from beige to "almost black." However, I still layer different colours to get just the right shade for the fur or eyes of an animal.

I might have a golden brown, which is a tad too yellow, so I layer another colour on top to bring it closer to the colour I need in my drawing.

How do you know the pigment mix in your pencils?

The problem is, you don't!

The only way to find out is to do some experiments. This can seem tedious and time-consuming when all you want to do is create a masterpiece - but it is time well spent.

After all, you don't want to spend hours on a project to pick up the "wrong" pencil to add that final touch and then realize that your lack of colour theory skills has caused a disaster!

Make your own colour charts

Don't waste time scribbling any two primary colours together to see what they give you.

Use a page in your sketchbook and note the colours you used for each experiment. If you do this logically, you will end up with a colour mixing chart that is simple to use for future projects.

Don't forget to mark down which colours (and pencil brands) were used to create each mix. You might also wish to record which colour you used for each layer. This will help you when you come to use the colour combination in a finished piece of art.

You can do this by jotting down the colour numbers from the pencils, as I did in the images on this page, or you can write the colour names that the manufacturer gives the pencils. 

Avoid mixing too many colours together

Avoid mixing too many colors if you wish to achieve a rich, bright color. The impurities and peripheral colours in the pencils will combine to give you a dull, drab result rather than a clean, brilliant hue.

Be wary of earth tones, such as yellow ochre, raw and burnt sienna, and umber. These are ground pigments from natural earth. Using them sparingly can be effective additions to your color palette, but too much will muddy the overall effect. If you've ever attempted watercolor before, you'll be familiar with this!

If we combine two pencils and get an unexpected result, one or both of them likely has a bit of a different color, most likely the "missing" primary. Try to limit the number of pencil colors you use at once since doing so may lead to difficulties.

In watercolor pencils, where the pigments are blended with water, rather than being layered on top of each other, it's vital not to combine more than three colors.

In Summary

Your own sense of creativity and originality can help you produce stunning coloured pencil artwork, but it's essential to understand the basics of colour theory. Although the science behind this is complex, I hope I have explained it in an easy-to-understand way. We will dig into the subject further on other pages of the site, for example, learning about complementary colours.

By experimenting with the different colours and types of pencils available to you, you can create beautiful pieces of art that are truly unique. So get creative, have fun, and happy drawing!

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