Cyclopedia of Painting/Primary Colors

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The painter who wishes to obtain a correct knowledge of his trade should, in the first place, endeavor to make himself acquainted with the nature and properties of the materials he is constantly using.

The ambition of a man of intelligence should be to rise above the position of a mere drudge, and he should, therefore, by availing himself of the opportunities of culture at his command, endeavor to develop the faculties with which Almighty Providence has endowed him.

Nor will the time spent in the acquirement of knowledge be wasted, for good workmanship will always command its price, and thus a painter, who improves his scientific and technical education, will without fail rise in the social scale, with benefit to himself, his family and his country.

The facility with which ready-prepared colors can now be obtained has no doubt led to a neglect of information as to their composition or special qualities, a small amount of knowledge only being picked up in the course of practice from the men with whom each painter is associated, and who have obtained their own information in a similar unreliable manner.

It is not here intended to advocate the idea that each workman should, as in olden times, manufacture his own colors and varnishes; the rate of wages as compared with the expenses at the present day wholly forbid such a system; but it is strongly urged that the painter should know the qualities of the various substances he employs in order that he may judge of their fitness for every kind of work, and likewise that he should be able to prepare them if circumstances require him to do so.

Yellow, Red and Blue are called the primary colors, the presence of which, either pure or in combination, is found to be necessary to satisfy the eye. They have each a different relation to light, and must therefore be used in proportions which fulfill these conditions. Any two of these primaries being mixed, a secondary color is produced, thus

Blue and Yellow form Green,
Blue and Red form Purple,
Yellow and Red form Orange.

In like manner, by the mixture of any two of the secondaries, tertiary colors are formed, thus: Orange and Green produce Citrine, or the set of tints of a greenish-yellow character approximating to citron; Orange and Purple form Russet, or warm brown; whilst Purple and Green produce Olive, or dull brownish green.

By the varied and due admixture of these colors an infinite number of hues, shades and tints are produced, whilst by an indefinite and disproportionate mixture of the three colors, or of the whole together, will be produced the hues usually called dirty, or the anomalous color, brown.

There are five classes of colors: The neutral, the primary, the secondary, the tertiary and the semi-neutral.

Neutral colors are three only, White, Black and Gray. According to the laws of optics, the two first comprise all others synthetically and afford them all by analysis. These are sometimes called extreme colors, gray being their intermediate.

Thus, if Black and White are mixed. Gray is formed, or if a transparent Black is washed over a white surface, a corresponding effect is produced.

Primary colors are three only. Yellow, Red and Blue. They are such as yield others by being compounded, but are not themselves capable of being produced by composition of other colors. By way of distinction they are occasionally designated entire colors. Secondary colors are three only, Orange, Green and Purple. Each of these is composed of, and can be resolved into, two primaries; thus Orange is composed of Red and Yellow, Green of Yellow and Blue and Purple of Blue and Red.

Tertiary colors are three only, Citrine, Russet and Olive. Each of these is composed of, or can be resolved into, either two secondary colors or the three primaries; thus Citrine consists of Green and Orange, or of a predominant Yellow with Blue and Red; Russet is compounded of Orange and Purple, or of a predominant Red with Blue and Yellow, and Olive is composed of Purple and Green, or of a predominant Blue with Yellow and Red.

The last three genera of colors comprehend in an orderly gradation all those which are positive or definite, and the three colors of each genus, united or compounded in such subordination that neither of them predominates to the eye, constitute the negative or neutral colors of which black and white have been stated to be the opposed extremes, and grays their intermediates. Thus Black and White are constituted of, and comprise latently, the principles of all colors and accompany them in their depth and brilliancy, as shade and light.

Semi-neutral colors belong to a class of which Brown, Maroon and Gray may be considered types. They are so called because they comprehend all the combinations of the primary, secondary and tertiary colors with the neutral black. Of the various combinations of black, those in which yellow, orange or citrine predominates have obtained the name of brown; a second class, in which the compounds of black are of a predominant red, purple or russet hue, comprise maroon, chocolate; and a third class, in which the combinations of black have a predominant hue of blue, green or olive, include gray and slate.

It must be observed that each color may comprehend an infinite series of shades between the extremes of light and dark, as each compound color may comprise a series of hues between the extremes of the colors composing it, and as the relations of colors have been deduced regularly from white or light to black or shade, so the same may be done inversely from black to white. On this plan the tertiaries, Olive, Russet and Citrine, take the place of the primaries. Blue, Red and Yellow, while the secondaries still retain their intermediate station and relation to both.

Thus, Russet and Olive compose, or unite in, dark Purple, Citrine and Olive in dark Green, Russet and Citrine in dark Orange. The tertiaries have therefore the same order of relation to Black that the primaries have to White; and we have black primaries, secondaries and tertiaries inversely, as we have White primaries, secondaries and tertiaries directly. In other words, we have light and dark colors of all classes.

It is important to the painter that he should understand the difference between hues, tints and shades. By mixing white with the original color, a tint is produced; by mixing color with color, compound colors or hues are formed, whilst from the mixture of colors or tints with black; shades result.