My initial understanding of how colors interact came from Dr. Walter Ball, a painting teacher at Northern Illinois University. He knew more about color than anyone I have ever known.
The first time I heard Dr. Ball talk about color was in a small painting class. There were some slackers in the group: the guy sitting next to me fell asleep, while others looked bored. When Walter began talking about color, I felt like I had been plugged into an electrical wall outlet! It was so exciting. The things that man knew about color! No one had ever made sense of color in terms I could comprehend. In fact, before that lecture, I was scared of color. The work I had done to date was often devoid of color. I had no idea how to control color interactions.
After completing my undergrad degree, I took a master’s degree, with Dr. Ball as the head of my committee. While working on the degree, Walter spoke of a book, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by Michael Wilcox. I recall that I barely took in the information he shared with me in regards to the book. In fact, I even forgot the name. It wasn’t that I was uninterested or a poor student. It was the depth of Walters’ knowledge that ran so deep that my brain could only take in so much at a time!
In 2006, I had my first opportunity to teach Color Theory at the Art Institute of Indianapolis. While preparing for the class, I ran across Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. At first, I didn’t realize that it was the same book Dr. Ball had spoken to me about in the ‘90s. As I read the book, a lightbulb went off in my head! This book became the next step in my evolution as an artist.
The author, Michael Wilcox, is also the founder of The School of Colour. Michael is an author, professional artist, conservator of artworks, lecturer, engineer, and inventor.
The basic premise of the book is there is no such thing as pure color. All paints have a color base. For example, yellow paints either have a green base or an orange base. Red has a violet base or orange, and blue paints have a green base or violet. With this knowledge, Wilcox recommends that you mix colors considering their base. If you want the purest, brightest Green, you combine a green-based yellow with a green-based blue. If you don’t consider the paint bases while mixing color, the colors will appear duller.
Using The School of Colour method means you need only use two sets of yellows, reds, and blues to acquire all of the colors required for a painting. Additionally, Wilcox recommends white and a few earth tones, such as ochers. He also provides a formula for mixing black.
Another essential aspect of Wilcoxs’ approach is to use only colors with solid light steadfastness. Paint light steadfastness is crucial to the longevity of a painting. With poor light steadfastness, some paints begin losing their color within months of being exposed to light. Think of some of the Van Gosh paintings, now over a hundred years old and losing their color.
I have been using Wilcoxs color approach ever since I first picked up his book. Anyone who ever took a color theory class with me was taught to use this method.
My thanks go to Walter Ball for teaching me how to use color, and Michael Wilcox showed me how to mix colors properly. In turn, I have shared what I have learned with my students, so I hope to keep the cycle moving forward.