28 March 2009

The Wilcox Color Bias Wheel: Yellow and Blue Don't Make Green? (Updated)

1996.In my quest to understand color better I've collected a great deal of references. One of them, and one I commend to anyone at least to push the envelope of their color thinking.

Michael Wilcox is one of the new colorists who has some views which seem bombastic but have "bang-bang" headlines to get your attention then shows eminent and solid logic that even the tyro and the layman and the beginner can grok.

But Blue and yellow don't make green? Strange thing to say, especially due to the conventional wisdom as due to the color wheels we've seen certainly seem to solidly suggest that they do. If you take out your paints and play, you pick a good-looking blue and a good-looking yellow and they sure do seem to go to green, or something that looks like a good green.

What might not be obvious to the beginner though is that color theory is predicated upon idea, perfect color. The red, blue, and yellow primaries we toss about in discussing color like so much grade-school tempera are in fact perfect pure ideals: the red we think about is the absolute red, the yellow and the blue also absolute.

Of course, nothing is perfect. In reality, no such thing exists. No matter how primary you red paint is going to be, there's going to be a semmingly-infinitesimal about of yellow or blue; in every blue, a tiny bit of yellow and red, and in every yellow, a tiny bit of red and blue. Moreover, of these combinations, say, in a red, there's going to be a preponderance of one or the other of the other two primaries–more of the blue than the yellow.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that all primary-color paints are subtly biased one way or the other toward one secondary or the other. Every red is either subtly violet-red or orange-red; every blue is either subtly violet-blue or green-blue; every yellow is either subtly green-yellow or orange-yellow. Starting out you may not notice this, but as you get better at looking at color, you'll start to see it. Select any two different-but-similar primary colors, lay them out on a ground and compare, and the result may become instantly apparent.

This will open your eyes. It opened mine wide.

The illustration at right s the result Mr. Wilcox came up with to abstract the entire concept, and it does it with astounding clarity. It resembles our classic color wheel in that you have red, yellow, and blue primaries, and orange, violet, and green secondaries. But see the arrows and note that the red on the side of the orange is orange-red whereas the red on the side of the violet is violet-red. This is actually the state of the primary colors you're likely to run into as a painter, be it oil, watercolor, or what have you.

It opens the door to a system where knowing your colors and their biases means mixing color is a thinking process rather than a chance process. As Wilcox himself says in the book Blue And Yellow Don't Make Green:

To define red, yellow, and blue as primaries is only true in a rough and ready way – leading to rough and ready color mixing skills.

If you're trying to learn color theory and plain on painting, you need to at least acquaint yourself with Michael Wilcox's work. His School of Color is a commercial concern that will sell you books and materials that will do the trick, or at least find yourself a copy of Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green and let the information sink in. It's all so very logical and interesting that a whole lot of things quickly become possible to you.

Update: I see I'm not the only one that sees this book and Michael Wilcox's work as important. Canadian artist Michael King also was impressed, for mostly the same reasons. Wilcox's insight into color and how it works may indeed have been a quantum leap in how artists see and work with color.

Sadly, the review of the book is pretty shallow (sincerely sorry to say, Mr. King). If you're serious about paints, you know by the time you've gotten to Wilcox's book why paints work on the page and the insight isn't so much how the paints work but why color biases exist and why that's important (there is no such thing as a pure primary in paint and how to use that as a basis for color thinking and mixing).

But I do appreciate the updated cover design. Very smart.

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