Teaching Color 2: The Color Clock

Student prepared Color Clock

Student prepared Color Clock

Most of my formal art training took place with a German master in Wiesbaden. I learned a great deal about different mediums and techniques, but not much about color. When I returned to the States I was showing some of my newest work in an art show. As two of the show’s judges were walking past my display, I heard one say to the other. “I just hate ultramarine blue.” Since I was featuring a new painting on which I had squeezed out that exact color, I understood his comment to mean that I had shown no skill or artistry in my management of color.

After slinking back to my studio, I resolved to really study and get my brain wrapped around the intricacies of color. I’ve spent the last 45 years doing that, and while the discoveries go on to this day, I have figured out enough along the way to provide some guidance for my students.

Early on I realized that there was a difference between understanding the intricacies of color while I was reading about it and retaining the information so I could use it when I was actually painting. To overcome that hurdle I developed four disciplines: First, I adapted the color wheel to a clock; Second, I embraced the value of tertiary colors (No, not intermediaries—tertiaries. I’ll explain that later.); Third, I forced every tube of paint onto the color clock; Fourth, I resolved to ALWAYS create a palette of color before beginning to paint.

The Color Clock

One of my problems with the color wheel was that I couldn’t remember the relationship of the colors and their positions to each other. The thing kept spinning in my brain. It is, after all, a WHEEL But one day it dawned on me that there are three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six intermediary colors. That equals twelve. Wait at minute, a clock is round with twelve spots, and I never have to stop and think about where 12 is, or 3, or 8. I know those positions almost intuitively. Therefore, I put yellow at 12:00 because the sun is yellow and it is overhead in the sky. Blue goes at 4:00 and red at 8:00 to divide the twelve spots into thirds. Next, green is at 2:00 because that is equally spaced between yellow and blue. Violet is at 6:00 between red and blue, and orange is at 8:00 between red and yellow.

That uses up all of the even numbers on the clock. The odd numbers are reserved for the intermediary colors (YG, BG, BV, RV, and RO). Over time I had my students stop mixing and adding the intermediary colors to the clock. It looks pretty and complete when they are there painted in, but it also visually confuses what I want them to notice; which is, while every primary color has the two secondary colors that it made on either side of it, the third secondary color that it DID NOT MAKE is directly opposite, across the wheel, in what I call the complimentary position. I’ll talk about why that is important in my next post.

Let me finish today, by saying that I have my students finish their color clocks by putting in tints and shades. The tint is made by mixing the color with white and placing it in the ring to the outside of the pure color. They make their shades by mixing the pure color with a very small amount of the complimentary color. Too much of the compliment will turn the mixture brown, but a small amount will give a muted, darker hue of the pure color. The shade is painted in the first ring going toward the center of the color clock. This leaves room for brown and black in the middle, but more on that later.

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