Color theory: The white to black of yellow, part 1

The start of an occasional series about practical color theory for the (watercolor) artist.

Yellow is a difficult family of colors to work with in the studio. No other color is so easy to contaminate as yellow. Just the tiniest grain of another pigment will turn a creamy butter yellow to a rotten egg green or muddy tan.

Rendering shadows and dimensionality is another challenge. Just what color should you use to paint the shadow of a yellow object? The unthinking choice of black will turn the shadows an olive lime green. Color theory states that the complement of a color should be used to mix the shadow tones, but mixing yellow with its opposite, violet, results in a muddy brown.

Yellow hues found in fruit, © 2011, Wren M. Allen

Your eye sees yellow fruits, but the eyedropper tool reveals many different hues.

This photo of some yellow fruits shows some of the range of hues in both the shadows and the specular highlights. I used the eyedropper in Photoshop to pick out the different tones. Notice how the green color of the unripe fruit is still apparent in the ripe specimens.

Some yellow hues found in eggs, © 2011 Wren M. Allen

From greenish ochre to orange tan, an egg is more than just yellow.

Eggs, butter and cheese are more examples of objects that we think of as yellow, but which contain many other hues within the main color. As measured by Photoshop’s eyedrop tool, the objects below fit our preconceptions of the shades found in the yellow color family.

Eggs, Butter and Cheese: A color chart © 2011, Wren M. Allen

Do the colors of these dairy products really match our idea of what is yellow?

Some shades of brown are deep, desaturated shades of yellow. Other browns are actually in the red family.

Always observe the colors in your subject matter. The actual shade is not always what your intellect tells you it ought to be.

Next: A look at some yellow watercolor pigments and their value ranges.

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  1. Pingback: Color theory: The black to white of yellow, part 2 | Wrenaissance Art

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