Did you know during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, color theory did not exist as we know it today? A major reason for this is the primary colors yellow, cyan and magenta did not exist as pigments until the end of the 19th century. The color wheel we use today is entirely based on the invention of these pigments.
This image of St. Peter was created in layers of color.
Artists of the Renaissance worked with earth colors and oxidized metals and created the effect of yellow, cyan and magenta through painting techniques such layering and glazing. They focused on the chemistry between materials not on the organization of color as we do with a color wheel.
My palette for portrait painting.
In the 20th century, Johannes Itten and Josef Albers created the color theory we use today. However, because they were abstract painters, they had no interest in color as a means to describe form and space (as needed for figurative art). They were interested in fields of color and the influence of one color against another.
The work of Mark Rothko best exemplifies this.
The resulting hole in color theory leads to many problems. How do we organize hues properly as they move from dark to light? When does a color stop being dark yellow and become another color entirely? Current color theory does not describe complex optical effects such as luminosity (the optical effect of a single hue as it moves from its lightest to darkest value).
The color palette of my handmade pastels.
Our inadequate color theory is among the reasons contemporary artists often struggle with their work. Because nearly all color theory is highly flawed, most of what artists learned is simply wrong. Primary colors have been organized in groups of 3, 6 and even 12 because three primary colors are the minimum needed for color printing. However, the proper number of primary colors in a color chart should be eight. Likewise, the dark and light values of each hue must be balanced to understand luminosity (achieved when the light and dark values of a hue do not appear to be less saturated (colorful) than the middle values.)
My digital color chart.
Until we understand the fundamentals of paint and how to achieve the desired color, through mixing or using specific techniques, we will never have full control over our art. Without that, there is …struggle, frustration, disillusion, and worse, as some give up altogether, merely from the lack of proper instruction. We don’t approach any other profession this way. It’s time fine art owns its rich patrimony. There’s so much information from the past that we’ve discounted and discarded. We need this information to create beautiful artwork that matches our inner visions. The application carries across to everything digital as well. We are short-changing ourselves by not embracing our artistic patrimony and making our jobs as artists a lot harder than it needs to be.