Inspiration: Stephen Quiller
Stephen Quiller is a fairly well-known American artist. He has written several how-to books about painting and color theory, and he also conducts painting workshops. And of course, he paints and sells his art.
I became acquainted with Quiller’s work through an artist discussion board called WetCanvas. There I discovered his version of the color wheel (he immodestly calls it the Quiller Wheel). It revolutionized my understanding of color.
The basic premise of the Quiller Wheel is that around the outside edge of the wheel are the pure, saturated primary colors. Primary red, bright yellow, and blue are spaced equally far apart from each other on the edge of the circle. Also around the edge, between the primaries, are the most highly saturated versions of the secondary, tertiary, and other intermediate colors, like magenta, orange, green, blue-green, and so on. So far, none of this is particularly revolutionary, right?
The kicker is what happens in the interior of the circle. Draw a straight line through the circle between any two of the edge colors (a “chord”, to use the mathematical term). This line represents all the colors you can get by mixing those two colors in varying proportions. Mix a lot of color 1 and only a little of color 2 and you land on the line pretty close to color 1. Color 2 has neutralized color 1 a little, and pulled it a little in the direction of color 2. Add more of color 2 and you slowly work your way along the line toward color 2 away from color 1. Additionally, by taking a mixed color somewhere on this line you can then create a completely different color by mixing some of a new color, call it color 3, pulling the result along a new line that aims toward color 3. And so on.
At the circle’s exact center, you get gray. When two colors can be mixed to create gray they are called “complementary”, and the line connecting them passes through the circle’s center. Points elsewhere inside the circle represent various shades of neutral colors, ranging from not quite fully saturated (very close to the circle’s edge) to very neutral (near the center).
Some tube paint colors do not land on the circle’s edge. Certainly tube greys, beiges and browns will land deep in the circle’s interior. But there are also colors that you might think of as “pure” that don’t quite make it all the way out to the edge. They’re close to fully saturated, but not quite.
This helps explain why you can’t mix cadmium red with cadmium yellow and get a perfectly saturated shade of orange. Only tube cadmium orange lands on the edge of the circle. The mixed orange lands on the straight line between red and yellow, slightly inside the circle. See? Not quite as saturated, not quite as far out on the circle.
Once you understand this idea, paint colors make a lot more sense.
This was an important step in my self-education. Armed with this understanding, I pared my palette down to just a few primaries: two reds, two yellows, and two blues (plus white, of course). Each primary color allows me to “extend” my reach to another part of the circle. (I also occasionally added in tube cadmium orange, a yummy color I wanted to use but couldn’t mix.)
With these few colors, most of the color wheel is accessible to me. I can mix nearly any color I could possibly want. The only exceptions being the most saturated secondary and tertiary colors, way out on the edge of the wheel between the primaries.
I got to test my ability to mix any color while taking a collage class a few years ago at the Museum School at the DeCordova Museum (Lincoln, MA). The homework assignment: find 3 colors you like (in magazines or catalogs), cut them out, then try to recreate each color as closely as you can by mixing paint. I chose three subtle, neutral colors that I don’t normally use in my painting, deliberately trying to challenge myself. To my delight, I got a very close match to all three. This confirmed for me the utility of a limited (but carefully chosen) palette.
I still enjoy looking at Stephen Quiller’s art, but for me his biggest contribution was the idea behind the Quiller Wheel.