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Painting for Beginners: What Is Color Bias?

Cat. No. 1310 Val di Chiana, Tuscany Italy
Cat. No. 1310 Val di Chiana, Tuscany Italy

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What is color bias?

Understanding how color bias affects color mixing will make the difference between how to mix a color that is vivid and saturated, or ending up with a lower saturated or dull color. To get the brightest mixtures, choose base colours with a similar bias, meaning those that “lean” toward each other on the colour wheel.

For example, although you mix yellow and blue to make green, you have to understand which yellow mixed with which blue will produce the cleanest, brightest green. This is where colour bias comes in. To get the brightest green, choose a blue that has a yellow bias and a yellow that has a blue bias. This ensures the mixture contains only two colours: blue and yellow. Mixing primary colours with the same secondary bias will provide you vivid and pure mixes. In this case you would mix Cerulean Blue or Pthalo Blue (both have a yellow bias) with Cadmium Lemon or Lemon Yellow (both have a blue bias).

On the other hand, if you chose a blue with a red bias instead of a yellow bias, you would introduce a third colour, red, to your mixture. Red is the opposite or complement of blue, so it will make a muddy color. For example, Ultramarine Blue has a red bias and so does Cadmium Yellow, so you will get an earthier version of green because you have unwittingly added red.

Color bias or color temperature?

Colour bias is also sometimes referred to as colour temperature – whether the colour is “warm” or “cool”. It is a good practice to organize your painting palette from warm to cool. You can also arrange each color group from warm to cool, and then follow the order of colors you see on the color wheel. If you are an absolute beginner, lay out your palette like this:

warm/cool primary palette
warm/cool primary palette

This warm/cool primary palette uses the three primary colors of the triadic color wheel (red, yellow, blue) but uses two of each primary, a warm bias and a cool bias. It is a good palette layout for beginners since you can mix most colors easily. After a time you will know automatically where your cool and warm bias colors are. 

How do I know what colors to mix?

When your learn how to mix a color, you need to keep in mind the color bias for the mix you want to create. This is very important when mixing the secondary colors: orange, purple, and green.

For example, for vivid orange both the red and yellow must have a warm color bias. To create a less saturated/lower hue or dull orange (brown) mix a yellow with a warm color bias (red) and a red with a cool color bias (blue), or a yellow with a cool color bias (blue), and a red with a warm color bias (yellow).

The concept of warm and cool color bias has been written about for hundreds of years. Many theories start with the six point color wheel (three primary colors and three secondary colors). A dividing line splits the wheel into warm and cool. The line varies based upon the reasoning of the theorist. Regardless, the general idea is that warm colors are yellow, orange and red; the cool colors are magenta, blue, and green.

warm and cool bias colors
Color Circle Split Primary

To identify color temperature you’ll need to learn how to see and identify warm and cool colors. Some colors are easy to discern, but looking at so many colors in so many brands “color temperature” can get tricky.  In the world of paint, each color has a warm and cool green, blue, red, yellow, earth color, and then the addition of black and white. Comparing a warm red to a cool red and then compare those to a third color, you should be able to see if it’s yellower, bluer, or in between the first two reds.  Once you begin to “see” the differences it becomes easy to identify any color. This may take some time, so do a lot of practice mixing colors before you start painting. It will save a lot of time and wasted paint in the long term!

Here is a website to help you determine if your color bias is warm or cool. It is worth printing it out to hang in your studio, or laminate it and take it on plein air painting trips. Beginners can ignore most of the columns to start with, just concentrate on the Hue/Temp column. As you get more skilled, look at the other columns to give you more insight into the bias of each paint tube. 

I hope this article on color bias has been helpful. Happy mixing!

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you find it useful. If you would like to get free painting tips by email, please sign up for my free tips newsletter.

If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

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