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Animals by Barry

Barry Levin

Wildlife and Animal Art


Evolution of My Artwork:
Step by Step


Color Theory


Most art instructors have unfortunately been teaching that Red Yellow and Blue are the 3 primary colors. In my opinion this is WRONG!

The proof that this is wrong is that with these 3 colors you cannot mix black, white or neutral grey.

Although you can still mix almost all colors (by trial and error) understanding correct color will also allow you to make your viewers eye see whatever color you want them to see without actually painting that color, as well as see colors that are more intense and vivid than any colors you can actually paint.

I will keep this lesson as brief as I can. After this lesson you will be able to have viewers see the colors you want without actually painting those colors.



The human eye 👁️ has rods and cones.

Rods are very sensitive to light but do not differentiate colors. They allow us to see values of black, grays and white even at night. Since they do not see color they will not be relevant to our color theory discussion.

The human eye 👁️ also has 3 types of cones. These are less sensitive than rods, but detect color. Each type of cone detects only a single color of light, Either Red, Green or Blue. Although light exists in an almost infinite spectrum of visible and invisible colors, we only see these 3 colors of light.

We are only concerned with the colors the human eye sees, therefore Red (R), Green (G), and Blue (B) are the primary colors of light. When these 3 colors of light are present in the correct proportions we see White, Gray, or Black (if none of these colors are present). These colors of light are also referred to as “Additive Colors”.

This is why display screens utilize Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) to create all colors.

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The primary colors of pigment are Yellow (Y), Magenta (M) and Cyan (C). These are “subtractive colors”. Each of these colors absorb only a single primary color of light and are transparent to the other 2 primary colors of light.

Yellow absorbs only Blue light.

Magenta absorbs only Green light.

Cyan absorbs only Red light.

When these 3 primary colors of pigment are combined in the proper proportions the result will be neutral gray to black.

The colors you actually see are the colors that are transmitted and reflected by the white surface.

In printing these are commonly referred to a “Process” color and Black (K) ink is also used to achieve darker shadows than can be achieved by YMC alone. This is referred to as YMCK.



I have arranged the 3 primary colors of light (additive colors) and the 3 primary colors of pigment (subtractive colors) into a single color wheel, even though the colors are very different from each other. (This color wheel is probably different than the one you have seen in art class.)

The colors have been arranged so each color of pigment is opposite to the color of light they absorb. These pairs of colors are known as “Complimentary Colors”.

Most colors could be placed on this wheel but I am limiting it to the primary colors. By mixing colors on both sides of the color you want you could mix that color, but more importantly by placing small enough areas of those colors next to each other you can cause the eye to combine those colors into the color you want.

Placing complimentary colors next to each other will make both colors appear brighter. Mixing a very small amount of a complimentary color will make the color it is mixed with appear less bright. This small amount of complimentary color is known as a “Contaminant Color”.

Overall if you understand the color theory as I have presented it so far, you will probably continue to mix colors much the same as you are currently doing. However now it gets really interesting. With the aid of a painting, that I have created specifically to demonstrate the use of color theory, I will show you how to make the viewer’s eye create any color you want them to create without actually mixing or painting that color. I will also show you how to visually make the eye see colors that are brighter and more intense than any pigment available. I will also demonstrate how to create depth by making selected areas stand out from others.



I begin by covering my canvas with the brightest most vivid red I have. My intention is to paint an even brighter red bird over the brightest solid red than I can possibly paint.

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Viewing the color wheel you will see that the colors to either side of Red are Magenta and Yellow (these are “supplemental colors”. That means that Red can be created using Magenta and Yellow. Rather than mixing these colors together, however, I place these colors in very small areas next to each other (over the background red)

This intensifies the apparent color into an even more vivid brighter red than anything I can possibly paint. I also add orange and as well as highlight colors in order to add more form and detail.

By placing small areas of both supplemental colors next to each other the eye will see the color you want to create. By combining this with the actual color the color will appear even brighter and more vivid.



A glaze is a very transparent color achieved by mixing a very small amount of color with a lot of transparent medium. The purpose of a glaze is to subtly modify colors by painting over them with the glaze.

Now that I have shown that I can make the eye see a more intense color than I can actually paint I want to take this painting one step further.

The beak consists of gray and brown colors that are far less vivid than either the bird or the background. I want, however, to make the beak appear to stand out from the rest of the painting.

Cyan is the complimentary color to Red. (In other words it appears directly opposite from Red on the color wheel.)

I applied a glaze of Cyan to the gray/brown beak. This is enough to visually cause the beak to jump forward, but subtle enough that the beak still appears grey/brown rather than appearing noticeably Cyan.



I should clarify that this entire “Color Theory” is based entirely on how the Human eye works and what it sees. Other animals see differently than humans so this Color Theory would not be valid for them.

Birds for example have a full 1/3 of their brain devoted to vision. They see at a much higher resolution than humans do.

In addition to higher resolution, birds also have 4 colors of cones that see 4 colors. (Humans have only 3 colors of cones and see only 3 colors.) It is believed that the additional color that birds can see is Ultra Violet. Birds have amazing vision that far surpasses Human vision.

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