Friday, August 10, 2007

Color Smashing

I just got back from a weeklong polymer workshop in Stresa, Italy. It's a lovely town on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. A tad touristy at this time of year, but I've learned to tune out tourists (I guess that means I tune myself out, too!).

One of the main reasons I signed up for this rather expensive jaunt, was that Maggie Maggio, color guru of the polymer clay world, would be teaching. Maggie has "smashed" conventional color thinking and come up with new way of understanding color. Color has always been a struggle for me. I have an intuitive sense of color and work from the gut. This is great, but how many times have I mixed a color and had no idea how I got there, making duplication impossible. During Maggie's three day course, I finally grasped what color is about and how it works. You can read more about Maggie's color theory at and look for her upcoming book with fellow color expert, Lindly Haunani.

In a nutshell, Maggie has replaced red-yellow-blue (RYB) pigment primaries with the printing primaries of cyan-yellow-magenta (CYM). Instead of a traditional color wheel, Maggie uses a triangle with yellow at the top point, cyan blue on the left point and magenta on the right point. The bottom of the triangle consists of the Purple Line. The Purple Line, from left to right, starts at cyan blue, to blue violet, purple, red violet, violet red and ends at magenta red. In the center of the triangle you'll find, not grey/black as in traditional theory, but what Maggie calls Mud, a brown with grey tones. Now here is the first "aha" moment: ALL HUES (COLORS)ARE MIXED BY MIXING YELLOW WITH THE COLORS FOUND IN THE PURPLE LINE. Adding white creates a tint, adding black creates a shade. Maggie has divided her triangle into four color families: Rainbow, Rainbow Pastels, Earth and Earth Pastels. To create an Earth color, you simply add Mud to a Rainbow color! Second "aha" moment: USE MUD, NOT THE COMPLEMENTARY COLOR, TO DESATURATE OR TONE DOWN YOUR HUE.

In addition to hues and saturation, a color's value, from high to low, is important in understanding the "mood" of a color. Third "aha" moment: THINK OF YELLOW AS SUNSHINE AND BLUES/VIOLETS AS SHADOW. So a yellow will be brighter, or have a high value, compared to a purple, or low value.

So now we understand color and how to mix them, but how to we choose a palette? Maggie believes we have color preferences, but our "personal" palette does not dictate our "project palette". Fourth "aha" moment: JUST BECAUSE YOU'VE BEEN TOLD THAT YOUR A "SUMMER", THAT DOESN'T MEAN THOSE ARE THE ONLY COLORS YOU CAN USE IN YOUR WORK.

Maggie has a unique exercise to come up with a project palette: Cut out a bunch of magazine landscape photos that speak to the mood and feel of your project. Arrange them into piles that "hang" together - not just by color, but by rhythm, lines, crispness and texture. Take one of the piles and make a collage. Then start mixing the colors found in your collage. You should have at least 8 colors plus mud: a yellow, a yellow green, an orange, a red orange, a fuschia, a violet, a cobalt, an emerald and mud. Desaturate colors by using mud to achieve earth tones. Use a combination of brights and desaturated in your project - this adds depth. You now have a complete palette even though you may not choose to use all eight colors in your project. At left you can see my collage with the polymer clay colors I mixed to match. I can't believe I actually mixed EXACTLY the color I wanted!!!!

Maggie does stress, though, that color sense is exactly that - a feel, a mood, a gut reaction. Color mixing just helps you get there quicker and be able to understand the how and the why.

More about creating polymer clay color scales in my next post!

Note to polymer artists who use Premo: Cyan is Premo's Cobalt Blue. Yellow is Premo's Zinc Yellow and Magenta is Premo's Fuschia.
To mix the colors in the Purple Line:
Cyan = package Cobalt
Blue violet = 1/2 cobalt with 1/2 fuschia
Purple = 1/4 cobalt with 3/4 fuschia or use package Purple
Red violet = 1/8 cobalt with 7/8 fuschia
Magenta = package Fuschia.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I will definitely give this some serious thought energy.