One of the more popular of the “primary” palettes for painting you might have heard of is the CMYK palette. Cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
The “primaries” here are cyan, magenta and yellow. The black is added, presumably, to extend the value range.
I’ll be honest: Before I started looking seriously at this palette I was extremely sceptical of it. Why? Well, because it comes from photographic printing, and printing is inherently different to painting.
Well, funnily enough, at the level of light and colour, it’s not that different – especially when we’re taking about glazing. The light that creates the colour sensations in the brain is reflected in a very similar way in both processes.
The more I learned about this palette – about these specific colours – the more I realised that there’s much more to this than just some odd and niche primary palette idea.
That doesn’t mean to say I think it’s a good idea to paint with it, not at all. I’ll get on to that later. But it’s not as simple as it first seems. Mostly because the science it’s based on – or extrapolated from – is basically sound.
Whilst investigating this palette I learned some very interesting things, which I’ll share with you at least in abbreviated form here. Because you can’t really evaluate the usefulness or otherwise of this palette for painting unless you do understand where it comes from, and that means the science of light and the process of printing.
The origins of CMY
No, I’m not going to go into real depth on that in this post. Because again, David Briggs has already done a wonderful job of that, particularly here.
If you’re interested in really learning where all these various primary theories came from, I strongly recommend reading his site in depth. Probably more than once. I’ve continually referred to it as I’ve been researching CMY, and there is still much for me to learn there. There is no better website on how colour works, as far as I know.
Basically, CMY are the subtractive primaries. So you start with white (which reflects the widest spectrum of light) and then by subtracting areas of the spectrum using transparent “masks” of one of these primaries, you can create a wide gamut of colour.
In the CMYK printing process, each colour of ink is added separately, like this (Image from wikipedia)
And they would combine to make this:
A tale of two methods
The thing is, there are two different ways this palette is used in painting, that I’ve found. And they are so different as to necessitate dealing with each separately.
The first is using the colours as transparent glazes over a bright white ground. It’s very close to printing, in fact is a kind of translation of the process from a machine to a manual implementation, and essentially works the same way.
The second is painting opaquely – as we would normally understand it, mixing those primaries with white (and black, if you like). This is much easier to get a handle on, so let’s start with the tricky one first.
Painting transparently with CMY
This painting is by Maxfield Parrish.
I mean wow, look at that. Even in reproduction it’s pretty amazing. The colour is unlike any colour I’ve ever seen in oil painting. Not because the chromas or hues are unachievable any other way, but because it’s so idiosycratic! Although it’s painted, it looks like it’s printed. And most of his work was done for reproduction.
You can find a lot more of his work on Google images, and it is amazing.
But the real world simply doesn’t look like this. That said, this idealised, fantasy world is undeniably beautiful and compelling, it seems to me.
In fact, Maxfield Parrish was directly influenced by the printing process he saw and attempted to replicate it in paint. And he came pretty close! Here is one of his paintings part way through – you can see the resemblance between this and the printing masks above.
Now, it strikes me that if you’re going to paint like this, you’re going to have to be extremely meticulous and organised, planning every stage several steps ahead. You need to paint with almost machine-like precision.
It ought to be possible, in theory, to paint realistically using this method, but I think it would be so difficult as to be very nearly impossible. And Maxfield Parrish’s work, whilst representational – and beautiful in my opinion – isn’t at all realistic.
Here is an airbrush photo realist, Don Eddy working in a similar way, but with different pigments; violet, phthalo green and burnt sienna. The process is very similar:
You can find out more about this process here.
Looking at both those methods closely, it appears very much to me that there may some projection or even direct printing of the photo reference they start from onto the canvas. The level of detail and control is so high.
You could possibly do it all manually, but the finished effect is so close to printing, for the drawing out, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some of that, or at least projection and tracing involved.
That doesn’t make it bad. It doesn’t mean it isn’t art. At least, not to me.
But I would consider it to be a different art form than the one I’m involved in, and probably yours too, if you’re reading here. So although the process is fascinating, I can’t see me ever using it in such a meticulous way, and across the whole of the image.
These approaches are essentially idiosyncratic and demand such a high level of precision, as well as being so very different from what most of us understand to be painting (especially traditionally) that, amazing as they are, I think that they are not particularly relevant to the majority of painters as a model of colour handling to learn from.
Let’s move on to the next one.
Painting opaquely with CMYK
Ok, I’ve got to come clean here. I haven’t finished my tests with this yet. I’m doing some test mixes to find out what range of colours you can mix with this palette, and also to see what it’s like to try to mix low chroma colours with. For these tests, I’m using white as well as black, because if you’re painting opaquely, you have to use at least some white.
I’m also doing some basic glazing tests to see what chroma can be reached, and that’s taking a little while because paint has to dry between layers. I’m planning to share the results of all these tests in next week’s post.
Isn’t there something in between?
Well, possibly, yes. I’ve seen at least one video on youtube where an artist was mixing tube paints together in the usual way, ostensibly CMY, but without using white. What she was doing was adding very large amounts of medium in order to make the paint more transparent. In some cases, there was more medium than paint – much more.
Personally, I find that more than a little worrying. Everything we know about longevity of paint films goes against this. It’s a good rule of thumb to use as little additives as you possibly can, especially resins. And modern alkyd based resins haven’t been around all that long.
Also to bear in mind is that Maxfield Parrish’s paintings have some serious problems, apparently, not least being a marked yellowing because he varnished between glazes.
Which tube paints?
One of the problems with this palette is that there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on exactly which pigments we should be using for our cyan, our yellow or magenta.
The most common pigments I’ve seen recommended are, for the cyan PB 15.3 – Phthalocyanine blue. For the magenta, usually a quinacridone. I’m using PV 19, quinacridone rose, in my tests. For the yellow, PY 74 seems a popular choice, and is the one I’ve been using. But I’m also going to try PY 3, since the yellow should probably be more towards a lemon yellow.
A quick word here, because this bothers me. There are paint manufacturers putting out what they call process colours, or primary cyan, magenta and blue. What bothers me about this is that it tends to suggest that there’s something special about these particular tube paints, something different: There isn’t. In the cases I’ve seen from Talens and Daler-Rowney, they are the pigments I’ve just mentioned.
The cyan in particular, in the Talens range, includes PW 7 – Zinc white. So if it’s complete transparency you’re after, I would have though that would tend to make it more opaque, no?
Is there a place for CMYK in oils?
Maybe. David Briggs recently said to me in a very interesting conversation on Facebook that he thinks it’s a good starting point for a selection of tube paints to recommend to a student, say, from which you could then add paints to allow higher chroma in some hue areas (red orange etc) and some earths and black to help with low chroma colours.
I’d agree with that, except that personally I don’t see the need to start with primaries if you’re choosing a fuller palette. To me, I would just make sure that you hit a good chroma in a wide range of values all around the hue wheel, and then , as David suggests, add black, white and earths to make low chroma colours easier to mix. But I’ll think a bit more about that. It may be because I use a different mixing method than most, one I find to be much more effective and which allows finer control. I’l probably be covering that (again) in more detail soon.
So how useful is it?
Well, I want to see the results of my tests.
But frankly, it seems to me that unless you want to do something esoteric like Maxfield Parrish, I would say that using this palette is likely to confuse you more than help you.
If you’re mixing with white and not glazing, then you can mix a wider gamut – and so paint with more chroma – with a wider set of tube paints. So vibrancy alone, if you mix with white, is no argument for this palette.
If you really want to use very few paints with the widest possible gamut of colours, then CMY is certainly better than red, blue and yellow.
I can’t see how using such a restricted palette will help you learn to mix better, or paint better, come to that. If you want to reach a wide gamut, closer to the widest gamut that can be achieved with paint, then you will need to add more colours.
So really, the only real reason I can see for using this palette is that you want to use very few paints and get the widest gamut you can with them. For reasons of expense, perhaps, or weight, you think it’s a good idea to only have three or four tubes in your box.
Apart from the rather idiosyncratic approach that painters like the photorealist Don Eddy and Maxfield Parrish used, which after all do come quite close to a mechanistic, printing process, there is really no good reason to use this palette that I can see, based on the properties of the paint alone.
But let’s wait for the test next week before making too many hard and fast statements.
What’s your take?
Of course, these are just my thoughts after messing about with it for a few hours. You could say that was unfair, and you may very well be right. After all, I didn’t decide that Munsell was a useful system until I’d spent many, many hours with it (I was very sceptical at first).
Regardless, I would really like to hear from anyone who habitually uses this palette. I’m genuinely interested in knowing what it is you feel you gain from it, that you couldn’t get any other way.
If you can demonstrate your points with examples of your work, or work by other artists you admire that you feel demonstrates what you’re saying, that would be really helpful. Either post in the comments here or drop me an email at paul – at – learning-to-see.co.uk.
Finally, I want to say thanks very much to my facebook friends who pointed me towards a lot of the resources in this post in a very interesting conversation we had about this palette and its uses.
This conversation is ongoing and I expect to learn more from it as it unfolds. If you want to be a part of it (or just watch) hook up wth me on facebook.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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