“You can mix all the colours you need from just three primary colours, plus white.”
You’ve heard this, right?
You’ve seen the colour wheel, a thousand times, with the primaries, the secondaries, the tertiaries and whatever-aries.
This is the first of two posts I’m doing on this “primary” palette – firstly, seeing what range of colours you can mix with it (and especially what you can’t mix with it) and secondly, in the next post I’m actually going to attempt to paint with it.
I’m doing this because I know a lot of people still believe that you can mix everything you need from primaries. If this is you, I hope that I can save you untold hours of frustration by showing exactly how limited this palette is and why it will hold you back.
And yes, I do believe there is a better way.
I frequently hear from people who tell me they have trouble matching the colours they see. A lot of the time, it’s because they simply can’t do it with the tube paints they have.
So lets start at the beginning.
What is the Primary Palette?
Well, it’s red, blue and yellow. With white. That’s what I was taught at school, anyway. You probably were too.
But which red, blue and yellow?
Most people seem to agree that ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow are the most useful blue and yellow to have as “primaries”.
But if you add something like a cadmium red, you’ll really struggle to make anything in the purple range that doesn’t come out as mud.
So, often, the cad red is changed for something more on the blue-red side.
That does indeed give you a wider gamut. What do I mean by gamut? It’s the range of colours you can produce with those tube paints.
Gamut is extremely important when it comes to tube paint choices. You may decide to limit your choices, as a lot of people do, in order to keep you from producing horrible colour.
And that’s fine as far as it goes. But it’s a bit like limiting yourself to only three ingredients when you cook to make sure you don’t make anything horrible.
Frankly, I don’t think that’s going to make bad work good, or a badly cooked dish tasty. You could struggle on, trying to make something nice with these three ingredients.
Or you could, you know, learn how to cook.
But having heated discussions about crackpot colour theories is much more fun than actually putting in the work to learn how to mix it. How boring would that be?
Let’s talk about reds for a second, because it’s the most problematic colour in the “primary” palette.
Frankly, if you have alizarin (pigment PR83) on your palette these days you really need to do some reading up. It is not lightfast. It will fade to brown. After a while, your painting will not look the same as it did when you painted it.
Just don’t. There are plenty of substitutes with better lightfastness you can use.
The most popular version of the primary palette I’ve come across, the one people mention to me over email most often, is recommended by Mark Carder of Geneva paints.
(Just to be clear, I have a huge amount of respect for Mark’s approach and his teaching and all the free material he puts out. In many ways our approaches to teaching are similar. I just disagree about limited palettes being useful).
Mark uses Pyrrole Rubine (PR264) for the red. It’s a lightfast, very intense naphthol red. More orange than alizarin, more purple than cad red.
Another choice might be Quinacridone Rose. It’s lightfastness is excellent and its chroma is higher – at least in the ones I have. It makes higher chroma reds and oranges when mixed with cad yellow, and also since it’s further round the hue wheel toward blue, it makes a better range of purples with ultramarine.
So a representative primary palette might look like this:
- Alizarin/Pyrrole Rubine/Quinacridone Rose (but don’t use Alizarin, ok?)
- Ultramarine blue
- Cadmium yellow
- Titanium white
What I’m interested in testing here is the assertion that you can mix any colour you need with just these colours.
What’s missing here?
With this palette, you’re going to struggle with some areas of the colour space.
Especially, you’re going to struggle to get a good level chroma in some hues.
Chroma is best thought of as the intensity of the colour. Near to grey is very low chroma. Very intense colour is high chroma.
The problem areas here will be:
- Green. All greens will be difficult, but especially at low values. Dark green leaves? Forget it.
- Mid red and orange reds, and oranges. You can make reasonably high chroma oranges, but if you’re painting a clementine? Not quite there.
- Green-blue, especially at mid to light values.
- Browns. A lot of stuff in the world is brown. And brown is just low chroma, usually low value orange. Can you mix good browns with this set of tube paints? Let’s find out 🙂
I used the Munsell book of colour to test the extent of the colours you can mix with this palette.
The great thing about using Munsell is that it’s a map to the colour space. It can show us exactly how far we can travel in any given direction, and where we have to stop. Anything that’s beyond that point, we can’t reach with these tube paints.
Here, watch this video:
What primary palette?
The thing is, there is no such thing as a primary colour in paint. You simply can’t get them. Paint is not light, and no paint can be considered pure enough to function as a true primary.
And that’s really why the primary palette doesn’t let you mix any colour you need. The theory just doesn’t translate into practice.
What I think will help you more is to learn what you can and can’t mix with what you have. Put some hours in on the palette, away from attempting to actually paint pictures, and really find the limits of your tube paints.
Because what really matters is not the tube paints you have. It’s the colours you can mix with them, and how well you can do it.
If you understand the first, and can make a good fist of the second, you’ll have solved most of the struggles most people have with colour.
Colour doesn’t have to be as difficult as a lot of people seem to want to make it. If you must use a palette this limited that’s up to you but please, don’t make life any harder for yourself than it needs to be.
Making good paintings is difficult enough as it is!
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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