Painting lessons: color!

Thanks to everyone who commented on my earlier painting lessons!  And especially to Uta and Elizabeth for sharing their paintings with me.  Check out what they’ve been making here and here.

Now we’ll get to the heart of why most people paint: color!  Colors are the opposite of the earth tones I mentioned in the last post.  They are bright, saturated, and (usually) transparent and highly tinting.  Good pure color pigments used to be expensive and often toxic.  But now most colors can be made from organic pigments that are relatively inexpensive and non-toxic.

In theory you can mix any color from three primaries: yellow, red, and blue.  In practice most pigments aren’t “pure” and any three pigments will only be able to produce a limited range of hues.  “Hue” refers to the color of a pigment: its redness, greenness, blueness, as opposed to other properties like value (light vs dark) or saturation (color versus gray).  Many artists use a “split primary” palette, that contains two of each primary color (a greenish and an orangey yellow, an orange and a purplish red, a purplish and a greenish blue).  This sort of palette is much more powerful and will let you mix almost any color you see.  I like to use 2 yellows, 3-4 reds, and 4 or more blues, plus a couple other pigments.  I find this gives me the best balance between being able to produce a wide range of colors and being able to keep track of all those tubes. Here are some colors you will usually find on my palette:


A light yellow:

Arylide yellow, also sometimes called primary yellow or Winsor yellow.  A clear, light, lemony yellow, it adds sun to whites and is indispensable for mixing clear greens.  This color has the weakest tinting strength of any of the saturated colors (meaning it takes a lot of pigment to shift a mixture towards yellow) so you’ll tend to go through a lot of it.  Cadmium yellows can be similar in hue but are opaque, expensive, and much more toxic.


A dark yellow:

Indian yellow is weak and transparent, hansa yellow deep is stronger and more opaque.  Other dark yellows include new gamboge and any yellow labeled “deep.”  This is a darker more canary yellow, useful for mixing oranges, olive greens, and brightening yellow ochre to paint earth in the sun.


(A quick note: you will often here painters refer to colors as either “warm” or “cool.”  Warm means yellowish or reddish, and cool means bluish.  So they will call arylide yellow a “cool yellow” and indian yellow a “warm yellow.”  I find these terms more confusing than just saying what hue you mean.)


Scarlet vermillion (an orange-red):

Makes orange with any of the yellows.  Can be mixed with other reds to make them sunnier.  Similar in hue to cadmium red but again, less toxic and expensive.



A pure red:

Napthol red or primary red or Winsor or Grumbacher or permanent red.  A pure clear fire-engine red that can’t be mixed from any other colors.



A quinicridone magenta:

Quinicridones make beautiful roses and magentas, and pure purples when mixed with ultramarine blue.  Quinicridone rose is the lightest and pinkest, magenta is darker and purpler, and violet is darker and purpler still.  If you love purple you may want a range of these colors.  Otherwise you will need at least one to add light to shadows and warmth to blues and grays.


Blues and greens:

Ultramarine blue:

The reddest of the blues.  Makes clear purples when mixed with quinacridone reds.  Makes a fairly pure blue when mixed with a dark greenish blue.  Weaker in tinting strength than antwerp or pthalo blue



A dark greenish blue:

Antwerp blue or prussian blue or delft blue.  A dark inky blue the color of the deep ocean.  Together with ultramarine blue can produce many of the blues you see.



A light greenish blue:

Cerulean blue or azure blue or manganese blue hue.  A light, slightly green “sky” blue.  Every brand’s version of their color is a little different, but I find it useful to have something in this range on my palette (I prefer one that is more turquoise and quite weak and opaque, which means I can use it as an earth tone as well.)  Very beautiful when mixed with ultramarine blue or Payne’s gray.


Pthalo turquoise:

A clear bright saturated turquoise like robin’s egg blue.  Highly staining.  Very useful for mixing greens.  (This image looks different because it is watercolor rather than acrylic like the others.  I don’t have this color is acrylic at the moment.)



Permanent green light:

I used to paint without any greens on my palette, preferring to mix them from yellows and blues.  But if you are going to have a green, permanent green light is a good one: neutral in hue, medium in value, it can be made into many different greens by tinting it yellow or blue, and makes a nice gray with primary red.  It is also exactly the same color as the green on stoplights (which is why I got it originally).


Here are some other blues that I don’t often use but you might:

Pthalo blue:  A very dark pure transparent blue.  Also by far the most strongly tinting color out there.  Used sparingly, and dulled down with orange or an earth tone it can be very beautiful.  Used indiscriminately…well, I’m sure you’ve probably seen some garish coffee shop paintings that are overpowered by an unnatural blue or green.  That’s pthalo.  You will only need to buy one tube of this ever because a little goes a long long way.

Cobalt blue:  A beautiful pale clear blue, slightly gray and relatively weak in tinting strength.  Many artists swear that you can’t paint the sky without this color.  I don’t have it because it is expensive and because my mindset about buying paints dates from when I was in grad school.  I should probably get this color though.  Note: cobalt blue “hue” (or anything listed as “hue”) means they have tried to match the same color using less expensive pigments.  The properties of these colors will be different).


Alizarin crimson and pthalo green are especially useful for mixing dark colors and blacks. If you compare the mix of these two colors to the mix of colors shown in the center of the color wheel above, you’ll see that these two pigments give you a deep dark black, while mixing other colors will give you a more middle gray.  Alizarin crimson is a dark purpley maroon that is also useful for tinting reds and blues. Pthalo green, like all pthalo colors, should be used judiciously. And I pretty much only use it for mixing black.

Choosing a palette is a very personal thing. We all have favorite colors and colors we’d rather avoid. But learning how to mix and use colors really does give you a new way to see.  A split primary palette is a good place to start and you can then specialize it for the kinds of colors you like best.  In the next few posts I’ll share some exercises that can help you learn to analyze and mix any color you want.