4 Basic Palette for Color Mixing

Primary Colors Palette

Are you a beginner painter and you do not know which colors to buy? Are you always confused whenever you have to choose the colors to paint your subject? The following article will show you which colors to use in your painting and how to build your own palette.

In the Primary, secondary and complementary colors article I defined what a primary color is. The primary colors are: red, yellow and blue. Reading whatever book you will find that mixing primary colors you can get whatever color. This is partly true and the reality is much more complex. However, the simplest palette you can use is the one composed by only primary colors. I call this palette Primary Colors Palette.

Primary Colors Palette

This palette is the simplest palette you can use. The advantage of this palette is that whatever color you mix, it will harmonize with others colors of your painting. However, when you go into a fine arts shop you will not find color tubes called “red”, “yellow” or “blue”. You will find very strange name like cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, etc. You will find a lot of red, yellow and blue colors, so which colors you have to choose?

As red I suggest to buy alizarin crimson. As blue I suggest to buy ultramarine blue. Mixing these two colors you will get a beautiful purple. As yellow I suggest to buy cadmium yellow light. Do not buy the cadmium yellow medium and dark. Cadmium yellow light mixed with alizarin crimson give you a beautiful orange and mixed with ultramarine give you a beautiful green.

To complete the palette the white and black color are necessary in order to lighten and darker your colors. I suggest to buy titanium (or zinc) white and ivory black. Here the 5 color tubes of your first palette:

  • Titanium white (or zinc)
    Titanium White
  • Ivory Black
    Ivory Black
  • Alizarin Crimson
    Alizarin Crimson
  • Ultramarine Blue
    Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
    Cadmium Yellow Light

Using this palette you can mix secondary colors mixing the two adjacent primary colors.

Primary Colors Palette

From this palette, if you wish, you can exclude the black and replace it with a color called “bistro” which is a mixture of the three primary colors (ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow light).

Extended Primary Colors Palette

As your experience increase you can add to the previous palette more colors in order to:

  • mix colors with more accuracy;
  • mix more intense secondary colors;
  • mix more colors.

This new palette, that I call Extended Primary Colors Palette, is composed by 6 colors. Two colors for each primary color: a warm and a cool version of that color. It includes the following colors:

  • Cadmium Red Light (warm red)
    Cadmium Red Light
  • Alizarin Crimson (cool red)
    Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium Yellow Light (cool yellow)
    Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Indian Yellow (warm yellow)
    Indian Yellow
  • Ultramarine Blue (warm blue)
    Ultramarine Blue
  • Cobalt blue (cool blue)
    Cobalt blue
  • Titanium White (or zinc)
    Titanium White
  • Ivory Black
    Ivory Black

At the Primary Colors Palette we added three more colors: cadmium red light, cobalt blue and indian yellow. This new palette allows  mixing more intense secondary colors. You can mix a secondary color mixing the two adjacent primary colors as showed in the following figure.

Extended Primary Colors Palette

This palette is used by many artists, even if you can find some variation such as the use of magenta instead of alizarin crimson, phtalo blue instead of ultramarine, and so on.

Primary and Secondary Colors Palette

When your experience increases even more, you can switch to a palette that includes also secondary colors. When you go into a fine art store to buy three secondary colors you could get into trouble because you will not find colors with name like “green”, “purple” and “orange”. You’ll find color tubes with bizarre names such as: cadmium orange, dioxazine purple and so on. The three secondary colors that I suggest to buy are: cadmium orange, dioxazine purple (or cobalt violet)  and cadmium green.

The question now is: if you can get the secondary colors by mixing two primary colors, why you have to buy these other colors?

The secondary colors sold by fine art shop usually are more intense than color you can get mixing two primary colors. The following figure, for example, shows how the use of cadmium orange allows mixing colors (area B) that you will never be able to mix with the use of only two primary colors.

Color Mixing Area

Primary and Secondary Colors Palette

Full Palette

When you have some practice with the kind of palette described above you can switch to a Full Palette which includes the so-called “earth colors”. These colors are less intense than colors seen so far. If the primary and secondary colors are located at the border of the color wheel, the “earth colors” are located at the internal. Here are a list of frequently used earth colors:

  • Raw Umber
    Raw Umber
  • Burnt Umber
    Burnt Umber
  • Yellow Ocher
    Yellow Ocher
  • Raw Sienna
    Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna
    Burnt Sienna
  • Venetian Red
  • Sap Green
    Sap Green

The following figure shows a top view of the color wheel and the position of the pigments mentioned so far.

Artist Color Wheel

You’ll notice that we have lot of pigments on yellow-orange spectrum than in blue-violet one. The reason is that human eye is more sensitive in the former spectrum range than the latter. The colors and palettes suggested in this article must be used as a reference guide and they should be considered as a starting point to avoid the confusion that most beginner painters have.

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  1. This is the first clear explanation on colours I have found. Thank you.

  2. Very good post. I am experiencing some of these issues as well..

  3. Leighann says:

    I have watched hours of videos trying to understand mixing…go figure I would get the most out of the simplest explanation and the most basic model (occam’s razor). I really appreciate the blog. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about website. Regards


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