Ever had a painting turn to mud when you try to mix colors? The good news is it is not you. Conventional color theory using red, yellow and blue does not work. It will turn your pictures to mud and frustrate you as you struggle to mix colors that are impossible with this color triad. The same goes for the split primary system where you mix with a warm and cool version of each primary. The split primary system works much better than just using the three primaries but it misses the point about how colors really mix and what the true primary colors are. What are the real primary colors? Just ask your printer, Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta. Before you write me off as a heretic, read on, try a few simple color mixing experiments at home with your colored pencils watercolors, opaque paints and see for yourself. By changing the way you think about primary colors, your ability to mix colors will improve overnight.
Red is not a Primary Color I often see red and blue included in paint sets and on color wheels as a primary color. A bright fire engine red is usually shown as the red and some form of navy blue such as ultramarine stands in for the blue. Neither of these colors are primaries. A few quick tests will prove it. First, let’s mix red from other colors. You will need a clear magenta and a bright yellow. As you start to add magenta to yellow you will see the mixture turn orange, then red. If you can mix red, it is not a primary color.
There are also colors that you can not mix using red. Let’s start with magenta itself. You can not mix the yellow out of red to create magenta. The same is true of hot pink. If you dilute red, either with water or white you do not get pink. You get light red. Hot pink comes from diluted magenta. You can not mix vivid purple by combining red and blue. The combination is a bruise colored dull purple. Vivid purple is the result of combining magenta and cyan (or blue). You need to have a good magenta in your palette. My favorite is Daniel Smith Quinacridone Pink. If you are using prismacolor pencils, the magenta color is called process red (just to add to the confusion).
Blue is Not a Primary Color Either Blue is confusing because many hues get called blue. In this case we are talking about navy blue such as ultramarine. This color can be mixed by combining cyan paint with a little bit of magenta. Greens mixed from yellow and ultramarine make a dull unsaturated green. If you want to mix vivid greens, mix yellow and cyan. Cyan is the color that you need to get comfortable with. If you are using watercolor, Phthalocyanine Blue (GS), also called monastral blue, and phthalo blue is a good cyan. If you are using prismacolor pencils, look for true blue.
The Real Primary Colors What then are the primary colors? Your color printer knows the answer: cyan, yellow and magenta. These colors mix a bright and clean spectrum. You can mix red, green and blue from these primaries. Orange and violet still occupy their familiar locations in between red and yellow and blue and magenta respectively. Interestingly enough, the color wheel for light is the is the same as pigment only the primary and secondary colors are reversed. You mix red, blue and green light to create all the other colors.
Why not just call magenta a shade of red and cyan a shade of blue? Those names are already used as the primary colors for light..The primaries for pigments must be distinct to differentiate them from red and blue. Second. we have a clear idea of a hue in our head when when say “red”. Color names become less useful when they are used to describe a larger arc of color across the color wheel. The word blue already has this problem. It is used on the tubes of so many colors of paint that it has lost its spesificity.To preserve the meaning of blue, use it to describe the primary color of light or the consequence of mixing cyan and magenta pigments. It is easier for us all to envision the same color when we say cyan. Just as it would be confusing to describe red as an orangeish violet, describing cyan as a greenish shade of blue makes no sense (both green and blue are secondary colors). Call cyan cyan. Name the color that you mean. Stop describing magenta as an off color of red. Instead call magenta magenta. It is red that is a yellowish magenta.
The problem with the Split Primary Palette Many painters use a split primary palette that has a warm and cool version of each primary color. Here is one example of a split primary palette. Here is an example cool yellow: Hansa yellow light, warm yellow: cadmium yellow or new gamboge, warm red: cadmium scarlet or pyrrole red, cool red: quinacridone carmine or quinacridone rose, warm blue : ultramarine blue, and cool blue: phthalocyanine blue GS. I think that this just confuses the issue. You can mix a “warm blue” by combining the cool blue and a little cool red. You can mix a “warm red” by combining the cool red and a little cool yellow. And you can mix a “warm yellow” by combining the cool yellow and a little cool red. So why not just say we have three primaries here that we can use to mix the other colors? There is a very good analysis of the split primary palette on handprint.com.
There is nothing wrong with having more colors on your palette. Even though I can mix red, I still have red on my palette. Just because you can mix more colors from the three primaries does not mean that you need to limit your palette to these colors only. Mixing all your colors from a handful of primaries does not make you more of an artist than someone who uses a larger range of pigments.Get to know the properties of a variety of pigments. Sometimes you will need a staining color. Other times you may want a color that you can wet and lift out more easily. Pigments also vary in lightfastness, granulation, transparency, and intensity. It is great to have a selection of colors to fit the job. Also if you are working in the field it may be very convenient to have more pigments on your palette for faster color matching.
In defense of mud. Finally, there is nothing wrong with “mud”. Many of the colors we see around us are desaturated. If you mix all three primary colors together you will get a muddy or desaturated mixture. This is good and you will find you want to do this all the time. However, when you are trying to keep colors brightly saturated, mix using adjacent primary colors.
Would you like to learn more? See these sites:
- Science Education Foundation
- Handprint.com the best color information on the web (also see the discussions of individual watercolor pigments)
- Smashing Color