Blue + Red + Yellow: How I Paint with Primary Colors

Red, blue, and yellow form the basis for all other colors. These primary colors can do a lot. If you’ve spent any time painting you know that there are warm and cool versions of each.

The way painting is often taught to beginners is they are required to work with 2 reds, 2 blues, and 2 yellows along with white and perhaps black. (Some artists never use black under any circumstance.)

And while those aren’t “true” primary colors, they’re close enough for most people and do indeed form the basis for color theory. (For accurate color mixing, you’re best off using cyan, magenta, and yellow and perhaps a white or a black.)

Over the years I’ve developed an attachment to certain paint colors. These preferences have influenced my own distinctive color palette.

Blues

I’ve said before that I love Cerulean Blue. It has a cool, greenish tint. (Or warmish, if you’re using the imitation “hue.”) I love putting it next to Brilliant Yellow, Ochre, and Titanium White. But that’s not the only blue I like to use.

Cobalt (or Cobalt Blue Hue) is a much warmer blue and works well with Raw Umber to make a nice, rich black color. I don’t necessarily like it by itself since it seems to lack something substantial on its own, but it’s good to work with in general. It’s actually pretty warm.

Ultramarine and Pthalo blues stain really well, so a little goes a long way. Be careful not to get any on your white shirt!

Reds

I love love love love love Alizarin Crimson. It’s such a lovely red purple that mixes well with other colors. It’s pretty transparent, so it glazes well. Add a little yellow and/or white to thicken it up. With how cold my palette has been over the past decade, I’ve kind of rediscovered Alizarin recently. It’s refreshing to reintroduce my palette to something so warm.

I like to take Alizarin and mix it with a hint of warm yellow like a Cadmium Yellow Medium. Or put them side by side straight out of the tube. They set each other off very nicely. They look sharp.

Cadmium Red Medium is a good all-purpose red, and the lighter version is more red-orange. Mix the Cadmium Red Light with Alizarin and you get a delicious, rich warm color.

Yellows

In general, yellows are pretty thin, transparent. I find I have to mix some Titanium White into it to give it some opacity.

Zecchi in Florence, Italy makes a really delicious brilliant yellow. The closest thing I’ve found in the States is something made by either Rembrandt or Old Holland but that is too green, too cold, and not warm enough for my liking.

Instead, I often mix a lot of white and a little yellow to get something similar. It’s great for making a color lighter while retaining it’s intensity or chroma.

And of course, there’s Ochre. It’s a great yellow-brown. Not quite mustard. It looks fantastic when paired with a bright yellow and a brilliant blue. Think of Van Gogh.

What about secondary colors?

I’ve found mixing a small amount of Dioxazine Purple with Burnt Umber or a blue-brown mix can get some rich blacks.

Green is one of those colors I use with hesitation. For years I avoided it as it proved difficult for me to use. After all, I have a tendency to paint with lots of blues and browns. At one point I decided green was “God’s Color” since the Earth is green. I felt there was nothing I would do with green, but I gradually got over my fear of using it. My greens tend to skew turquoise or very light spring green.

Mixed colors are more interesting than colors right out of the tube. So I make my oranges with Cadmium Red Medium or Light and mix it with a yellow and white to make a good orange.

Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber are great earth colors that mix well with just about everything else.

I’m always learning about color

Color is something I am always discovering and learning about. I’m continually amazed by the things you can do with color, how colors interact with each other. No color exists in a vacuum. They’re all influenced by each other. In a way it’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it?

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Image of pots of pigment at Zecchi Colori via An art-lover’s day-trip to Florence