Selecting primaries

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I recently received a message from a follower of this blog that had purchased my book, Limited Palette Unlimited Color and the accompanying DVD, Create Unlimited Color with a Limited Palette. His concern was that he could not mix anything close to Cadmium Red while using the three primaries I had used to do all the demonstration pieces in the book, and so he asked, “What am I doing wrong?” All the book demonstrations were done using Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Cadmium Yellow Pale.

I was surprised by the question because I thought I had clearly explained this issue in the book, so I will address it here.

The writer may have thought I use the same three primaries for all my paintings, but that is far from the truth. I can understand the mix up because the primaries mentioned above were the main one’s used for both book and DVD.

I have been urging those having difficulty understanding color, mixing color, and achieving color harmony to remove all the excess color on their palette and just work with three primaries. There are many benefits in doing so, I list them in the book and in last week’s blog, Creating Color Harmony

Included in this article are some of my paintings, along with an explanation of the palette choice. (Click images to enlarge)

Palette: Ultramarine Blue, Light Red (both Winsor and Newton), Cadmium Yellow Light (Rembrandt), and Titanium White. This is a view from my driveway. The long, dark cast shadows of evening light created quite a wonderful contrast which I found very appealing. In order to capture the warmth of the light, I first chose Light Red. It is similar to Burnt Sienna but warmer/redder. Mixed with Ultramarine Blue, it provided deep, rich dark tones. The greens were mixed using Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light. These, mixed with various amounts of Light Red proved to be a perfect choice for muting the greens.

Determining a Color’s Temperature

As our writer realized, we are not going to be able to mix something that looks like Cadmium Red if we’re using Alizarin Crimson.

Every color leans toward warm or cool. Clearly, we see that red and yellow are warm while blue is cool. However, within each of these primaries there is a temperature bias. For example, Alizarin Crimson is cool compared to Cadmium Red, and Cadmium Red is “cooler” than Vermillion; yet, they are all red…and compared with blue, they are all warm colors.

Understanding a color’s temperature is critical when selecting the appropriate primary color for a painting.

Why is Alizarin Crimson a cool red relative to Cadmium Red or Vermillion? It contains blue while the others do not. Lemon Yellow, therefore, is cooler than Cadmium Yellow because it also contains a small amount of blue…giving it a greenish cast. This same principle also applies to blue, and every other color we might place on the palette.

Palette: Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Pale (all Winsor and Newton), Titanium White. This is the palette used for all the demonstration pieces in my book,” Limited Palette Unlimited Color”. The plan for this painting was to create a warm, overall tonality. Using Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow Pale, the surface was first toned with Red Orange. It worked as a perfect complement to the Blue Greens. By changing the tone of the canvas or by changing a painting’s dominant hue, even though using the same primaries, each painting can look significantly different.

Palette: Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Lemon Yellow (all Winsor and Newton), Titanium White. The sun has almost set. I felt Cadmium Red was too warm and intense for what I wanted to accomplish. Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson, neutralized slightly with Lemon Yellow, worked well in the sky. A cool yellow was chosen because the land is in shadow, receiving no direct warm light from the sun.

Palette: Prussian Blue, Cadmium Red, Lemon Yellow (all Winsor and Newton), Titanium White. My interest for this piece was to try a different blue, seeking for a variety of greens. Prussian Blue is a greenish blue. That mixed with Lemon Yellow and various amounts of Cadmium Red provided the range of greens desired. Before finalizing any primary choices, I always test possible primaries by first mixing them together to make sure they’ll provide what I need.

The relative warmth or coolness of a color is easily determined by placing a variety of blues, for example, side-by-side and comparing. For the darker colors, add just a tad of white to each before comparing.

Another thing you need to be aware of is that different brands will produce different results. I’ve heard from some people expressing frustration that they can’t match the color mixtures as seen in the my book. The first thing I ask, ” Are you using the Winsor and Newton colors I used?” The answer is always, “No”.

Selecting the Appropriate Primaries

The concept for a painting determines the palette. The mood you wish to create, what you want to emphasize, and what colors will most effectively communicate your concept are questions that need to be answered when selecting the best primaries for the job.

Palette: Vermillion (Old Holland), Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre Pale (both Winsor and Newton), Titanium White. The hazy scene along the coast of England is very muted in color, therefore it did not require intense primaries. I consider Ivory Black a silvery blue. It, mixed with Yellow Ochre Pale provided just the right intensity of muted greens suitable for the desired mood. Even though it’s an intense, warm red, Vermillion was chosen because, when mixed with the black and ochre it resulted in a beautiful array of browns.

Palette: Ultramarine Blue, Terra Rosa, Lemon Yellow (all Winsor and Newton), Titanium White. It’s early April and springtime in Southeast Kansas. It’s a cloudy, threatening rain kind of day. The beautiful fresh greens of Spring are beginning to show. I did not want super intense greens, which would have been better attained by using Phalo Blue and Lemon Yellow, instead, I wanted a slightly muted green that was still showing some signs of winter grasses. Therefore, Ultramarine Blue, which is a reddish blue was selected. Terra Rosa, a beautiful earthy red muted the greens nicely but, when mixed with the Lemon Yellow, was not too overwhelming.

For example, if you want to create the intense oranges and yellows of a sunset, do not choose reds or yellows that contain blue. If you want intense greens in your painting, do not select yellows or blues that contain red; and if you decide that brilliant violets are important to your painting concept, select blues and reds that do not contain yellow.

When choosing primaries, know this very important truth…

When mixing any two primaries together, if any of the third primary is present, a muted or somewhat neutralized mixture will result.

Consider this: Alizarin Crimson contains red and blue, Ultramarine Blue contains blue and red. The third primary is not present; therefore, a more pure, intense violet will come from these two colors as opposed to using Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Red, because Cadmium Red contains the third primary…Yellow.

Please let me know if you have found this article helpful. Thank you.


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