I’m doing a series of posts on different ways to select a palette of paints.
One way to choose paint is to use what I will call a “color theory” palette. Such a palette is characterized by a limited number of paints (usually, but not always, between three and six—plus white). These colors are usually selected for high chroma, without regard to value. Their hues are distributed as evenly as possible around the color circle. Color theory palettes vary in how many colors are used and the particular distribution (color space) over which the colors are selected. They can involve a lot of experimentation to find exactly the “right” pigment to fit into a particular theoretical slot. Color theory palette aficionados may agonize over which pigment is just the right middle yellow, for example.
One simple color theory palette uses the traditional primary triad colors: red, yellow, and blue. Intermediate hues are obtained by mixing two primaries. A green is mixed with yellow and blue, for example. Mixtures are lightened with white and darkened or neutralized with mixtures of complementaries. Another simple color theory palette uses the printer’s three primary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. A CMY palette (if the pigments are selected correctly) is distributed a bit more evenly around the color circle than the RYB palette.
Either of these palettes can be used to mix just about any hue. Because (almost all) mixtures reduce chroma, they are very limited in which high-chroma colors can be mixed. Because the highest-chroma pigments have very different values, mixing the desired value can also be a challenge. Additionally, because all colors must be mixed from only three, you will probably find yourself doing a heck of a lot of mixing. The advantage to these palettes is that, with only three colors, you eventually learn their properties (however limited) very, very well.
Another approach is to use one each of the four “artist’s primaries.” This method raises green up from a mere complementary to a true primary, so the palette has red, yellow, blue, and green.
There are color theory palettes that involve more than just a three or four pigments. Another approach is to simply have one color for each of the six traditional primary and secondary colors (a “ROYGBV” palette). Yet another is to take each of the artist primary colors and split them into two, one of which is biased toward one of the two secondaries next to that primary, the other of which is biased toward the other of those secondaries. For example, the two secondaries next to blue are violet and green. So you would select a violet blue and a green blue. You’d then find an orange red, a violet red, a green yellow, and an orange yellow, for a total of six paints on your palette. The idea is that this split primary palette makes it easier to hit particular hue/chroma combinations than just a three color palette. And of course it does, to a degree.
One of the big proponents of the split primary palette approach is Michael Wilcox, author of “Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green.” (His point with the title is that there are no pure primaries, and if there were they would only mix to black.) I find Wilcox hard to take seriously because I simply hate the way he writes. He has an irritatingly smarmy, superior, slappable writing style. He repeats himself over and over. And he doesn’t know the difference. Between a grammatical sentence. And one that is not.
Wilcox recommends two biased pigments for each of the traditional primaries (cadmium red light, quinacridone violet, cadmium yellow light, hansa yellow light, cerulean blue, and ultramarine blue). He also adds five other pigments (plus white) to his recommended palette for no theoretical reason, just because he likes them (pthalo blue, pthalo green, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, raw sienna, and titanium white). Bruce MacEvoy has an excellent criticism of Wilcox’s book, which largely comes down to three points: (1) Wilcox represents his theory as new, but it really rehashes color theories from the middle of the 19th century; (2) he misrepresents the nature of how colors reflect off of pigments; and (3) his pigment choices are not very well distributed around a hue circle. MacEvoy also has a bit to say about split primary palettes in general.
Yet another variant is to use the CMY printer’s primary palette and then add a secondary pigment in between each of them: this palette would have yellow, green, cyan, blue violet, magenta, and red orange, all distributed quite evenly around the hue circle. If I were a color theory palette person, that’s the one I’d probably use, because it’s the one that most accurately reflects actual color and the limitations of actual color mixing.
Plenty of artists successfully use a palette based on one of these approaches. With proper selection of paints, a color theory palette can be useful and flexible. The two problems with such palettes are (1) some high-chroma colors may not be obtainable; and (2) darkening and neutralizing high chroma pigments using only complementary mixtures can be an exercise in frustration, with continual re-mixing to manage hue shifts and saturation costs.