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The color theory palette

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.

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4 Responses

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  1. jeff says

    Hello, I was read­ing your piece on palettes
    and it reminded me of Whistler’s.
    The Hunter­ian Gallery in Glas­gow, Scot­land has a lot of his paint­ing gear.(His wife was from Glas­gow)
    they have his long brushes and some palettes.

    What is inter­est­ing is how he set them up. With white in the cen­ter of the spec­trum and col­ors radi­at­ing out on two sides from left to right. Pruss­ian blue, cobalt blue, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yel­low ochre, lead white(middle)vermilion, Venet­ian red, indian red, black.

    Its inter­est­ing as he did this set up in his water­color boxes as well.

  2. David says


    Thanks. I hadn’t known that was how he arranged his palette. Whistler was quite a fas­ci­nat­ing guy.

  3. Patti C says

    I read Wilcox’s book about 20 years ago when I started paint­ing cover-to-cover in book­stores and then finally bought it. I was fas­ci­nated, mostly to learn which paints were most light­fast. I like Hilary Page’s book much better.

    One thing that irri­tates is his assump­tion that a true appre­ci­a­tion of paint­ing is lost, and painters no longer under­stand stuff like paint qual­i­ties includ­ing sed­i­men­ta­tion. Duh? That’s an oponion.

    I’ve seen the same old 6-color palette trumped out in umpteen art mags and books and also in ones writ­ten before him. I’m sick of it. The cad­mi­ums are almost always sug­gested, and I don’t like the heavy opaque cads.. The ear­lier painters must have truly loved their vermillion.

    Also, why mix earth col­ors from cads, etc? The earth col­ors are cheaper, even more light­fast, less toxic, and more com­plex due to their clay content.

    I have trou­ble mix­ing a black from pri­maries, and the com­ple­ments across the color wheel never mix a black or what I even con­sider a true gray. Bruce McEvoy observes what should have been obvi­ous to me: artist mix paint, not color. And he refers to “color” wheels made with pig­ment as “paint wheels.” Much better.

    From Hilary Page, I learned what I did not learn from Wilcox, why I could mix a Hansa lemon yel­low with a quinacridone red­dish vio­let and get an orange or red that Ilike. The lemon yel­low reflects a lot of orange light as well as green. The vio­let red reflects a lot of yel­low and orange light also. I have shut down a lot of art stores while I’ve been paint­ing: they went out of busi­ness and I got a lot of paint cheap. Throw in ebay deals for more. Then there all these new col­ors to play with. Got more than I’ll use, includ­ing tubes of genu­nine rose mad­der, carmine, and ver­mil­ion. Painters who pre­ceded us did not not have as many toys; no, they spent more time painting!

    Wilcox advo­cates a lim­ited palette, while he has had the lux­ury of play­ing with a bunch of paints. Ditto for Hilary Page. And they both keep explor­ing new paints. So do I. I like to play with new paints. I just got a new tube of man­ganese vio­let water­color today, played, and didn’t like it that much. I had fun doing it!

    I always fall back to my favorites:

    Hansa lemon yel­low PY3, the one that just has a “very good” light­fast­ness Quina red­dish vio­let
    Ultra­ma­rine blue
    Thalo green

    and mute them with earth colors.

    • David says


      Thanks for your com­ments. I’m glad you have an approach that works for you.

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