The joys of a limited “three primary” palette

Limited three primary palette: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light
I was struck yesterday by a post on the blog of Jeffery Hayes about his experimentation with the limited palette recommended by Mark Carder in his method of learning to paint.

Hayes is a still life painter who uses a wide palette of up to 70 paints, and produces quite beautiful results from his choices. While not normally a fan of limited palettes, he tried this particular one at the suggestion of a friend, and was surprised at how flexible it was.

This prompted me to think about the palette I’ve been using, which is quite similar.

When I returned to painting after a long hiatus, I knew I wanted to use a limited palette, and set about researching which colors would be most advantageous.

What I eventually decided on was a palette of three colors, used as “primaries”, with the addition of one or two supplementary colors, depending on the intended use. (In choosing my palette, and for the purpose of this article, I put aside arguments about what “primary colors” actually are or are not, and I’ve used the term in quotes here to emphasize that.)

The basic colors I arrived at are: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light.

Like almost any oil painting palette, these are used along with white (usually Titanium or Titanium-Zinc).

I’ve found this is actually a very common limited palette, and/or the core of many palettes I’ve seen in which these three “primaries” are augmented with one or two additional colors (as Carder has added the Burnt Umber to compensate for the high value of the yellow).

Adding a bright, warm red like a cadmium or pyrrole red is common. Burnt Sienna is sometimes used in place of Carder’s Burnt Umber. Another common addition is Viridian (or Phthalo Green), which mixes with Alizarin to produce a nice range of dark greens and reds, as well as making a pretty good chromatic black — as does Ultramarine Blue mixed with Burnt Umber, or the deep purple that can be mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson.

Kevin Macpherson, in his popular and well regarded books on painting, uses these three colors as primaries, supplemented with Cadmium Red Light and Phthalo Green.

I’ve seen these three colors on numerous supply lists for classes and recommended starter palettes for those learning to mix colors.

Some people have pointed out that there are “three primary” palettes that produce a wider gamut of colors (in which paints closer to cyan and magenta are used instead of blue and red), but gamut is not the only characteristic of paints relevant to artists. There are other factors like transparency, covering power, mixing strength, range of value and the ability in a limited palette to create strong mixing complementaries.

These three paints, when used as primaries, seem to work exceptionally well together.

Alizarin Crimson — while the subject of some controversy (and perhaps another post) — has a depth, richness and subtle characteristic in its undertone that is not found in other reds. Notably transparent, it makes a good glazing color and mixes well with other colors to create deep, transparent darks.

The controversy has to do with the debate over the lightfastness of Alizarin Crimson. Carder, and many other artists, use a “Permanent Alizarin” substitute. These are generally not Alizarin at all but quinacridone reds, essentially an “Alizarin Crimson Hue” — though why they aren’t labeled as such, I don’t know. While I personally prefer the real thing when painting in oils, I would less likely to recommend genuine Alizarin Crimson in a watercolor version of this palette, and would instead substitute Perylene Maroon.

Ultramarine Blue (French Ultramarine) is beautiful and remarkably flexible. It’s warm and strong, but not overwhelming in mixes, where it excels in creating a broad array of colors. A touch of Cadmium Yellow Light brings it into the range of cool blues common for skies.

Cadmium Yellow Light (or Pale) is perhaps the strongest, clearest, “yellowest” yellow available to artists — almost neutral but slightly warm (depending on the manufacturer) and nicely opaque. Combined with Alizarin Crimson, it can produce a warmer red (though not as bright and warm as a Cadmium Red) and a surprisingly bright range of oranges and orange-yellows.

The bluish Alizarin Crimson and the reddish Ultramarine Blue combine to make a beautiful range of clear purples, either deep or bright with the addition of white. Clear purples are often difficult in limited palettes.

Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light can create a wonderful array of greens for landscape, bright enough that most still have to be dulled down a bit with Alizarin so as not to be too high in chroma.

Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light mixed for secondary colors

All three of these colors are strong in mixes, but not so strong as to overpower other colors. (Phthalocyanine pigments, for example, can sometimes be overwhelming in mixes and difficult to control. However, Alizarin Crimson can stand up to Phthalo Green well enough to produce a range of dark reds and greens as well as a deep chromatic black. Mixtures with Phthalo Green can be darker than similar ones with Viridian.)

Like any palette based on three primaries, each pair of primary colors when mixed produces a secondary color that is the complementary color of the remaining primary. (e.g. blue and yellow make green, the complementary color of red.) Complementary colors can be used to heighten the vividness of a color by juxtaposition or reduce its chroma in mixtures.

While not “ideal complementaries” — colors directly opposite on the theoretical hue circle — these colors produce effective “mixing complementaries” — paints that have the desired effect of moving a color toward gray when mixed together.

The weak point of a palette consisting of just these three colors (while simultaneously one of its strengths) is the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light, which lightens almost any mixture to which it is added. This is the reason a dark orange-red like Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber is often added.

These three colors, as primaries, also form the basis of many common “split-primary” (or “color-bias”) palettes, which utilize a warm and cool version of each primary.

Those palettes usually add a cool yellow (often Cadmium Lemon), a cool blue (commonly Cerulean, or Cobalt, which is almost neutral) and a warm red (Cadmium Red Light, or a Pyrrole Red).

The core palette, however is Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light — in common use, augmented with one or two supplementary colors like Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Viridian or Cadmium Red.

Painters who are used to a larger palette, but want to experiment with a limited one like this, may find it helpful to mix piles of the secondary colors from the primaries on their palette before starting to paint. That way, in addition to the tube color red, blue and yellow, your set-out palette can contain mixed orange, purple and green — and, with a little additional mixing, some pretty good approximations (at least in hue) of earth colors like ochres and siennas. It’s surprising what a full palette you can create from these three colors. Adding an actual dark earth color, like Burnt Sienna, extends it even more.

A limited, three or four color palette like this can have several advantages.

One, of course, is simplicity and expense. You only have to buy five tubes of paint (including white) to have a relatively complete and versatile palette. I do recommend, however, not skimping on the Cadmium Yellow Light by substituting a paint labeled “Cadmium Yellow Light Hue” (usually made from an Arylide Yellow), which will be much less satisfactory in this use.

It’s also a convenient palette for keeping things light and simple when packing for plein air painting.

A limited palette like this forces a kind of built-in color harmony, in that almost any color applied is likely to be a combination of two or three of the same tube colors.

This kind of palette is ideal for someone like me. My temperament is quite different from Hayes and others who find a very broad palette useful (which it certainly can be for having the widest range of clean, intense colors available).

I get overwhelmed with too many color choices, and much prefer to mix from a limited number of colors. When mixing a red and blue to make purple, I don’t have to decide which red or which blue to start with — that’s a given. My goal at this stage is to learn these few colors well, seeking a deeper understanding of how they work with each other in repeated application.

Artists who find a multitude of color choices confusing, are starting to learn color mixing, or are looking for a convenient, limited palette to carry into the field, may find these three colors, with one or two additions, a great place to start.


26 Replies to “The joys of a limited “three primary” palette”

  1. I keep hearing about a controversy over what is a primary color. I’m not a painter, but I recognize colors. Green can be made using yellow and blue, but yellow cannot be made using any combination of red, blue and green, at least as far as I know, so how can green be a primary color? Can you explain this to me?

    As I say, I’m not a painter, but enjoyed your blog post.

  2. Thanks, Hap.

    This is unfortunately not a simple question. Prior to the 18th century, artists considered four colors primaries: red, yellow, blue and green (sometimes called the “artists’ primaries”, and still known in certain modern color theories as the “psychological primaries”).

    Newton’s experiments with color produced the notion that there are only three: red, yellow and blue, and this became accepted practice among artists.

    However, modern color theory, and the practical application of commercial printing, demonstrates that truer primaries (colors which produce the widest gamut of possible colors when mixed) would be cyan, magenta and yellow. These produce secondary colors of red, green and blue. Cyan and magenta make blue, magenta and yellow make red, cyan and yellow make green.

    All of this is in reference to “subtractive primaries”, e.g. colors of paint. The “additive primaries” (colors of light) are red, green and blue (as in the RGB color space of computer monitors).

  3. Nice post Charley,
    Of course you have to show Vasari paints! (a previous post of yours on them).
    I suppose it would be a good argument to try out an expensive but high quality brand on a palette like this first, for the beginner, the student or the underprivileged ; )

    I have not used a three color primary palette since school but I may give it a whirl again. As you say it would be especially good in a plein air setting.

    I use a version of the split-primary palette (for oils, my watercolor palette is slightly different). I then add to that the earth colors yellow ochre and burnt sienna and sometimes paynes gray and raw sienna. I like the way raw sienna mixes with greens.
    I rarely use the umbers.
    I can’t remember the last time I used a tube black. I mix from the same two you mentioned above, burnt sienna and either ultramarine blue or cobalt blue.

    I have always understood that any color labeled with ‘hue’ means cheap substituted ingredients, except maybe alizarin?

    Matthew D. Innis has a good post on alizarin crimson, as it evolved from (rose) madder, over there on his Underpaintings blog, worth checking out.

  4. Thanks, David. Those are the paints in my box, what can I say? I turned the labels out to show the color names.

    I’ve largely been avoiding natural (clay based) umbers in favor of synthetic iron oxides (Mars colors), but Burnt Umber is an exception. Yes, I like chromatic blacks better than carbon blacks.

    Sometimes pigments used in “hue” colors can be nice in their own right. Many artists prefer a pyrrole red to cadmium reds. Cadmium yellows, though, seem impossible to adequately replace.

    Thanks for the heads-up about the Innis post on Alizarin Crimson, I’ll look it up.

  5. Good morning, my friend.

    I enjoyed your summary of limited palettes here very much. It does make color mixing easier with fewer choices. But I find that a couple additions (like cad red and burnt sienna) round out the palette pretty well.

    Thanks for the post. Great job and article.

  6. A design instructor I had in college had an interesting take on the primary palette concept. His view was that since you are dealing with pigments you aren’t going to get true red/yellow/blue. So instead you use two of each – trending towards each of the other primaries. So a green side blue and a purplish side blue, orangeish yellow and greenish yellow, bluish red and orangeish red.
    I paint with acrylics and still use a palette based on this idea – plus the basic browns, black, white, and Jenkins Green (a really dark green that is difficult to mix to).

  7. This looks to be a very adequate palette for starting out and for plein air. I agree that in painting, often less is more. I went back to using oil paints four years ago after several years painting realism using acrylic paints. When I switched to oils, I became almost obsessed with color palettes and how they affect the harmony and mood of a painting. When I see an artist I like, I search to find out what colors they use.Often the palettes are available on their workshop list or in articles written about them. Sometimes I will do a painting using their palette. It is interesting to see how the colors change the mood.
    I enjoy experimenting with different color combinations and find that Ultramarine blue, terra rosa, yellow ochre, cad red, white makes a great palette for snow. For a misty rainy day I like Viridian, cad red, ivory black, yellow ochre, titianium white.
    At some point I want to stop experimenting and settle into a palette that I use regularly, but until then I will continue on my journey for as long as it takes. Gurney’s book “Color and Light” is also an inspiration. So much to learn…so little time!
    Thank you for your blog and good luck with the new palette.

  8. Hi Charley- Very nice article on limited palettes! One of my favorite exercises, especially when I’m showing beginners who are usually intimidated by the idea of *all* the colors there are, is to take some black, white, and one color, and mix out a whole range of what’s possible with them.

    I did once try a “three primaries and black and white” but found that it somehow seemed too arbitrary. Maybe the red and yellow were too demanding!

    What I do like is black, white, one warm color and one cool color, it almost doesn’t matter what colors. The temptation to paint local color fades away and you are forced to deal with contrast. It’s a great exercise.

  9. Hello everyone,

    thanks for this article. Sometimes it is a good step to reduce the palette. I learn so much about colour when i do this. Simply because i think a lot more about the mixing them.

  10. Thanks, Gerry.

    Yes, there are lots of interesting limited palettes, prompting different approaches to painting. In this case, I was trying to find a more or less “full spectrum” limited palette.

    Other readers can check out Gerry Mooney’s paintings, illustrations, comics, animations and more at

  11. Ahh, the Vasari paints again…how nice!
    I am still wanting to grab a tube or so of their paints in the future.

    This post is right in line with something I had recently been thinking of/planning to do. I had discovered Mark Carder’s website and am am working a bit with the “steps” method, which I had figured upon on my own in practicing color mixing/matching…but another part was using a limited palette with the same colors you have posted. I was able to win a lot of vintage paints on Ebay recently which included 150ml tubes of Cad Yellow light, Alizarin and Ultra Blue which gives me a load of paint in which to play around with.

    The lot also included vintage W&N paints like genuine rose madder, cobalt green and manganese blue…as well as true, lead based Chrome Orange and Yellow from Schmincke, well, so much for keeping it simple :)

  12. I think another nice aspect of a limited palette like this is that it lets you sample and work with other new brands, grades or types of paint, providing a workable palette without making a huge investment in lots of colors.

    The vintage paints sound interesting. Working with a limited palette as your base certainly doesn’t preclude experimenting with other colors.

  13. Great post Charley. I limited my palette for a while. I’ve added colors back in and occasionally reach for an odd color. The best thing I did was to drop black in a tube and got rid of the student grade paints. Alizarin and Ultramarine are both so thin and transparent I feel the need for a paint with more body. Everyone seems to default to a palette that serves their favorite colors.

  14. Thanks, Stephanie.

    I find that the transparency of the Alizarin Crimson and semi-transparency of the Ultramarine Blue work well when making darks — traditionally applied first in oil painting, and ideally thin and transparent to best effect at their darkest — and as soon as either Titanium White or Cadmium Yellow Light are added to the mixed colors, the opacity increases significantly. The combination works well for me. If I need a more opaque dark red, I’ll add Burnt Sienna.

  15. Mixing with a limited pallet is a great so long as the colors needed fall within the range of colors that can be mixed with said pallet. Let’s take Rembrandt Oil in Cadmium Yellow Light and Ultramarine Deep because this is what I have to work with. Within the Munsell Color Chart, the Cadmium Yellow Light falls at 5.17Y 8.79/14.9 and Ultramarine Deep falls at 8.52PB 1.13/2.4. The strongest Green I can mix is 5 parts UltraMarine Deep with 2 parts Cad Yellow Lemon which comes in at 6.68G 3.20/6.1. If I need a green with a greater chroma (intensity), I have to add an additional color to my pallet. Using Phthalo Green Blue will allow me to get a much more intense Green with a value of 3.38G 4.10/12.3.

    For those not familiar with Munsell here are the RGB Values
    (63,75,35) vs (0,105,27)
    plug in the values here to view them.

    That being said I do believe that a limited pallet is good for some painters in that it keeps them away from intense values and more in keeping with the ideals of Fletcher.

  16. Thanks for your comments and links, Paul.

    Yes, a limited palette by definition has a more limited gamut than an extended one, as well as issues of value. I mentioned that the palette discussed here is often supplemented with a dark orange red like Burnt Sienna, and/or a dark green like Viridian, to make up in particular for the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light; or a brighter red, like Cadmium Red Light or Napthol Red, to make up for the limitations of Alizarin plus Cad Yellow.

    I do find in my experience in painting landscapes, that I rarely need a brighter or more intense green than I can mix from these colors. Most of the time, I’m reducing the chroma of my greens, except for a brief period in early spring, when I might substitute Cadmium Lemon for the Cad Yellow Light.

  17. I use a limited palette when I paint en plein-air to cut down on weight so I read this article with great interest.

    Odd Nerdrum paints with only four colors, yellow ochre, vermillion, white, and a cool bluish black (Mars) for a subtle, muted effect, like the light in Norway where he lives.

    Your choices are more vibrant, closer to what I paint with. Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Light, Pyrrole Red, Viridian, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber are basics in my palette, but I have reservations about Alizarin Crimson because it is fugitive.

    Vasari offers a “Selected Cézanne Palette Set”, of eight colors on sale, including Zinc White, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Light, which are the core colors of your palette! Also included are Raw Sienna Light, Terra Rosa, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray. Cézanne painted with these colors and more, so you are of the same mind in color choices as he was.

  18. Carol,

    Thanks for your comment. I think it would be more accurate to say “Alizarin Crimson can be fugitive”. I don’t believe the alarmists who insist that it always must be. I think high quality, properly made Alizarin Crimson, without fillers, chalks or extenders (such as that made by Vasari) is well within the range of lightfast materials required for professional painting. (I think it’s also possible to use Alizarin Crimson in a way that can make it more fugitive, such as mixing it only with white, or light earth colors.) There are 19th century paintings that were painted with properly prepared Alizarin Crimson that are still richly colored 100 plus years later.

  19. Regarding Alizarin Crimson permanence:

    Take a look at Robert Henri’s portraits. Look for ones with a lot of craquelure – it’s almost always in a passage with a lot of Alizarin Crimson. I don’t know the science of it, and there could be other causes, but there’s definitely a pattern.

  20. Thanks David.

    I think the permanence of Alizarin Crimson (in oil painting) has a lot to do with both the formulation (which is not simple, it’s a lake), and the correct and knowledgable use of the color, such as not combining it with natural earth colors. I would not use it in transparent watercolor. Vermeer used Madder Lake (the original pigment from which Alizarin Crimson is derived) as a glaze in Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Glass of Wine, both are well preserved. I have in mind a post devoted to just this subject, I Just haven’t been able to collect all my information yet.

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