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.


Golden Virtual Paint Mixer

Golden Virtual Paint Mixer
Golden Artist Colors, the well known manufacturer of artists’ acrylic paints and related materials, has posted an interactive Virtual Paint Mixer on their website.

The module allows you to choose from their range of colors and assign three tube colors to the mixing tubes on the right (by dragging or selecting and clicking) and then by adjusting the distance of the tube tops from their tubes, interactively produce a mix of the chosen colors and percentages in the mixer area.

While onscreen computer simulations like this will always be less than accurate in comparison to the real color of paint (even if just due to the vagaries of computer systems and monitor calibration), the tool still strikes me as useful for playing with and thinking about colors and color combinations (in a way that doesn’t use up any paint).

You can store colors temporarily in boxes at the bottom and there is a drop-down under the swatches area that allows you to choose between their lines of colors. The color mixing swatch is accompanied by smaller swatches to to give an approximation of tints at various mixes of white.

You can also select a tab to choose an initial color from a gamut image or by numeric entry, and have the system find the closest mix by way of changing the paint color selections and percentages on the right. This feature strikes me as less useful, however, in that you would have to have a selection of all of their colors to use it.

The feature is new and Golden asks for feedback from users with the intention of making it better and more useful.

My thoughts were that the interface overall could be larger (the page could be considerably larger and still fit on an iPad screen), the select a color to be matched feature would be more useful you could limit the palette from which the colors are drawn (i.e. colors you have onhand) and, while I realize the addition of a fourth color would add considerable complexity, it would be nice to just have a fourth adjustable tube for white tints rather then the limited preset swatches.

It’s hard to say how far they might develop this, but it’s worth watching and participating with suggestions.

[Via Ben Stansfield]


Pigments through the Ages

Pigments through the Ages
Pigments through the Ages is a web feature that explores artists’ pigments and their history in a series of brief, interconnected articles.

From the navigation at page top you can Choose a Pigment, though I found it more informative to Browse Colors, as that gives you an overview of the limited list of pigments included in the feature within that range.

From either page you can arrive at a detail page about an individual pigment and get some information about the pigment’s history, composition and method of production, as well as short glimpses of the pigment’s use by an artist or two.

There is also a timeline that marks time periods in which various pigments became available. I wish this feature were more complete and easier to use (you have to roll over a line in the chart to see the pigment name) as I think it’s a particularly interesting aspect of the way artists through history have worked with the color ranges available to them.

Though not the most in-depth resource, it’s nonetheless interesting and may pique your curiosity and prompt you to go looking for additional information.

Pigments through the Ages is part of the larger WebExhibits website, that also includes features on Color Vision and Art, an analysis of the investigation of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, and a fairly extensive feature on Van Gogh’s Letters.


Did Van Gogh have protanomal color deficiency?

Did Van Gogh have protanomal color deficiency? From an article by Kazunori Asada
About 8 percent of male human beings, and a much smaller 0.5 percent of females, have some form of color vision deficiency, commonly called “color blindness”, in which the perception of colors is limited or altered in some way compared to the general population.

It has been suggested at times that Vincent van Gogh’s unusual use of some colors, particularly yellows and greens, was related to a visual problem, perhaps brought on by lead poisoning from paint, or treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy with a drug known as digitalis, both of which can cause visual alterations.

Kazunori Asada, who has degrees in both medical science and media design and is the developer of the Chromatic Vision Simulator software that allows those with normal color vision to explore various kinds of color vision deficiencies, has written an article on his blog entitled The Day I Saw Van Gogh’s Genius in a New Light, that explores the possibility that Van Gogh may have had a particular type of mildly limited color vision called protanomal color vision.

Asada was inspired to explore this possibility by a visit to the “Color Vision Experience Room” at and event at the Hokkaido Color Universal Design Organization. In the exhibit, objects on display under filtered light designed to simulate color deficiencies included reproductions of some of Van Gogh’s paintings.

He then attempted to use his software to examine some similar reproductions and was unsatisfied with the result, but after some adjustment, he arrived at a new version in which a more limited degree of color deficiency was possible to simulate.

In images accompanying his article, which I have referenced above, he first shows some of Van Gogh’s paintings as they normally appear (above, top and left) side by side with a simulation of their appearance to someone with protanomal color vision.

He emphasizes that Van Gogh may or may not have had these limitations, but the theory is an interesting one, and Asada says that it reinvigorated his already deep appreciation for Van Gogh’s work.

[Via MetaFilter]


James Gurney on Gamut Masking

James Gurney on Gamut Masking
A gamut is a range of colors. More specifically it is a range of colors that can be created or reproduced on a particular device or with a certain set of beginning colors.

Those working with print reproduction are very familiar with the concept of the CMYK gamut, or the range of colors that can be reproduced using traditional Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black printing inks, a smaller subset of the colors available, for example, on a computer monitor.

It’s not a term that painters use as often, but “gamut” also applies to a painter’s palette. When starting from a particular set of colors, the gamut is the range of colors that can be produced by mixing those colors (usually with the addition of white).

You will often hear me mention a “carefully controlled” or “limited” palette when talking about specific artists, particularly those working in film and gaming concept and visual development art, where limited gamuts are used to dramatic effect.

James Gurney, a highly experienced artist who works both with paintings for reproduction and for easel painting, has posted a series of articles on his blog, Gurney Journey, that delve into this often misunderstood aspect of color choices.

He started several years ago with a three part series on Color Wheel Masking, The Shapes of Color Schemes and From Mask to Palette.

His recent posts on the Gamut Masking Method, (Part 2 and Part 3) carry the principles into the creation of variations in color scheme for alternate versions of the same painting, making the process even clearer.

The most recent post, Part 3, Gamut Masking Method is particularly informative in that Gurney has included an excellent short video in which he explains the essential principles of gamut masking in a demonstration.

These principles are also covered in some detail in Gurney’s excellent recent book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (my review here).


Cartoon Color Wheel

Cartoon Color Wheel on Slate
Here’s a fun notion; the Slate Magazine blog, Culturebox, has put together an interactive color wheel of cartoon characters arranged by their hue (and, correctly enough, by intensity, as indicated by our grayish friends at the center of the wheel).

In the original, you can mouse over the characters for identification.

[Via Cartoon Brew]