Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Primary Palette Colour Mixing

It’s been a very long time but the blog is resurrected!

Having recently written a tutorial about colour mixing using a primary palette, I decided that this would be a good subject to kick start the blog with. A few years ago I decided to eject all of the unnecessary paints from my paint box in order to simplify the colour mixing process, if you’re wondering why I dismantled my beautiful looking paintbox,  I found I was only actually using a small number of paints and simply didn’t need them all, also, it’s so much easier to teach students using a limited palette and it puts a stop to the idea that you always need another colour in the palette. To prove that this was a good idea to myself, I removed everything that I felt wasn’t needed and attempted to mix the same colour using  primary colours, it was surprising to see how many of those colours I could match!

The streamlined paintbox on the left and all of the un-necessary paints can be seen on the right. I swapped half pans for full pans with the most used paints. 

Mixing and matching some of the colours with primaries, here are some typical paint box colours: the umbers, sap green the perylene's, quinacridone gold, some violets and there were many more!  In fact I had in the region of 100 paints including most of the W & N artist pan colours, which is frankly ridiculous but good for paint manufacturers! This exercise enabled me to remove all of the paints that I didn't need. I know that there are other properties that can't be exactly replicated but in most cases the primary mix was better (in my opinion) and there is the opportunity of easily shifting the ratio of colours to make it warmer or cooler and making a shade version, so further simplifying the colour mixing process. 
How a mix of 3 primaries can be shifted left and right of the basic hue mix (centre) to create a range of greens found in a leaf, simply by altering the ratios within the mix and creating a more natural shift to a paler warmer green  (adding more yellow) to a darker cooler shade green (adding more blue and red). This approach to colour mixing creates much improved continuity and transition in a painting and is a simple to learn. 

What is a Primary Palette
There is often a lot of confusion about what a primary palette is, the most basic form comprises just one red, one blue and one yellow, from which all secondary and tertiary colours can be mixed. However, a palette of just 3 colours will not provide the range of colours needed in many brightly coloured botanical subjects,  so if you've tried that and failed - don't be put off because paint is not like the light and you'll struggle to achieve everything! My primary palette is actually quite broad with 4 yellows, 5 or 6 reds and 5 or 6 blues, any less would be too limiting for me.  Since streamlining the paintbox I found that have a far greater understanding of colour mixing.   
If you want to see my palette choice you can find them in my suggested materials list on my website click here.
The old paints haven't been wasted though and I've given many of them away to those that still use them but I can honestly say I haven't missed any of them. 
Some of the paintbox survivors - reds, yellows and blues, checking out their light value and saturation here by painting from full saturation to a pale watery wash.

Making Useful Colour Charts
There is no point in making colour charts for the sake of it, they have to be useful. Once I'd removed the redundant colours, I set about making some basic colour charts mixing primary colours to make a wide range of secondaries and tertiaries, such as seen in the simple charts below. The first task included making secondary mix charts -  a yellow and red chart, a blue and red chart and a blue and yellow chart. For this I used 1:1, 2:1 and 1:2 ratio mixes which gave me a large range of colours which are warmer and cooler than the 1:1 ratio.
Then I add the third primary colour to those mixes, for example adding a small amount of red to a green mix, (made from blue and yellow) can create a more natural looking green but you can also shift the balance of the same three colours to make brown or grey as well as a range of greens etc.. It became very clear that this provides everything I could ever need. I made brown and black charts using the dark value pigments mixed using thick creamy paint mixes charts and grey and white charts, using high light values colours painted as tints.
The light value of the colours and the viscosity of the mix are all important too. But thats for another post.

Putting the Charts into Practice
To use these charts, I simply place a new subject onto the most appropriate colour chart as a starting point.  All the mixes have a warmer and cooler version of each mix and are painted in swatches which start at full saturation and then watered down to a tint.  Below are just a few examples.

A selection of colour charts and subjects painted using the charts mixes for guidance. 
Identifying the mix from the Green chart: Using the 'light value' of the Blue as the predictor colour for green mixes. This creates light greens, mid value greens and dark value greens, then shift the ratios of the mix to make browns by increasing the red and yellow. Simply drop the leaf onto the chart to match the colour. See the last but one post for more about the green chart
Using the same three colours to mix all the yellows, greens and browns in this Hellebore leaf by shifting the ratio of colours in the mix.

Of course there is a lot more to mixing and matching colours in a painting, such as the underlying colours and the effect of light and shade, which could be discussed here but I'll save those topics for another time. The 'take home' point is that that this method of colour mixing provides a great insight into the properties of colours, their light value and dominance etc. and makes it easier to achieve the range of colours in a subject with improved transition. Also, you only have to paint the charts once and thats it, no confusion over which colour to choose and its much more cost effective if you're on a budget. 

To finish, it seems a bit cheap to include only images of colour charts so heres a much shortened, sped up video of painting a white flower from the tutorial. It's hard to find good information on mixing whites. Often the advice is to use leaves behind the subject or to use the dreaded 'grey', which looks...well like a grey flower. In my experience, neither approaches are overly helpful as many flowers don't naturally sit in front of a leaf. In fact white flowers have many colours, they're just pale but first of all we have to first be able to see and identify those colours,(the charts help yo to identify those colours) -they have colour reflected onto their surface from the surroundings too, so there is a lot to consider. Using watery tints in deep wells is a must for whites as are high light value colours. But enough for now.

Finally, it's been over 10 years since I started this blog, things gave changed a lot both with social media, with my painting and teaching since that time. Blogs may be a little outdated now but I still have a soft spot for them. It's a great diary and journey for me to look back on (typo's included!). I've neglected it for the past 2 years  due to lots of other things, both good and bad but hope to make the occasional post again now that I've settled into a new home.
Thank you for reading


  1. Thank you for starting up your blog again. What a lovely blog post to restart. I don't use Instagram or Facebook or any other social media but I do enjoy blogs because they are quieter, more personal - like reading a note from a friend. :) I look forward to many more posts on your beautiful blog!

    1. Thank you and I know exactly what you mean! I do use quite a bit of social media but have missed the more personal approach with the blog!.... already planning the next post

  2. Yes, thankyou so much for this article! It is very timely for me as a newcomer to botanical art I was trying to figure out the best pallette to use. I love the charts and will attempt to create them the same way as matching greens was doing my head in!!!

  3. Thank you Lisa, I’m pleased to hear you found this useful

  4. I am in the process of reading your blog from the beginning. And am taking your beginners class in Jan. So very glad you have decided to keep up on it. And congrats on your new landing place.