Primary Colors

As mentioned on the Introduction Page here, I am just starting out.  Before coming across Mark’s videos and his recommended limited palette, I had purchased a number of colors (it’s “colour’ in Canada) to learn color theory and experiment with mixing and matching. 

After testing several, I thought Cobalt Blue (i.e. close to hex code 0000FF) was the closest a true primary blue, Pyrrole Red (FF0000) close to a primary red.  I found a yellow called ‘primary’ yellow (it's somewhere between light to medium). 

Mark’s limited palette uses a darker blue and a darker red (even though the yellow seems close to a primary yellow).  So my question is (probably a dumb question) Why?

Is it to prevent the temptation to end up painting with colors that are too bright? Is it better to mix with primary colors that are ‘dirty’ to avoid this - even though there may be slight traces of other colors in them (i.e. green, etc.)? 

In theory, it shouldn’t matter how you get there, but real life I’m sure there are good reasons for his Geneva color selections.  The videos I have seen so far don’t seem to directly address this issue. 


(For beginning projects and mixing practice and I'm going to use up what have.  If I make sufficient progress I'll consider investing in Mark's Geneva colors.) 


  • p.s. the reason I posted this question is that the 'primary' starting points seems to make a real difference in the initial greens and oranges and violets you get, and then the following subsequent colors you mix thereafter. 

    Or am I wrong.  Is the starting point of the limited palette's primary colors somewhat discretionary, because in the end you can always manage the final destination?

  • I'm a novice who had many of the same questions. I can't answer your question but I can tell you that after watching DMP videos I didn't care anymore- I had the confidence to work with the colors I had because I can start out with mud and still get warm yellow tones from it. I use slow dry medium in W&N paints and MC's limited pallet. Watch the videos and Q&As. You'll do fine.
  • edited December 2016
    First of all we must remember that Geneva colors heavily pigmented. They can be manipulated upto a greater level than some of the other brands. Colors are extremely pure (chroma).

    The reason for choosing Ultramarine is that it is darker than Cobalt Blue and will be used to achieve excellent dark shades (Mark says colored blacks). Same for his Red and Brown. All are darker. But since his paints are heavily pigmented, he can lighten them upto a great extent. But cobalt blue or say cad red deep cannot produce the blacks that he can achieve because they are lighter.

    i am using mark's recommendation for brands other than Geneva. My problem area is red and blue. Sometimes I have to depend on pthalo blue, magenta or a cad red light for some special cases because my paint brand fails to achieve anything that a big brand or Geneva colors can.
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  • I very much appreciate the comments left here.  This weekend, I have been on a color mixing marathon – all my blues, reds and yellows along with cyan and magenta.  Each primary starting point makes such a difference – like trying to go to NY when starting from Chicago vs. LA.  It’s been an adventure.   

    Most of you are advanced and have been down this path to see the wisdom of Mark’s recommendations.  I need to make that journey and am not done yet. 

    But I do love color (especially those Mark calls ‘yummy’ colors).  It’s part of who we are here.  Why?  We are fortunate to have a year-round cabin (cottage) on a lake three hours north of our home – with four distinct seasons.  Nature’s palette up here is stunning – the colors in the fall are simply breathtaking.  They are so complex – I know as I collect samples (leaves, stems, branches, reeds, and so on) and try to color match them.  I found champagne, tan birch leaves here in late fall that were a formidable challenge to color match - a gorgeous color, so simple yet so complex.  (Why do people on the internet do entire landscapes, in one hour, using a household paint brush?)

    Welcome additional thoughts.

  • You are right David. You can't mix all the colours with a limited palette. Still for realism you can do most of the colours with mark's palette, especially the still life kind of subject matter which can tend to be quite desaturated in colour.

    I think you'd only need to add another 3 colours to expand the colours you could make though: A more orange/red, a violet, and a turquoise blue.

  • @davidwwilson You might like to take a look at this page regarding limited vs. extended palettes.   :)  It's an interesting read.  It may even set you on a course of experimentation.

  • These comments are excellent for novice color students.  Don't misunderstand, I enjoy color mixing very much - I'm not looking for shortcuts.  I'm a color-learning freshman finding my way. 

    I hope others add thoughts about how they evolved. 

    Thank you.   

  • ph1 said:
    (Why do people on the internet do entire landscapes, in one hour, using a household paint brush?)

    Welcome additional thoughts.

    I saw so many of these on YouTube! You just see them and forget. There is nothing to see in those.
    I saw an interview of David Hockney, where talked about the value of looking at nature, looking more at the painting, trying to figure out what more can we add. That's how any painting is done. A landscape painting is never finished.

  • edited January 2017
    OK a couple of things here, which partly overlaps with my comments on the 'split primary' thread.

    You presumably photographed your paints and then measured on screen, or do you have a colorimeter? The process of going from the sensors in a camera (or film emulsion) to a colour on a monitor is far from straightforward, so I wouldn't place too much faith in the hex values you got, unless you have done some very careful monitor calibration with something like an XRite display pro or Datacolor spyder. If you are using something like the eyedropper tool in photoshop (so the displayed colour is irrelevant) you still have the issue of the translation of camera raw values into the jpg/psd/tif file you are measuring. And regardless of that, you are using RGB colour space, which is appropriate for transmitted light, such as a monitor, but not for reflected light, such as a painting (subtractive colour mixing).  So, if we are talking about primaries, they are CMY and not RGB, but for an artist, the Munsell values are more useful than RGB or CMY values in thinking about colour. Mark's mixing strategy is basically about walking the Munsell dimensions (first value, then hue, then chroma).

    Aside from that, I would not pay too much attention to the idea of 'primaries' trying to find the perfect three colours, for reasons that I go into a little bit in that other thread. There are three such primaries (many different ones, in fact), but they do not and cannot exist in nature, only in a colour space such as Lab (which you can use in photoshop).

    Putting aside the idea of choosing ideal pseudo-primary pigments, it is true that choosing the highest chroma paints you can get your hands on will increase the gamut of colours you can achieve, but this is a hollow victory if it makes creating the colours you actually need harder. Again, I refer to you that thread where there is some discussion of the matter.

    There is no one perfect palette, each has advantages and disadvantages. I will say that the limited palette Mark recommends works extremely well for high realism, just occasionally supplemented with a high chroma colour for a particular subject (a flower, some bright fabric, on so on), but they are not worth having on your palette as standard, it just confuses the logical mixing strategy. Of course, as you get into your stride, you may well find there are certain other colours, or colour combinations, that you often need, and so you add them. Nothing wrong with that.

    I'll just add one thing. The basis of the system (it seems to me) is to get the value (light/dark) correct first. Really, if the values are correct the other aspects of the painting can be quite off and the painting can still work. To get the values you need to be able to create a full range of neutral values from black to white. Ivory Black is actually a very dark blue, so adding white to it doesn't give you neutral greys. To do it, you need a good pair of complementary colours on your palette, along with white (in oils, in watercolours you use the paper of course). In the Geneva system those complementary colours are Burnt Umber and French Ultramarine. Have you tried mixing good neutrals with the colours you have? Then having got the correct value, you move it to the correct hue (blue, green, yellow, orange, whatever) by adding some of the appropriate colour, and the amount you add relative to your neutral mix determines the chroma. This is why I say Mark 'walks the Munsell dimensions'. So cobalt, sure, but can you make a good black with it and another colour? If not, you need another colour that can, but if that other colour is a blue (eg Ultramarine) why bother having Cobalt as well?
  • First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to provide such a full response.  There is much to think about here.  It is clear, the missing piece in my 'learning' is the underlying notion of value and how it's derived.  I'm now beginning to appreciate the meaning and complexities - it's more than just simply darkening or desaturating (or choosing primaries). If I can use an analogy, it's like turning disparate voices into a choir.

    I was at an art gallery recently that was showing Monet, van Gogh and many others.  I found it interesting to see in i.e. Monet's work, all kinds of various hues that I would not think of putting together.  What ties the colors together into a harmonious presentation (for me anyway) is each painting's common aspect of value.  This is a dimension that I did not fully appreciate at first. 

    Creating beautiful complex harmonious colors, without going muddy, must be a real challenge.  This was one of the reasons why I was trying to be picky about choosing the initial colors for my limited palette - concerns that the mix would get muddy too quickly.  (I understand Mark has provided a solution, but I need the 'learning exercise' to see if I come I come to the same solution for me.)

    Over the next week or two I plan to continue 'learning my colors'.  I'm sure there is some crusty ol' painter out there who would say "quit playing around and get painting!."  But my style is methodical and learning my colors is like (more analogies) learning the keys on a piano or recognizing instruments in an orchestra.  Where I want to go (and how and why) is becoming clearer - there will be many steps along the way - but oh my, what a journey it's becoming.

  • Everyone learns differently and at different rates.  Mark's system of learning to paint is excellent, and like anything else, will need to be adjusted somewhat to fit individuals.  By the time you have painated 5 or 6 paintings you will be very comfortable with the process.
  • Yes, there were limitations in the way the Impressionists saw things, and in some ways I find it more instructive to look at someone like Sorolla, or Renoir (who always denied the impressionist label). You have to put it into the perspective of the time, of course. This was a period when artists were moving out of the studio and trying to capture the full range of value and colour en plein air. To my mind, the impressionists sometimes dropped too much contrast in trying to retain more colour in the shadows, but that is just me.

    Anyway, I agree about the 'learning the colours'. Keep in mind that what Mark shows is a mixing strategy, a way of getting to accurate colour quickly and reliably. There is more than one way to do this, of course. For example I just bought Richard Schmid's book Alla Prima II where he talks about making colour charts with his paints so that he knows what happens when you mix them, and he refers to these. I plan to do the same because if I am painting from life or en plein air I don't see me taking time to work out strings first.

    But for still lifes and painting portraits from pictures the set palette method works really well. Even without the specific colours you may be able to do the same idea.

    Do you have two colours that are good complements? Cobalt blue + Pyrrole Red, perhaps? Or try it with Burnt Sienna or something similar. Perhaps you could list what colours you have to work with at the moment. Anyway, if you have a reasonable complement, you can start there to give you the tonal value (grey scale) with white (and a bit of yellow if it starts getting too blue). Then use your other colours to push that neutral tone in the direction you need. Is it blue? mix your neutral tone with cobalt. Is it yellow? Mix in some yellow. Is it green? mix in some green or blue+yellow.

    The good thing about the burnt umber + ultramarine as the basic complement is that both are inexpensive, whereas cobalt blue (if genuine) is expensive to put into all your piles.

    Don't get hung up on 'primaries' though. If you go away from highest chroma Yellow+Cyan+Magenta then the total gamut is less, but this is not likely to be an issue anyway. Remember all those old masters that didn't have modern cadmiums and quinacridones and pyrroles, yet still produced all the colours they needed.
  • edited January 2017
    AlunapR said:
    Anyway, if you have a reasonable complement, you can start there to give you the tonal value (grey scale) with white (and a bit of yellow if it starts getting too blue). Then use your other colours to push that neutral tone in the direction you need. Is it blue? mix your neutral tone with cobalt. Is it yellow? Mix in some yellow. Is it green? mix in some green or blue+yellow.
    Just one point on this. You are correct in what you say, however I think Mark recommends trying to mix the value at first with a guess at what the hue is and then refining, rather than a neutral grey value and then pushing out the chroma for that hue.
    The good thing about the burnt umber + ultramarine as the basic complement is that both are inexpensive, whereas cobalt blue (if genuine) is expensive to put into all your piles.
    The only thing about burnt umber is it seems to be more transparent than other earth colours. As Ultramarine is also more semi-transparent I think this could be an issue. I've experimented with a brownish Iron Oxide (PR101) and a carbon black mix (PBk7, etc..) and that works well and gives more opacity. Also both are cheap pigments.. 
  • AlunapR and Richard - you have hit on one of my dilemmas.  I have come across i.e. dark desaturated oranges (or khakis or light tans and so on).  The underlying hues are barely recognizable.  So which way is better to get there: (i) start with a stab at the initial underlying hues (i.e. orange) or (ii) start with a grey at the needed value and gently push towards a vague target?

    With (i) you could start by desaturating i.e. an orange with its complement, but that may only get you part way there, as you still need to come inwards more (i.e. darker and more neutral) from the outer hue perimeter.  With (ii), is it not the same thing in reverse?  Maybe it's a question on which process is more manageable.  I defer to experience on this one, especially if I'm not fully appreciating the points raised above. 

  • edited January 2017
    Either way works, but it is easier to do it Mark's way, in my experience (and I have tried both). That is, mix your 'basic black' with your complements (in an extensive palette you may have several complementary pairs, but in a minimal palette like this there is just the one pair). Then you lighten it with white to get the value, then move it into the hue direction you want. Once you have that for the darkest value in the colour set you are working on you then add a bit more white (or possibly yellow, or a bit of both) to get the next lightest step, and so on until you have the lightest value in that colour set. As Richard points out, once you have the lowest value your strings aren't actually neutral grey at that point, they are already in the hue you want. Laying out strings of colours this way is called a set palette. I didn't really understand it at first, I thought Mark was matching all the colours in the subject and then you do a sort of paint-by-numbers operation. It wasn't until I watched him doing Emily's portrait that it suddenly struck me that what he was actually doing was creating a custom palette of colours for each specific picture, rather than a palette based on what happens to come out of tubes.

    There are other strategies. As you say, you can pick some paint in the same hue that you are looking for but more chromatic (ie saturated), then reduce the chroma by adding the complement. The problem is that you would actually have to have that hue and its complement, which at the very least means a carefully chosen secondary palette, as a primary palette doesn't have complements. Another problem is that often they are not true mixing complements but only near complements, and you have to know in which direction the hue will drift. 

    Finally, you can do what a lot of people do, which is to pick a paint that is near in colour, then add some paint from an adjacent hue until you get the hue angle more or less right, then try to find another complementary colour to that mixture in order to tone it down, then find a colour to correct wherever that has drifted off, and so on. People tend to get into a mess doing this.

    The colours you are talking about are earth colours. unsaturated yellow/orange is called brown. You can take some highly chromatic orange, or a mixture of chromatic yellows and reds to make an orange ,then add a green to bring it down, but why use expensive cadmiums to mix earth colours when earths are cheap and easy to get? Hence I think a couple of earth colours always have a place on a palette, eg yellow ochre (or quinacridone gold), burnt sienna (or quinacridone burnt orange), or one of the umbers. Mixing these with your yellow and your low chroma red (permanent alizarin crimson or equivalent) gives you a whole range of dirty yellows, oranges and browns quite readily, including flesh tones.
  • This is a lot to 'chew on'.  I can see I'm going to be a busy boy over the next few weeks at the cabin.  Thank you very much for the responses - these and the previous postings, to me, seem to strike at the core of color management. 
  • edited January 2017
    No problem. Since your goal right now seems to be to gain a better understanding of colour, and how mixing the different paints produces different results, you might be interested in what Richard Schmid recommends, which is to make a series of colour charts, so I'll briefly outline his procedure.

    You get a number of substrates, one for each chart. For oils he uses Gatorfoam board or canvas board, around 8"x15" (but depending on how many paints you are testing, that size was for 11 paints). He then divides these into 1" squares  with narrow strips of easily removable tape (which you remove before the paint is dry!). For water media (acrylic, gouache, etc) he suggests illustration board. Work out a set of initials for each colour you have, eg CYP for Cadmium Yellow Pale, FU for French Ultramarine, etc. Since I don't know what colours you have, I'll take a set I have been using for my current painting (not a Carder Method one): Transparent Yellow, Yellow Ochre Deep, Transparent Red Oxide, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Bright Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Viridian. (+ white).

    1st chart. Across the top I put a 1" square (using a palette knife) of each of my colours, with the initials above it so I know what paint it is. Then make another four squares below each one adding first a little white, then successively more, to see the mass tone and range of tints for each of my colours.

    Remaining charts, for each chart I have a predominant colour. First one is Transparent Yellow predominant. 1st column is just TY, then the same with white below it, like in the basic chart. Second column is TY + YOD, Top square in second column is these two paints straight from the tube, and below that same the mixture but with more and more white added. Note that it isn't equal amounts of the two paints, it is more TY, as this is a TY predominant chart. Third top square is TY + TRO, with the tints below it, all the way across to the final column which is TY + V.  Then the next chart would be Yellow Ochre Deep predominant, and the next one Transparent Red Oxide predominant, etc. You will not use exactly the same proportions of paint in each mixture, because some are much stronger tinting than others, and the point is that each chart has one colour predominant.

    So one basic chart, plus one chart for each of the colours you have (other than white).  I think this is a good way to get an idea of how your colours mix and the range of colours you can get, and it is also good palette knife practise. Also, you get to see that adding white can change the colours, not just make lighter tints (often making them cooler); you get to see at what tint the paint is most vivid (chromatic); how the different paints differ in tinting strength, drying time, transparency, etc; you can see how easily you can create colours that you would otherwise think you have to buy a ready-made tube for (cerulean blue, sap green, etc). Afterwards I would laminate these and use them as reference when working from life. Of course, it doesn't tell you what happens when you mix three or more colours together.

    But I emphasise that if you follow Mark's method then you don't need a reference like this in order to mix colour, but still I think it is a good learning process to understand your paints better.
  • Thank you, I will definitely try this approach. 

    In fact I have created about two dozen color boards (14"x10") since the fall.  Two types: (i) matrix boards and (ii) tint/shade boards. 

    I absolutely agree that these are not road maps/recipes to simplify the mix process.  Even if it was, I would still want to mix from a base palette - its like your fingerprint - the painting's DNA.  Even so, as noted above: I need to 'hear' the note of each key to appreciate what it can or cannot do. 

    For (i) the matrix approach - the board was divided into 1.5" squares.  Across the top were the tube-blue hues, with the name, pigment and brand.  Down the left side were the tube-yellows. Then some of each corresponding color was placed into each square - left to right, top to bottom.  Because the square is small, I used a thin stick to blend them, trying for roughly 2:1, 1:1 and 1:2 ratios within the square. The next board was set up the same way except down the left were the reds.  On the third board were the yellows and reds.  It worked well.  (For the sticks, I got thin 14" bamboo skewer sticks from a Dollar store and cut them into thirds - they worked well, easy to clean and cheap.)

    For (ii) the second approach - the boards were divided into 9 rectangles (3x3). The rectangles down the left side had a tube-primary (i.e. 3 reds) and the ones on the right had another primary (i.e. 3 yellows).  In the middle rectangles were the secondary mixes using the left and right primaries.  Each individual rectangle was divided into 7 slots, starting at the top.  (Multiple boards are required if you want to juxtapose many different primaries.)

    I used a brush for the mixing on the palette and applying to the board.  The slots in each rectangle were:

    (slot 1) the starting hue,

    (slots 2, 3, 4) dark to light greys mixed with (1),

    (slot 5) white with (1),

    (slot 6 and 7) small/medium amount of complimentary with (1).

    Again, this seemed to work well.  In retrospect, the one thing would be more organized about is making a clearer grouping between the cool and warm primaries - but they are all there so I just need to look around more. The one thing I did do was to ensure that I started with clean 'tools' prior to each little mix - this is the very tedious part, but quite necessary. 

  • I like the way both of you describe in great detail how the charts look without actually posting a picture.. made me smile :)
  • For how many hours have students taking piano lessons practiced the scales, before playing a song. 
  • I'm trying to get a handle on the use of deep, rich colors (that do often appear in real life).  It seems many here suggest that they should be de-saturated to reduce chroma - to subdue them.  By doing so, it seems it will make them more 'realistic' according to the DMP approach. I agree there should not be more chorma than with the source object itself.  But then I look at paintings by i.e. John Singer Sargent's 'Poppies', Kevin Macpherson landscapes, Sorolla and so on.  They have deep, rich, contrasting colors that are full of life which are interesting and quite believable. 

    Is there a point here that I'm missing?

  • ph1

    The difference is that while all forms of realism seek to represent things as they are there is a spectrum of sub forms that emphasise naturalism in muted tones or sub forms that seek to boost chroma and are comfortable in Disneyland.

    All forms of realism used bright color to represent life, eg Vermeer, where required. The modern tendency, particularly noticeable in modern realism at amateur level is the overuse of white that insidiously pushes the artist to use ever stronger color to the point that the work has a chalky, cartoon appearance.


  • Hi Denis and Flatty - I think '..used bright color to represent life... where required...' is a good way of expressing it. 

    In my progress it never ceases to amaze me that when I check the value by eye and think it's right, it's not.  Each time when rechecking using the color-checker, the color was too bright and had to be muted to match, sometimes a lot.

    For me and I guess many others, there is such a temptation to see more than is there. I just don't want to loose what I think the picture or scene has going for it. 

  • Mercy Guys,  I'm blown away at the knowledge all of you have and the curiosity factor you all share in making sense of all of this. I am a totally new to painting but I have literally spent the entire evening reading these posts over and over again so I could make sense of it too; but I admit to being way too much of a beginner to grasp everything you are talking about.  However; I tip my hat to all of you.  

    Even though I'm an old guy, I would love for Mark to adopt me and allow me to be his shadow and follow him everywhere he goes and watch every move he makes; but I would also like for him to drop me off at one of your houses to babysit me for an evening so I can learn from you guys too.  Ha!!!  (seriously, I'm impressed with all of you).

    PS....... I promise I won't get into your paint supplies but I might drink one of your beers (or two). Ha!!!

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