If you’re a beginner, selecting a set of colors to start with can be intimidating. Some lines of acrylics have over hundred colors to choose from. Obviously it’s not practical to buy them all. It would cost a fortune, and it would be impossible to manage all of those colors on your palette.
So the next logical step is to adopt a system that will allow you to mix the majority of colors from a much smaller set of base colors.
Traditionally red, yellow, and blue are recommended as the primary colors for paintings. However, the true primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow. I use both sets of these colors plus white in my paintings.
These seven colors can match nearly all of the colors that I need. I have other colors, but they’re mostly for convenience.
The 7 Colors I Use for Acrylic Painting
- Hansa Yellow Medium
- Cadmium Free Yellow Light
- Pyrrole Red
- Quinacridone Magenta
- Ultramarine Blue
- Phthalo Blue (Green shade)
- Titanium White
I consider these seven colors to be my expanded palette. It’s not always necessary to use all seven colors. In fact, I’ll demonstrate the two different limited palettes that can be made from these colors. I’ll also demonstrate how to make color wheels from them. I recommend that you follow along because the only way to get better at mixing colors, is to mix colors.
Can I Mix Brands of Acrylics?
I use different brands of acrylics, but for this demonstration I’m using mostly Golden Heavy Body acrylics. The one exception is the Cadmium Yellow Light which is the Liquitex Cadmium Free version. In case you’re wondering, you can mix different brands of acrylics.
Limited Color Palettes
Many artists squeeze out as many as 15-20 colors on their palettes. It’s not necessary to use that many colors. A limited palette is a minimal selection of colors that can be used to create a fairly wide range of colors.
Limited palettes have a number of advantages. Color mixing is simpler and easier. There are less colors to buy and manage on your palette. The mixed colors are more harmonious because they’re made from the same small set of base colors. A limited palette is lighter and takes up less space so it works well for plein air painting.
Below are two examples of limited palettes that utilize three of the six colors, plus white. Each of these limited palettes have their own advantages which I will explore in more detail below.
Aside from these limited palettes, you can use the full range of the 7 colors to mix the majority of colors that you’ll ever need.
The Traditional Red Yellow and Blue Color Palette
The first limited palette uses the traditional primary colors; red, yellow, and blue. Almost every art instruction book, class, or workshop recommends these as the primary colors.
This is where the confusion begins. Red, yellow, and blue are very generic color names. Which blue pigment is primary blue? Is it Ultramarine, Phthalo, Cerulean, Cobalt, Anthraquinone, or Manganese Blue?
There are numerous red and yellow pigments as well. The specific pigments that I chose to represent red, yellow, and blue are below.
• Pyrrole Red
• Cadmium Free Yellow Light
• Ultramarine Blue
While there are limitations to using these colors as primaries, I do recommend it as a place to start. It’s a simple palette and it will conform to a lot of the material you’ll find in books, classes, and workshops.
You’ll also need Titanium White. As you progress, you may want to add the rest of the colors to your palette as necessary. Black is optional. You can mix your own black or buy a tube of it for convenience.
Another advantage this palette has for beginners is the secondary colors are subdued. This is especially helpful for landscape painting. It’s common for beginners to mix greens that are too vivid but this palette produces more natural greens by default.
There are other pigments that would work in place of the ones I chose. Cadmium Red Medium is an acceptable substitute for Pyrrole Red. However, I find that Pyrrole Red actually seems a little bit more pure than the Cadmium Red Medium.
I chose the Cadmium Free Yellow Light because I want the opacity without having to use the real cadmium pigment which is toxic. So far it’s only available in the Liquitex line of heavy body acrylics.
Golden makes an opaque version of Hansa Yellow Medium which is an acceptable substitute for the Cadmium Free Yellow.
Ultramarine Blue is a blue that’s biased towards red. You can use it to mix Sky Blue without it being too bright. The price of Ultramarine Blue is very reasonable so I suggest purchasing a tube of it instead of substituting other colors for it.
The Red, Yellow, and Blue Color Wheel
I find color wheels to be misleading and they have their flaws. However, going through the exercise of painting one is useful for gaining an understanding of color mixing. It also provides a good illustration of the range of colors that you can mix from a specific color palette.
As a beginner, painting a color wheel will help you to practice color mixing in a simplified manner. You won’t have to worry about drawing, composition, or the other elements of a painting.
Trying to learn how to mix colors and draw at the same time can be frustrating. Mixing colors is a good fundamental exercise to practice by itself.
Draw the Color Wheel or Download the Template
If you want to draw your own color wheel it’s made up of 12 segments. A circle has 360 degrees so each segment is 30 degrees. Use a protractor to mark out 30 degree increments. The outer circle has a diameter is 7.5″ . The inner diameter is 4.5″.
You can download the color wheel PDF and print it out, and transfer it to a sheet of paper made for acrylics.
Print it out on regular printer paper and then coat the back of it with graphite by shading it with the side of a pencil. You only need to cover the areas where the lines are on the front. Any pencil will work but the softer leads will create darker lines.
Once the back of the printout is coated with graphite, tape it down to a sheet of paper made for acrylics. Trace over the lines of the color wheel with a pencil or ballpoint pen. The graphite on the back of the paper will act as carbon paper. The pressure from the point of the pencil tracing over the lines will transfer some of the graphite onto the acrylic paper.
There’s also transfer paper that’s commercially available. You can use it like a sheet of carbon paper. Slip it between the printout and the final sheet of paper, then trace over the lines.
How to Paint the Red, Yellow, and Blue Color Wheel
Paint the Primaries First
Since there are twelve segments on a color wheel, I’ll refer to their positions as if they were hours on a clock.
You can fill in the colors in any order you wish but I usually start by painting the Cadmium Free Yellow Light at 12 o’clock. Then paint the Pyrrole Red at 4 o’clock. Finally, paint the Ultramarine Blue at 8 o’clock.