Mix the Secondary and Tertiary Colors
The next step is to paint the colors that go between the primaries. Those are the secondary and tertiary colors. I start by painting the colors between red and yellow section of the color wheel.
The secondary colors on this color wheel are orange, green, and purple. The tertiary colors are the steps between the primary colors and the secondary colors. For example, the yellow-orange at 1 o’clock is a tertiary color. Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense to you right now. It will become more obvious as you complete the color wheel.
Mix the Orange
The Cadmium Yellow Light and Pyrrole Red make a decent orange. Since there are 3 empty spaces between the yellow and red, the orange goes in the middle, which is located at 2 o’clock.
When you mix the orange, you may want to mix a little extra. You can save some of it for mixing the yellow-orange and the red-orange.
It can be a challenge to mix an orange that’s exactly between yellow and red. When you think you have decent representation of orange, compare it to the red and then the yellow. The palette knife will have orange on it, so just hold it over the yellow and then over the red.
Is the orange closer to yellow than it is the red, or vice versa? If so, make some adjustments.
Once you’re satisfied with the orange, paint it between the yellow and the red at 2 o’clock.
There should be an empty space on either side of it. Those other two spaces are for the red-orange, and yellow-orange which are the tertiary colors.
Mix the Tertiary Colors
Tertiary colors are a mixture of a primary color with a secondary color. The yellow-orange is a tertiary color. If you mixed extra orange, you can use it to mix the yellow-orange by adding some yellow to it. It’s the same process of trying to mix a color that falls between two other colors.
When you’re satisfied with the yellow-orange, paint it at 1 o’clock. Use the same strategy to mix up a red-orange and paint it at 3 o’clock. You now have 1/3 of your color wheel complete. The rest of the color wheel is painted in the same fashion.
Mix the Purple and the Greens
Repeat the same process for the purples and the greens. Mix the secondary color, then mix the tertiary colors.
As you mix the purple you will notice that it doesn’t look much like purple. You may begin to wonder if you’re doing it wrong. That’s actually the brightest purple you can mix with these colors.
The explanation for this is that red is not a primary color. Red is actually a mixture of magenta and yellow. It’s the yellow in the red that dulls the purple. If you mix magenta with Ultramarine Blue then you’ll get a brighter purple. The magenta and Phthalo Blue that I use in the second color also makes a bright purple.
The green is somewhat dull too. That’s the brightest green that you can mix with Ultramarine Blue. Ultramarine Blue is biased towards red so that’s what makes the green dull.
This is a taste of color theory, which I want to avoid getting too deep into because it deserves a complete article by itself. If you’re a beginner then you want to focus on getting familiar with these seven colors and the mixtures they create.
Color Wheel Frustrations
If this is your first time mixing colors then you will probably experience some frustrations. Painting a color wheel is an exercise in mixing colors and comparing them to each other. It can be somewhat tedious because it doesn’t form an image, but it’s good practice.
Color mixing is a fundamental skill. Each painting requires hundreds of color mixes, and a lot of time is spent mixing them and comparing them to each other and making adjustments. Creating a color wheel is good practice in mixing and comparing colors.
There are flaws in the color wheels I painted but that’s part of the experience. Creating a painting is very similar. You’ll reach a point where you have to call it finished even though it’s not totally perfect.
The Limitations of the Red, Yellow, and Blue Color Palette
You can go quite far with just using these three colors plus white. There are some limitations, but that can make your paintings appear more natural.
However, there may be a point where you want to be able to mix brilliant greens, purples, and magentas. Perhaps you want to match the brilliant magenta of a flower, or the bright green of sunlit leaves.
This is when you can add the rest of the colors to your palette. It will be helpful to create a color wheel using cyan, magenta, and yellow. Completing this exercise will help you to become familiar with all seven of these pigments.
The Cyan, Magenta, Yellow Color Wheel
The second limited palette is based on the subtractive primary colors that are used in printing; cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Although I do leave out the black. Whether you use black or mix your own is up to you.
You can use these colors on their own but I typically use whichever colors from the set of seven colors that I need at the moment.
Cyan, magenta, and yellow are all very transparent. They’re good for using acrylics in a manner similar to watercolors. The transparency works well for glazing too. If you’re interested in glazing or working in a watercolor style, then you may want to use the fluid acrylics instead of the heavy body acrylics.
The acrylic colors that are closest to printing primaries of cyan, magenta, and yellow are below.
- Phthalocyanine Blue (Green Shade)
- Quinacridone Magenta
- Hansa Yellow Medium
This color wheel is painted in the same manner as the first one. The only difference is that you’re using different primaries. See the photo above for where to place each primary. From there you mix the secondary and tertiary colors.
Notice how brilliant the purples are in comparison to the purples you mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Pyrrole Red. The greens have more saturation too. The magenta can make clean oranges, reds, purples and blue-purples. That’s because it’s a primary color. There’s no shade of red that I know of that can mix clean oranges and purples.
You may find it confusing that Quinacridone Magenta with Hansa Yellow Medium will make red. In this color wheel, red is a secondary color. This will go against what you may find in books and classes. It’s in the same 2 o’clock position as the orange was in the first color wheel.
These are very potent transparent colors. They look streaky because I was using the heavy body acrylics in a thin manner. Thinner acrylics, such as fluid acrylics, can be applied in a smoother fashion. Keep in mind that most of the colors you’ll need for a painting will probably require white which will make them more opaque.
Creating a color wheel is a good start in learning how to mix colors. It should give you a basic idea of the range colors that can be mixed from just 6 colors. A few of the colors in these color wheels are acceptable substitutes for some of the standard colors artists use on their palettes. While they may not have the same exact properties as the original colors, they’re still very usable colors.
For example, the Purple mixed from Phthalo Blue and Quinacridone Magenta is close to Dioxazine Purple. Phthalo Blue and Hansa Yellow Medium makes a green that’s similar to Phthalo Green.
Keep in mind that the colors that you mix for a color wheel are actually a very small subset of what you can mix from them. These color wheels don’t show the colors that you can mix by adding white. You can also mix complementary colors to create neutral colors. How to mix specific colors will be a topic of another post.
A traditional palette of red, yellow, and blue provides many opaque color mixtures. The transparent set of phthalo blue, magenta, and yellow will give you options to work transparently. They can also provide very saturated color when you need it.
You now have a set of seven colors that you can use to match almost every color that you’ll ever need. I use these colors in my paintings and I find they offer a lot of flexibility.