What are Primary Colors? Here’s How to Use them in Your Painting

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primary colors

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The primary colors used for painting are yellow, blue and red. They also happen to be the most important colors on the artist’s palette! These primaries cannot be mixed up from any other colors – which is what makes them different from others. There are a few exceptions however which I cover here in this article.

primary colors in oil paint tubes
Red, yellow and blue make up the primary colors you will use for painting.

Technically all colors can be mixed from the primaries. However, since a pure form of red, blue and yellow doesn’t exist in our paint tubes we cannot mix up all of the colors we need from just the primaries. We can mix quite a few colors from those three – but we will be quite limited if we don’t have more colors on our palette.

That said, there is a LOT that our primary colors can do whether we are using oil paints, acrylics, watercolors, or an entirely different medium.

The Primary Color Wheel

The primary colors form a triangle in the color wheel as you can see in the images below.

primary colors red, yellow and blue displayed in a triangle diagram
Red, yellow and blue are the first colors when setting up the primary color wheel.

Their central position in the color wheel, shows just how important they are in relation to all the other colors. In fact, we cannot mix any of the other colors without them!

diagram of the primary colors in the color wheel
Yellow, blue and red are central within the primary color wheel

Colors You Can Mix Using Primary Colors

How to get orange with primary colors

When you mix yellow and red together you get the secondary color orange! Notice on the color wheel how orange is in between red and yellow.

mixing the primary colors yellow and red together
Yellow and red make orange

How to get green with primary colors

Mixing the primaries, yellow and blue together, will give you the color green! Again, the secondary color green is in between the two primary colors blue and yellow.

mixing the primary colors yellow and blue together
Yellow and blue make green

How to get purple with primary colors

Lastly, you can mix a purple color, by combining red and blue together. However, the uses for primary colors doesn’t stop there!

mixing the primary colors blue and red together
The primary colors, blue and red make purple

Mixing Complementary Colors Together

Complementary colors within the color wheel

Primary colors have a central role when it comes to complementary colors. Complementary colors can cancel each other out when mixed or combined together. For example, take a look at the color wheel above. You will notice that yellow is across from purple, blue is across from orange and red is across from green. All of those colors that are directly across from one another are complementary pairs!

Primary Color Blue and Secondary Color Orange

Mixing complementary colors, blue and orange together can make a muted blue.

Because of complementary colors you are able to use primary colors to mix up muted colors. For example, when you mix the complementary colors blue and orange together you get a more muted color. In the above chart we mix a little bit of orange with the primary color blue and get a muted blue.

The opposite is also true! In the chart below, we mix a little bit of blue with orange to get a muted orange color.

Mix a little bit of blue into your orange color to get a muted orange.

Primary Color Yellow and Complementary Color Purple

The same principles hold true for the complementary color pair yellow and purple. If you mix the primary color yellow with a little bit of purple then you get a muted yellow!

Mix a little bit of the secondary color purple, with the primary yellow and you will get a muted shade of yellow.

Conversely, if you mix a little bit of yellow with a larger amount of purple then you will end up with a muted purple color.

Mixing a little bit of yellow with the secondary color purple, will give you a muted shade of purple!

Primary Color Red and Complementary Color Green

Lastly, when we add a little bit of green to the primary color red then we will end up with a muted red because green and red are complementary colors.

Mix a little bit of green with the primary color red in order to mute the red color.

As always with complementary colors the opposite is also true. When a little bit of the primary color red is mixed into green we then end up with a muted green color.

Mix a little bit of red with the secondary color green in order to mute your green color.

With complementary colors it is possible to mix up a color that would be is in between the two colors. You would just need to mix an equal amount and strength of each color to reach a muted color that is in between the two.

Other Primary Colors to Know About

Ultimately, understanding the basics about primary colors and theory helps you with color mixing. However, once you know the basics you will not need to look at a color wheel or recite to yourself which colors are ‘primary colors’.

That is because when you are in the midst of a painting and mixing up colors you don’t need to think about color theory – only the practical aspects of color mixing. So, understanding more about color helps you with what is ultimately one of the most important parts of painting – color mixing.

CMYK primary colors and painting

That said, it is worth being aware of a growing debate around which colors are the primary colors. Many say that red, blue and yellow are the primaries (as also taught in this article) while others believe that cyan, magenta and yellow are the true primary colors. So, which ones are?

CMYK primary colors
CMYK stands for, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (the value of Key in today’s printing is black)

The answer isn’t so black and white unfortunately! Cyan, magenta and yellow are often referred to as ‘printing primaries’ as printing machines use these colors as their primary colors (along with black) to create all of their images. These are also referred to as CMYK.

So, why don’t we use cyan, magenta and yellow as primary colors in painting? Well you could use these colors as your primary colors, along with black and white and you would be able to mix an array of different colors. However, you would be limiting yourself a great deal…

See, CMYK colors are the primary colors that are used for printing and in the printing process colors are laid on top of one another. While in painting we physically mix our paints together instead of creating layers. Therefore, we have a LOT more options when it comes to creating different colors than a printer does.

Expanding beyond primary colors

So, don’t abandon the red, yellow and blue primary colors and replace them with for cyan, magenta and yellow. However, it might be worthwhile to add cyan and magenta to your palette along with your other colors and experiment with how much you can broaden your color mixing.

When it comes to mixing colors our goal should never be to mix the exact same color that we see because this is impossible for us to do! There are far more colors and values in our world than what we could ever hope to replicate with our very small range of paints. Our goal instead is to get accurate color relationships and mix colors that relate to one another in the same way as we see them.

If you were to just focus on each individual color and try to mix the same color you see, then your painting won’t be as cohesive as when the colors are all worked on together as a group instead of individually.

Why Can’t I mix my Own Primary Colors?

This is a really great question! First off, red and blue actually CAN be mixed from different colors. Remember the colors cyan, magenta, and yellow – also known as CMY? Well, when you mix cyan and magenta together you get a blue color. To create a red you can mix magenta and yellow together.

So, technically the real primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you have ever been frustrated about not being able to mix a very vibrant purple with red and blue it is probably because mixing magenta with blue or cyan will produce a very vibrant purple.

As mentioned before, which primary colors are the REAL ones is not so important for our purposes. It is good to understand the true color theory of how colors as it might help you in tricky color mixing situations, but the truth is that you will rarely ever need to use magenta or cyan. The reality is that the primary colors blue, red and yellow will give you almost everything you need (it is also what the old masters had as their primaries).

Yellow stands alone next to blue and red in that it cannot be mixed from any other color(s). You could create a yellowish like color – but it would never be a bright real yellow color.

Primary Colors on the Painter’s Palette

You absolutely have to have primary colors on your palette. However as mentioned earlier, you should have more than just the primaries but you will at the very least need to have white and black in addition to the primary colors. It is more ideal to mix your own black, but if you want to limit yourself then you can just use a regular ivory black (or mars black).

I recommend to expand your palette to include an array of earth tone colors as well as some cadmiums. My personal painting palette is as follows:

  • white
  • cadmium lemon yellow
  • cadmium yellow
  • yellow ochre
  • cadmium orange
  • cadmium red
  • alizarin crimson
  • cadmium green
  • veronese green
  • pthalo green
  • ultramarine blue
  • cobalt blue
  • burnt umber
  • burnt sienna

You do not need this many colors on your palette – especially if you are starting out! You can instead use a limited palette. The important take away is to not limit yourself to just having primary colors on your palette.

Limits of primary colors

As shown earlier you can create secondary colors by mixing together primary colors. For example I mix together red and yellow to create orange, blue and yellow to mix green and blue and red to make purple. However, there are limits to the kinds of secondary colors we can mix up with just the primary colors.

We will take a look at orange specifically and how mixing cadmium yellow and cadmium red together create a different kind of orange than cadmium orange. For example, you can see in the image below that the orange mixture from cadmium yellow and cadmium red is not quite as bright and saturated as the cadmium orange color straight from a tube.

Cadmium orange is simply a brighter and more saturated color than a mixed orange which can be very useful when you are needing to mix up slightly brighter colors.

The same situation happens when you compare a green mixed with cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue versus cadmium green straight from the tube. The intensity of green you get in a cadmium green (especially from Williamsburg paints) is unparalleled.

This does NOT mean that you need to go out and buy paint tubes for every color. Rather, it serves to show that the primary colors we get in our paint tubes have limits. Although you don’t have to have a cadmium green or cadmium orange on your palette, it can be very helpful and will allow you to potentially mix up better color relationships for your painting.

Apply Primary Colors to your Painting

Now that you know how you can mix up many different colors with just the three primary colors, head to your palette and start mixing up some secondary colors with them! You can then also mute your colors with complementary colors. When you do this you are expanding your color knowledge a great deal which will have a direct influence on your painting and allow you to work on a different level.

All of this information applies no matter what medium you use – whether it be watercolor paints, oils, acrylics or something entirely different.

Let me know how your color mixing goes in the comment section below!

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      10 thoughts on “What are Primary Colors? Here’s How to Use them in Your Painting”

      1. Bianca A Cheeping

        Hi, first thank you for all of the information you provide it’s very helpful. I’ve been subscribed for several months and I’ve yet been able to get the free color mixing guide, I’ve checked and rechecked my mail , spam etc and nothing.

      2. You are a blessing in my life. You have made color mixing so simple to follow. I will now use your methods and practice everyday till I get the concept down. Thank you for everything you share with us.
        Jazz

      3. Thanks Elizabeth, a very succinct summary of basic colour principles. As a landscape/seascape painter with a little experience, I find the “greying” of primaries essential. Bob, Australia

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