“I am a simple man, and I use simple materials: Ivory black, Vermilion (red), Prussian blue, Yellow ochre, Flake white and no medium. That’s all I’ve ever used in my paintings.
A great deal of things in nature are actually very muted, it is often the difference between light and dark and warm and cool colours, rather than the use of a bright colour.
If you want to paint subtle still life paintings, choose muted earth colours.
If you want very bright, vivid abstracts, you might need some more man-made pigments that have a higher colour saturation.
My suggested basic acrylic colour palette is somewhere in-between. It allows bright colour mixtures as well as subtle. The pigments are all light-fast (will not fade over time) and are a mixture of series (the price labelling system of paints) so the cost will be kept down….
Colour bias happens due to the trace colours found in paint pigments. They can cause trouble when trying to mix bright clean colours when you use the wrong paint pigments.
One way to overcome this problem is to have a palette that consists of two of each of the primary colours, red, yellow and blue.
He recommends a palette of 6 colours, two primaries each.
A red with an orange bias for mixing orange – Cadmium Red
A red with a violet bias for mixing violet – Quinacridone Red
A yellow with orange bias – Cadmium Yellow
A yellow with green bias – Hansa Yellow
A blue with green bias – Cerulean Blue
A blue with a purple bias – Ultramarine Blue
However, I find in practice, especially if you are just starting acrylic painting, this can be a tad overwhelming.
How to start with 3 tubes of paint
Now I know you are going to think this is a misprint but I would usually recommend starting with 3 tubes of paint consisting of a warm and a cool colour.
- Burnt Umber (muted orange based brown) or Burnt sienna (brighter orange based brown)
- Ultramarine blue
- Titanium white
But what happened to the primary colours?
A great lesson you need to learn when trying to create professional looking paintings is the importance of value (how dark or light a subject is)
It is so much more important than colour. Try to learn about value, learn about complementary colours (opposites) and you will start to understand the different qualities of paint.
Moving from drawing to painting is hard enough without the distraction of trying to mix lots of colours if you force yourself to have less you will learn more about mass tone and undertone.
Masstone & Undertone
- Colour – has both a masstone and an undertone
- Masstone – refers both to the tone if it was black and white (value) and its colour tone (hue).
- Undertone – the colour produced when you scrape a small amount of paint over a white surface
eg: Phthalo blue has a dark blue masstone and a yellow/green colour bias in undertone
So if I say, “look at the tonal range in this painting,” this is exactly the same as saying “look at the value range in this painting.”
You’d be amazed at the great paintings you can achieve with just a few colours. The painting below by Larine Chung uses just ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and titanium white.
In this snowy scene “Coming Home” I’ve used burnt umber, ultramarine blue and titanium white.
Okay, I understand this but it sounds serious.. I want bright colours!
If you really want to get started with colour, below I’ve listed a basic acrylic colour palette that will help you achieve the next level in your painting.
What acrylic colours should I buy to start with?
To create 90% of the colours you will need for realistic painting use the following:
- Burnt Umber
- Ultramarine Blue
- Cadmium Yellow Light
- Alizarin Crimson Permanent
- Titanium White
Other useful colours:
- Yellow Ochre
- Raw Umber
- Ivory Black
- Cadmium Red
- Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)
Why do I need these particular colours?
Burnt Umber – although this looks very dark and dull it is really handy to have, both for blocking in the darks on portraits and for toning down colours. It is also invaluable in oil painting due to its quick drying time so it is a great pigment to get to know.
Ultramarine Blue – sometimes beginners steer away from this blue because it is mentioned so often in art books and seems, well a bit boring, but it has good opacity, great for subtle skies and mixed with Burnt Umber will make a dark very close to black.
Cadmium Yellow Light – good opacity for a yellow and just generally great!
Alizarin Crimson Permanent – this will look too dark when you buy it and you’ll feel a bit disappointed, it also feels different than the other pigments because it has a gloss sheen to it and it very translucent. But a little goes a long way. Add some white to make a killer bright pink.
Titanium White – good opacity, good coverage, goooood.
Pro tip: make sure it is the permanent as other Alizarin Crimsons can be ‘fugitive’ colours and not have great lightfastness. Look at some of Gainsboroughs portraits to see what happens if you use fugitive colours.
Now with these four colours and white you can mix 90% of the colours you need. You might not believe me and still feel the urge to search for another palette. But for general landscapes, still life’s you won’t need anything else.
Occasionally you will need 3 other colours, they are:
Phthalo Blue (green shade) very high tinting strength, great for making very bright blues.
Cadmium Red Light – if you want a really red red. Cadmium Yellow light and Alizarin crimson permanent can make a colour very close to cadmium red.
Yellow Ochre – So here we have yellow ochre great for a coloured ground in acrylics and good to start to mix more subtle greens, if you unleash Hansa yellow and Phthalo blue we will have luminous green disasters.
These are pigments that will work well both with acrylic and oil paint. It makes it very transferable when you are learning to paint. For a watercolour palette you may choose some more subtle tints that have a different undertone.
For a portrait palette I would use a more subtle palette please see:
How to choose a basic portrait palette for Oils