Finding the right colours for oil painting can feel difficult when there are so many options of colours available to buy. Especially if you are a beginner and haven’t had much practice in colour mixing.
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Colours for oil painting: Where to start?
Start with the primary colours, then add to them as your skills develop and you redefine what you need for your practice. Starting with primaries and their warm or cool variations will help you improve your mixing skills and understanding of colour as a whole.
Many experienced artists will have their own go-to base of primary colours (versions of red, yellow and blue) that they use to mix the majority of their hues and tones. The colour palette I will show you in this guide will give you the ability to mix the greatest chromatic range with only six colours.
The best oil paint brands
It’s important, even if you’re first starting out, to buy from paint manufacturers that are concerned with the quality of paint. Gamblin, Michael Harding, Blockx and Schmincke all make excellent quality paints. Winsor & Newton make great artist grade paint, that has a cheaper price point. Learn more about different oil paints in our brand review.
Top quality paint means that it will have a high pigment content. Tubes will be composed of mostly single pigments, plus, fewer fillers and binders will be used. The result of using quality paint is that your colour mixes will be vibrant, cleaner and less ‘muddy’ in appearance. Better quality paint is easier to work with too, with more buttery consistency and colours that spread further on the canvas.
Start with six pigments for hues and two pigments for tints and shades all from quality paint brands and you will see how your colour mixing and therefore painting skills will rapidly improve.
In summary: colours for oil painting
Here is the primary palette, from which you can mix a wide range of tones and hues:
- Cadmium Red or Pyrrole Red
- Phthalo Blue
- Cadmium Yellow or Hansa Yellow
- Transparent Yellow
- Burnt Umber
- Titanium White
In the next section, I’ll go into more detail about the properties of these colours and how to use them in your mixes.
Colours for oil painting: Choose pigments to create hues
To create the widest range of hues with the fewest colours, you will need six different pigments.
These six colours are the primary colours and a warm or cool version of each. In pigment form, the primaries are magenta, cyan and yellow—these can be mixed to make almost any other colour on the spectrum.
Cadmium Red Light PR108
- This is a warm primary red and has a bias towards yellow.
- It is an opaque pigment that can create brilliantly fiery mixes with warm yellow but more neutral purple colours useful for shadow tones when mixed with blue.
- Substitute Cadmium for Cadmium Hue, or Pyrrole Red. Pyrrole Red is another primary red, that has a high lightfast rating but is cheaper than cadmium.
Quinacridone Magenta PV19
- This pigment is closest to primary magenta, PR122 can also be considered close to magenta, but it isn’t as lightfast as PV19.
- Use this pigment with ultramarine to create pure purples.
- It can be used to neutralise bright greens.
- A quinacridone pigment that has cool undertones in its purest form, but mixes with yellow to make highly saturated oranges.
- If you mix this pigment with white you can achieve a bright pink, something you can’t achieve with cadmiums.
Ultramarine Blue PB29
- A pure blue with a slight red tinge.
- The reddish undertones help to make brilliant purples and neutral greens.
- This pigment is transparent, lending itself to making glazes.
- Mix with white to make a high chroma radiant blue.
- Use it in mixes to create sky blues, or inky waters. Use it also to create the colour of fading hills (mixed with a little yellow).
- Mix this with orange to make cool greys and deep blacks. Mix with Burnt Umber to create pure black.
- Phthalocyanine is considered primary blue (cyan).
- It has a very subtle yellow undertone, it can combine to make greenish blues.
- Deep colour profile and high tinting strength.
- Teal and turquoise are both made from the phthalo pigment.
- Use this to create a range of colours used in seascapes, from shallow tropical waters to deep stormy oceans.
Transparent Yellow PY128
- This is a very bright transparent primary yellow
- This is will mix with cyan to make cool semi-transparent and clear greens.
Cadmium Yellow PY35
- A more rounded, deeper yellow with red undertones.
- Mix with cadmium red to get bright oranges.
- Substitute Cadmium Yellow for Hansa Yellow, which can be bought from M. Graham. Hansa yellow is cheaper than Cadmium, more transparent and slightly less warm in tone.
Pigments to create tints and shades
With the three primaries and three primary variations, you can mostly create any hue, but you also need to be able to create tints and shades of each hue. It’s not as simple as lightening and darkening with black or white.
- Titanium white is completely opaque, but it can make mixtures appear chalky.
- Zinc is a translucent pigment. Use this pigment to maintain the saturation of your mixes—it doesn’t give the ‘washed out’ effect that titanium white can. Over use of zinc in mixes can create a brittle paint film, however.
Should you use black paint?
When used for the sole purpose of darkening colours, ivory black can make for some inharmonious hue shifts. Ivory black is actually a very dark, low chroma blue. So if you’re working with colours that also have cool undertones, then creating darker areas with ivory black may be the best option.
Equally, if you are working on grisaille, then ivory black mixed with burnt umber would be a good choice. Every artist will have their own approach to this.
Personally, I use burnt umber for darkening colours and if I want a purer black, then I add a small amount of ultramarine to the mix.
- Many artists use burnt umber instead of ivory black to create shade. This pigment is usually used in the earlier layers of a painting.
- Burnt umber is transparent and warm in tone, so it can be used to create clean colour graduations.
I’ve outlined the primaries in oil painting and the split primary palette, to give you the capability to mix the greatest range of tones from just six colours.
After using this palette for a while you’ll come to realise that you can mix the hues of many of the premixed colours sold by manufacturers with this limited palette. It’s a cost effective way of painting because you end up needing to buy fewer tubes.
However, there are some extra pigments you can add to your palette to fill the gaps in the gamut of colours that this palette creates.
If you paint landscapes, adding a colour like viridian green to your palette could be useful as it could save you time mixing. Red Ochre is great for desert scenes and brick work.
One pigment that could be added to your palette is crimson. Alizarin crimson provides a much deeper and intense, transparent red that is suitable for landscape painting, creating shadows and mixing vivid, dark purples when combined with ultramarine. Alizarin is a fugitive pigment, meaning that it has a low lightfast rating and can fade over time when exposed to direct sunlight. For this reason use Permanent Alizarin Crimson.
Cobalt blue can be a great addition to a palette, to use as the perfect light sky blue, or to use as a glaze over distant mountains to create depth in the painting.
Earth pigments can provide some benefits to your palette. They dry fast, they are transparent and dark in colour, so then can provide a full tonal range when thinned or combined with white. They are useful then, for toning your canvas and establishing the values in a painting before colour is added. For example, burnt sienna which is orange in tone works beautifully as an underpainting beneath seascapes.
Earth colours are also brilliant for use in transparent shadows over flesh tone. Another positive about earth pigments, is that they are cheap to buy. So you may save money in the long run by using just a single cheaper pigment rather than combining three primaries to make the same tone.
Single pigment colours for oil painting can have unique properties
You can also add more colours to your palette for the working properties these pigments can provide. For example, some colours are transparent, making them excellent for glazes, some will have a high tinting strength, some will dry quicker. Once you’ve built up your skills mixing the primaries, explore the vast range of pigments available and their properties. Check the oil paint tube, or the product page on the website to understand the individual properties of the pigment you’re looking at.
Check out our tutorial to learn how to mix oil paint step-by-step. If you want to learn how to use a limited palette, and how it could be beneficial to your painting practice, check out our limited palette tutorial.
Are there any colours you especially like using? Let me know in the comments.
Colours for oil painting: Pin it!
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