Color (and Watercolor) Nuts and Bolts: Primaries, Complements, Split Primaries and Picking a Palette

As I have mentioned, I have been trying to learn everything I can about painting and color over the last couple of months. I have found a lot of great resources and made a ton of mistakes and learned much along the way. I still have an incredible amount to learn, but this post is my effort to condense all the relevant information that I have discovered up to this point: giving you a broad overview, touching on what I have found to be useful and letting you know what I have found to be confusing or unhelpful to help guide you if you are traveling the same path these days. I will break it into "chapters" with headings to help make it less overwhelming. I have struggled mightily to write this as clearly as I can but I have no idea if it's clear or understandable at all.....if not, forgive me. I am trying to keep it simple here and I will expand on all these topics as I go, so if there's something that's confusing I will flesh it out in a future post.

Color Wheel Basics

So I'm going to assume that everyone has a basic understanding of the color wheel, primary and secondary colors, and complementary colors.

If not, not to worry! There are many great, easy-to-read articles about the topic on the web. There's a good one right here at It's only a page long and it's great. Go on, go read it, I'll wait.

In "Making Color Sing", Jeanne Dobie gives a good rule for remembering colors and their complements. Each of the primary colors has a complementary color that is a combination of the other two primaries. For example, the complement of blue is orange (which is red plus yellow), the complement of yellow is violet (which is red plus blue) and the complement of red is green (which is blue plus yellow). That simple piece of information has helped unify the color wheel in my mind and helps me make sense of it all.

There are other color wheels and theories about what colors complement each other, but I've been sticking with the old school color wheel and color theory for now. I find it works for me. I'm sure someday I'll delve into the newer, more advanced color theories but for now I'm sticking with the old ways as I get used to the ways of color and paint.

For this post, there are two important things to know about complements: number one, when you put them next to each other, they "complement" each other and make each other more vibrant and colorful. If you put read against green it makes them both more intense. The same is true of blue and orange, yellow and violet, etc.

And number two, in watercolor when you add complements you get grey. So blue plus orange will give you grey. Add more blue for a cooler grey, or use more orange to get a warmer grey (I apologize, these watercolors didn't scan true to their true colors, hopefully you get my drift anyway).

A Harmonious Palette

Okay, so one of my biggest concerns I've come across whenever I've worked with color is having all of the colors in a picture relate to each other so that the picture feels harmonious. There are a few ways to do this (more on that in a future post) but the simplest method, and one I like is to use as few colors as possible. I like to use a simple palette and mix everything I need from the same small group of colors. That way (I find) that the colors all feel like they relate to each other when they're laid down next to each other in a painting and the work feels unified.

Anyway, that's the method I'm using these days. I'll experiment with (and talk about) other ways of doing it in the future but for now I'm sticking with a simple palette.

So technically you should be able to mix any color you need from the three primaries (red, yellow and blue). You can mix them to get the secondaries (violet, green and orange) and you could paint a perfectly fine picture using only three tubes of paint. Certainly I have done this and it definitely makes the picture feel unified and harmonious.

But it's also just a bit too limiting. Each color of paint comes in many, many varieties so you can't just grab a tube of each primary and get to painting, because there are cool and warm versions of each paint. There are cool yellows and warm yellows as well as cool blues, warm blues, cool reds and warm reds. Also each color of paint has it's own place on the value scale....some pigments are naturally darker or lighter than their neighbors on the color wheel.

Pigment Color Wheels

James Gurney has created a color wheel showing where many of his favorite paints fall on the color wheel. For example the yellows fall at the top of his wheel. The ones that are to the top left (at 11 o'clock) are closer to the greens, so they're the cooler yellows, while the yellows to the right (one o'clock) are closer to the oranges so they're warmer yellows. Also, the closer colors are to the center of the wheel, the darker they are in value.

Also here's a great one from, which is an amazing website devoted to color theory and technique.

These may seem very confusing at first. If the color wheel they're using seems different than what you're used to, that's because it's based on the CIECAM color wheel, which is a standardized wheel developed for use in pigment standardization. Here's one painted by James Gurney for reference:

Now all of this can be very overwhelming and confusing, but it's not as bad as it seems at first. But it does illustrate two things: number one, how colors lean towards hot and cool, and number two, how useless the names of different paints are. More on that later...

But first: about the "leaning" part.

Colors Can be Warm or Cool

So take yellow as an example. Some yellow paints are a good approximation of a typical in-the-middle yellow, while others have more blue tint to them and lean towards green so that they are cooler yellows. Warmer yellows, of course, have more red in them and lean towards more of a warm orange-y color.

And this is true of all colors. Each one has a tendency to either: be in the middle, lean towards the cooler side, or lean towards the warmer side.

Pigment Numbers

Now, one of the other things you realize quickly is that paint names are pretty useless. Say for example, you buy a tube of Winsor & Newton "French Ultramarine Blue", and then buy a tube of Grumbacher paint with the same name, you might expect them to be the same color, right?

But they wouldn't be....paints and colors have gotten their names in such romantic (and random) ways over the years that there's very little consistency from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the names of the paints don't give you any hint as to how cool or warm they might be.

The only way to tell if one tube of paint is similar to another is by checking the pigment number on the tube. Here's a good short explanation.

Again, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all of this, but not necessary. I spent weeks delving into all this stuff to try and figure it out but's not necessary information.

Basically for me the essential information to know is that each color has a tendency to lean towards a warmer or cooler hue, and that the names of each color is not going to tell you anything about which way it leans, so the best way to learn all of this is to experiment and see how each one works and how it affects other colors when you mix them or paint them side-by-side.

The other important thing to know about pigment numbers (and it took me a while to figure this out) is that the numbers themselves don't have any numerical relevance.

By that I mean that you can't look at two tubes of yellow paint and use the numbers to figure out whether they are cool or warm yellows. For a brief time I thought you could sort this all out by knowing that lower pigment numbers meant one thing and higher numbers another.


The numbers are assigned (I assume) as the pigments are developed and not to reflect their position on the color wheel. So you can't assume that a pigment labeled PY3 is any warmer or cooler than one called PY152. The only thing the numbers are good for is to figure out how similar paints are between manufacturers, based on their numbers. So if - for example - Grumbacher made a color called "Lake Blue" and you wanted to know if a color Winsor & Newton calls "Sky Blue" is the same color....check the pigment number and see. If they both say PB127 then they're the same! That was a total hypothetical with made up names and numbers, by the way.

If you didn't read the article on numbers, here's the minimum you need to know: each pigment number starts with "P" for pigment, and then is followed by one of the following letters for the pigment : B (for Blue), Y (for Yellow), R (for Red), V (for Violet) and so on, and then there's a number.

Also, I think I've come across colors that have an N instead of a B, R, or the like. I was confused, and again, spent a lot of time running down the answer, and I think it means that it's a "natural" pigment. Again, not important, I promise....just mentioning it so you can disregard it.

Sorry if I'm overwhelming anyone with information. I'm trying to distill what I've been trying to understand for the last couple of months and make it so that you can just get the high points and not worry about the stuff that's not important. Or if you're intrigued by a topic I mention you can always go do more research in that area.

Okay, so now we get to the good and useful part: split primaries.

Split Primaries

Basically it comes down to this: create a palette that contains a cool yellow, a warm yellow, a cool blue and a warm blue, and a cool red and a warm red. Then mix all your colors from those six colors, because between those six colors you have an incredible range of possibilities, and yet because you're only using six colors, your colors will still feel harmonious and unified.

There are consequences to how you mix them, though, and that's why it's important to know about complements.

For example, like I said at the top, yellow and violet are complements, right? And when you mix two complements together, they neutralize each other and you get a grey color.

That's where how a color "leans" becomes important.

For example, say you want to mix a really vibrant violet from your basic palette. So you need to mix red and blue together, right? Which ones do you pick? The warmer red and blue? The cooler ones? One of each?

If you try to mix a violet from your warm red and warm blue, you will get a muddier result than if you mix a violet from your cool red and blue.

This is because both the warm red and the warm blue "lean" towards yellow, or have some yellow in them to make them warm. So when you mix them together, you're getting a lot of yellow mixing together, which is the complement of violet, so it's greying down your mix.

If, on the other hand, you're mixing together the cool blue and the cool red, there's not as much yellow in the mix and so it creates a more vibrant violet. There's no complement in the mixture to grey down your color (see below, but again, my scanner didn't reproduce these colors very faithfully):

That's where the term split primary comes from. Once you have your six colors, draw lines separating them into three groups (group 1: warm yellow and warm red, group 2: cool red and warm blue, group 3: cool blue and cool yellow).

If you mix colors across the lines then you're going to get a muddier color. If you stay within the lines you're going to get a brighter and more intense color.

Here's a great illustration from Ellen Fountain's website that explains it well:

You can see how as the lines get crossed, the colors get less vibrant and colorful. She does a great job explaining all of it on this page here. It's a quick read but very clear and she recommends a palette that fits this criteria.

Also Nita Leland has a page that describes it very well (and is also short and easy to read) here. Both of those web pages helped me immensely and I am indebted to them for writing them.

My Palette

When I started to first buy paints I read a few books with the expectation that artists would just tell me what colors to buy. Each book recommended a different approach as well as each artist I asked about this in person. I've tried a few things (again, I'm still pretty new to all this stuff) but whenever I've tried to adopt someone else's method wholesale it hasn't worked for me. Art is such an individual thing (and I imagine we all see colors differently) so I have found no short cut - experimenting and trying new things seem to be the only way to finding your own perfect palette (and it can also be a bit expensive, unfortunately).

My palette will continue to change and evolve but mostly I'm using the one that I found recommended on the Winsor and Newton resources section of their website, which is wonderfully written and has also been very helpful to me.

On this page they recommend different palettes, based on which brand of their paint you are buying, or what subject matter you are pursuing. Also they recommend a couple of extra paints that you may or may not need, depending on your taste. But here are the six that I am using for my basic palette:

Warm yellow: Windsor Yellow
Cool Yellow: Windsor Lemon
Warm Red: Scarlet Lake
Cool Red: Permanent Rose
Warm Blue: French Ultramarine
Cool Blue: Windsor Blue (Green Shade)

Just for complete disclosure, I've also been using Yellow Ochre and Windsor Green (Yellow Shade) in my palette as well as Titanium White for highlights.

Also on that page they explain other factors that affect the appearance and mixing abilities of all these colors, like granulation and Staining ability. Then you can use their Color Chart to find out which colors have what tendency. I like the six above because they are mostly transparent (instead of opaque) and most of them are "staining" colors (which makes them stronger and more intense). Also most of them aren't "granulating" pigments so they don't have a lot of the grainy texture that granulating pigments do. But use your own taste and judgment to find a palette that works for you. If you ask me what my palette is three months from now it will probably have changed and will continue to change, I'm sure.

Also I'll continue to expand to and add to all this stuff. I know people who know a lot about color will think I'm being irresponsible and skipping important stuff but I will continue to talk about this topic and I don't want to cover too much at once. If all of this is confusing or seems incomplete I'm sorry. Please explore the other resources I've linked to to get more information, or leave me a comment and I will address it in a future post.

Make Mistakes

I tried to read all that I could before I started painting in an attempt to make as few mistakes as possible. Of course, I knew that I would make tons of mistakes and that that is the best way to learn. In a lot of ways they're the only way we learn: I found frequently that until I made the right mistake I wasn't able to learn what books and websites were telling me.

The mistakes I made set the context for the instruction that I needed: I would read stuff that didn't make any sense to me, until I created the need for it by making the mistakes I needed. The mistakes I made were like sanding down a piece of wood so that it can be mistakes and crappy paintings primed my brain so that I could absorb the information I was reading.

So as much as we all try to avoid mistakes and frustration, embrace them and see their worth: they create that desire in you to read and research more and find the answers you need to get better. Mistakes and errors are your friends as long as they don't frustrate you and cause you to quit altogether.

And if this post is confusing, don't worry, it's not you, it's me. I am not the best choice to write about this topic, as I am a useless newbie myself, and hopefully I have done more good than harm with this post....more to come.


Hello, friends. And I mean that.

In the years since I started this blog, I've made real friends around the world.

The time has come for a hiatus. Possibly permanent.

It takes an incredible amount of time to digitally restore these backgrounds. I've loved every minute!

But, my life is in a state of evolving and transition, and I need to focus on that.

I'm going to leave the blog online for your reference. And mine too!

Thanks for your support and encouragement over the years. Over TWO MILLION people have visited this blog.

Amazing. It's a tribute to the artistry of the talented people in the animation industry.

For the moment... that's all, folks.

Thanks again for your interest!


Rob Richards


Here's background art from TO BEEP OR NOT TO BEEP , a Warner Brothers classic from 1963!


a digitally re-assembled pan B/G of NYC:

James Gurney's blog and Jeanne Dobie's "Making Color Sing"

I had hoped to be writing more about color but, alas, I don't have as much time to paint as I'd like and I'd like to have at least a few paintings totally done before I write more about color, because although I've read a lot about color and learned a lot, I'd like to be able to know for sure that my advice will lead to a decent result.

In the meantime, there are other people who actually are very knowledgeable painters that share their knowledge, especially James Gurney, creator of "Dinotopia". He has a great blog called "Gurney Journey" where he talks about color, painting and illustration in a very easy-to-understand and straightforward way.

If that weren't enough, he has a book coming out soon called "Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter". He's already written one that is really good that's mostly about how to help yourself visualize and paint things that don't really exist (I think you can see a lot of it at Google books - I checked it out there before I bought it). It's called "Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist".

Anyway I hope to share more soon but, like I said, I'd like to be able to show some tangible results before talking about how I got there. There are a lot of other resources I have found helpful as well, and I will mention them soon, but I am finding that there is no one resource that I find completely helpful one hundred percent. I am learning a lot by trial-and-error and, although it's great to read what works for others, I am finding that what works for me is usually not the same technique that other people find works for them. So as you read anyone's advice about painting (or drawing, or anything) use it as a measure against what you do, and take what you can from them that helps improve your work. But where their method doesn't help you, and seems to hold you back, always retain the ability to experiment and make your own mistakes and discoveries.

For example, I have really gotten a lot out of Jeanne Dobie's book "Making Color Sing", which is wonderfully short and clearly written, full of great advice about watercolor painting. In the book, she recommends a very limited palette of colors, and I was very grateful to have some direction on what colors to use at first. But as I worked with her palette of paint colors, I found they didn't give me the results I was looking for, and I am trying a different approach these days...which I will hopefully share soon, or if I find that that approach doesn't work, I will keep looking until I find one that works! And once I have one that works, I will let you know what I have learned. I just don't want to share until I feel more confident about my method.

But I never would have found my way without Jeanne's book to guide me along and I definitely recommend it and I will talk more about what I got out of it soon. There are other books I have found helpful and I will share more about them as I keep going (and keep discovering more books too).

Sleepwalker Tutorial

One of the things that I am hoping to learn from using Painter, is not just how to use the program, but to also learn how to use the tips and tricks as part of my own work/paintings.
The next chapter that I completed covers painting a night scene using the image of a sleep walker.

1) Starting with a sketch, the painting is prepped and sized. Using the darkness/contrast controls this helps to bring out the lines of the sketch so that it makes is easier to see.

2) The next step involves painting in the background and the basic colors including the floor boards and the shadows as well as the candle glow. This part takes a bit of time (it took me about a week)

3) The last step involves adding the shadow effect and the window illusion over the sleepwalker, and voila! night scene is painted. I don't think that I am going to put this in the portfolio, but at least it's good practice!

Color is Value

Once a long time ago I was trying to pick the brain of a co-worker about color. He seemed to be really good with color and I was trying to get some guidance and help. He didn't really know what to tell me. He just shrugged and said, "All you need to know is that color is value. That's it."

A simple statement, but I found it to be very helpful and insightful.

So....what does it mean? Well, value is a confusing word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to color. But here I'm using value to mean the black, white and grey tones of a drawing (just like the last post).

So basically it means that, even though you're working with color, the painting should still work if it's converted back into a black, white and grey sketch, and should still follow the general rules about value that I talked about last post. Values in a black and white sketch are really important for clarity and readability, and they remain important when you work with color. They're just a lot harder to judge when you bring color into the equation, and it's hard to remember how important they are when you are juggling all the other aspects that color brings to the table.

Photoshop has the ability to convert any color image into black and white so that you can check your values easily if you're working digitally. Just go to the "Image" dropdown menu, then go to "Mode" and select "Grayscale" (see image below)

and Photoshop will convert your image to black, white and grey so you can check your values. Pretty cool, huh? I used this tool a lot to check my values while I was digitally coloring my comic book stories.

I often felt that the black and white images looked better than the final color.

Then, after you've checked your values, you can just "Undo" and step backwards to your full color file.

Or you can do it the way that artists have been doing it for hundreds of years: if you squint your eyes at a painting it's easier to see the values.

Anyway, here are some paintings converted to black and white so you can see how well the values work (paintings by N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Earl Oliver Hurst and Norman Rockwell).