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.