Red and blue are not primary colors

Y’all keep asking me to go into more detail about my process, so I’m just going to dig in and start doing that. The thing I’m most excited about right now is the limited palette I’m currently using. The self-portrait here is one of the early pieces I did this way several months ago.

Self Portrait of me, Kellie Snider , Oil on Canvas, 12 x 14

Here is a more recent one.

Jennifer’s Hawaiian Rooster, Oil on Canvas, 12 x 16

When you compare these to some of my older work, even just from a few months ago, you can easily see that it is far more vibrant. It makes me HAPPY! Check out this older painting. Granted, it was an older style, and a different medium. I used to work primarily in watercolor, something that happened when my kids were small.

Asian Woman, Onion Skin dye, Watercolor & Gouache on Arches Watercolor Paper, 24″x32″

Everyone learns in elementary school that the primary colors are Blue, Red, and Yellow. At least I did, back in the 1960s. Every color could be made from blue, red, and yellow, said Everyone. But as I went through life as an artist, I had a terrible problem with muddy colors. This was particularly true when I worked in watercolor. It is far less forgiving than oil or acrylic. I still love watercolor, but that’s a challenge. I haven’t done any watercolor with the palette I’m about to discuss with you, but next time I crack them open you can bet I will.

Check out this blog post for more on Muddy Colors. Draw Paint Academy

My husband was an audio-video guy in NASA’s TV Department. Early in our relationships he innocently said that the basic colors of light are …

Wait. If you’re not sitting down, please be seated. If a seatbelt is available, employ it before reading another word. An asthma inhaler wouldn’t hurt.

The basic colors of light are cyan, magenta and green. That’s what he said. I think I must have said something like, “THAT’S CRAZY!” That was some 35 years ago. It was an insane concept after a lifetime of being taught to assume that the most basic colors of all are red, blue, and yellow and that all the other colors in the world derive from those. My brain had to wonder how the hell Light could make blue and red if red and blue were already primary colors.

Because I had other careers and children to raise, years went by before I really did anything about coming to terms with this information. I kept plugging away with red, blue, and yellow, and more often than I’d like I got muddy colors that were blah and no fun to look at. When I say “muddy”, I don’t mean dull. Sometimes you want an area of dullness in a painting for balance. I mean, just ugly colors that didn’t work. They weren’t rich or vibrant. Sometimes they completely messed up a painting. This often happens when you’re mixing too many colors together or when you mix too many colors with white. But it can also happen when the colors you are using from the tube have unexpected colors in them. And guess what? Red and Blue have extra colors in them. They are not just red and blue.

Blue and red are not primary colors.

(I’ll wait for you to process this.)

I came across this video when studying color theory on my own recently. Echo is a saucy little thing, and her examples are brilliant. Check out this video: This is not BLUE (a lesson in color theory)

When you see Echo mixing colors (about minute 10 or so in the video) you will be AMAZED at the brilliance of the colors she mixes compared to the red, yellow blue mixes. All my life I’ve been mixing yellow and blue to get green, and it was a gross green, so I would buy tubes are already the color I want. My instructors recommended colors to buy. Doing this I ended up buying a ton of unnecessary colors that I would only use once, for one project. Now I use my my limited palette of colors to mix EVERYTHING I NEED in terms of color. Even mixing color on my palette is fun because now I know how to get brilliant colors.

Here’s my limited palette:

Cyan. There are paints in the blue options at your paint store that are actually cyan, but be careful that they don’t have any yellow or white added. You may see them called Sky Blue.

Magenta Alizarin Magenta is good.

Yellow I like Cadmium Medium or Cadmium Light, but I confess to owning plain old school-bus Cad Yellow, too.

Ivory Black OMG, I know you’re not ever supposed to use a black that you didn’t mix yourself from burnt umber and ultramarine blue, sometimes a dark green from the tube or something like that. I have a confession. I use ivory black sometimes and I currently have a massive tube of it in my possession. SO SUE ME!!! I don’t use it much for shading or shadows, but I do use it to get really dark black in small areas.

Titanium White. There are a variety of white options. This is a good, all around white that I use. It covers well. The old muddiness problem comes around when your white isn’t opaque. You can definitely use whites that aren’t opaque, but I, personally, have more trouble with them.

I have a variety of other colors in my collection, but I am using them less and less often, and am not disappointed when I pick one up and find it is dry and needs to go in the trash.

The most important take-away from today’s blog is that

Cyan + Magenta = Blue

Magenta + Yellow = Red

Get in touch if you have thoughts or questions on this post. I’d love to hear from you. It may take me a little while to get back with you, but I’m not ignoring you!

Love ya’,

3 Comments

  1. hilda5462

    Nice! and, yeah, I use IVORY BLACK too! A LOT!!! Especially in skin tones, (since I am fond of using the skin tone palette of Anders Zorn which only has four colours)

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