Primary colors. Acrylic painting for beginners

The primary colors are: primary yellow, primary cyan and primary magenta. With only these three colors you can mix all other colors.

Three primary colors: cyan, yellow and magenta.

You cannot make the primary colours yourself by mixing two other colours. You can’t make yellow, cyan or magenta yourself.

When you mix yellow and magenta, you can make these variations: orange-yellow, orange, red-orange, and red.

Mixing primary yellow and magenta

With magenta and cyan you can mix red-purple, purple, blue-purple and purple-blue.

Mixing primary magenta and cyan

And when mixing primary cyan and yellow you get green-blue, blue-green, green and yellow-green.

Mixing primary cyan and yellow

When you paste these strips together, you get a color wheel!

With three primaries you can mix all colors in between.

The colors we mix with two primaries are called: secondary colors.

All these colours can be lightened and darkened.

  • Lightening can be done with white. In some cases you can also use yellow or a combination of white and yellow
  • You can make colors darker by mixing in one or more dark colours. That can be black, but also browns, dark blues. Sometimes you can also make colours dark by mixing in a complementary colour.

What happens if you use another yellow, red or blue?

If you use another yellow, red or blue as a primary color, chances are that you won’t be able to mix every secondary color in it’s most vivid form.

For example: if you want to mix a vivid green and you use ultramarine blue instead of cyan, you get a dull green.

Left: ultramarine and yellow make a dull green. Right: cyan and yellow make a vivid green.

In this example you didn’t mix two primary colors, but three. We saw earlier, that we can mix cyan and magenta to get a color that resembles ultramarine.

So, in this example ultramarine contains not only blue, but a little bit of magenta as well and when we add yellow, we use three primaries, although it may look as two at first sight.

Ultramrine consists of two primaries

Whenever you mix three primary colors, you get a less saturated result. Whenever you mix only two primary colors, you get a saturated secondary color.

Another example to make this clear: if you mix ultramarine and magenta, you get a vivid purple as a result. We can explain this, by analysing how many primaries are used here. There’s only two: ultramarine contains blue and magenta, and magenta only contains magenta.

Should you buy only primary colors?

When you understand the basics of color mixing, these colors aren’t always the most practical choice.

The color wheel as shown above, shows us all main colors in their most optimal, vivid form.

However: most colors we see in everyday life aren’t nearly as vivid as the colors we see on the color wheel. To make a color less vivid you can add some grey or by adding a third primary color.

So, you could say that most colors we see consist of three rather than two primary colors. When you paint with only the three exact primary colors, you’ll spend a lot of time making your color less vivid.

This is why most professional artists choose to use two kinds of yellows, reds and blues. For every primary they choose one color that has a bias to one side, and another color that has a bias to the other side of the color wheel.

Two variations per color

That way, you can easily choose if you want a bright, vivid secondary color or exactly the opposite: a more dull color.

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