Primary Colors and the Color Wheel How to Work with Red, Blue, and Yellow
The three Primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Combining these 3 primary paint colors will create so many more colors. However, mixing the wrong primary paint colors together will turn out muddy and gray. More on this in a bit.
Next, I’ll show you a color wheel exercise to help to get to know your colors. Then, continue with the “color play” exercises to explore your full palette.
When you know your colors, you have more control over your pigments, and your overall style and art works will improve. You’ll also be able to take a much more limited palette when traveling. My travel palette consists of 2 sets of primary colors and Payne’s Grey.
It’s as easy as yellow and blue makes green. Literally.
Primary Paint Color Biases in Watercolor
Watercolor paints offer many blues, reds, and yellows but they don’t all mix well. Each has a bias toward one primary color over the other. Therefore, when selecting your palette, select paints biased toward each other. otherwise, the result mix will look muddy and grey.
Reds with a blue bias
- alizarin crimson
- crimson lake
- rose madder
- scarlet lake
Reds with a yellow bias
- cadmium red
- chlorinated para red
- chrome orange
- English red oxide
- fluorescent red
- Indian red
- light red
- permanent red
- perylene red
- phioxine red
- red lake
- red lead
- sandorin scarlet
- Venetian red
- Winsor red
Yellows with a blue bias
- cadmium yellow lemon
- cadmium yellow pale
- Flanders yellow
- lemon yellow
- permanent yellow light
- primary yellow
- Winsor yellow
- yellow light
Yellows with a red bias
- aurora yellow
- brilliant yellow
- cadmium yellow medium and deep
- golden yellow
- Indian yellow
- Mars yellow
- Naples yellow
- permanent yellow medium and deep
- raw sienna
- yellow lake
- yellow ochre
Blues with a red bias
- mountain blue
- ultramarine blue
- verditer blue
- Victoria blue
Blues with a yellow bias
- intense blue
- monestial blue
- Paris blue
- peacock blue
- phthalocyanine blue
- Winsor blue
My Favorite Primary Colors, Right Now
These 3 colors are always in my travel and studio palettes. First, I created a gradient wash on a small watercolor paper. This lets me visualize the lightest to darkest values. The darkest value uses the paint straight from the tube and the lightest value uses mostly water with just the faintest of pigment.
- Prussian blue – versatile allowing you to create the lightest of blues to deep night hues. It was Picasso’s favorite blue, during his Blue Period.
- Azo yellow – jumps off the page with its intensity.
- Permanent Red – shows rich reds and mixes for secondary colors.
Study Primary Colors on a Color Wheel
The color wheel is the organization of color hues around a circle. It lets you visualize the relationships between your colors as well as provide a reference guide. It’s the first thing I create when exploring color combinations for a painting. I create hues and make a note of the recipes for future use. This is really helpful when creating a series of paintings or recreating a theme.
About the Color Wheel
The color wheels I’ve used include a few things:
- Primary Colors: These colors cannot be created using any other colors. (red, blue, and yellow)
- Secondary Colors: Mixing 2 primary colors will create secondary colors. (green, orange, and purple)
- Tertiary Colors: Create these colors by mixing one Primary color and one Secondary Color. (yellow-green, blue-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, blue-purple, and red-purple)
- W – Warm Colors (Advancing): Reds, oranges, and yellows.
- C – Cool Colors (Receding): Greens, blues, and purples.
- Complimentary Colors: Colors located directly opposite of each other.
- Split Complimentary Colors: Any color with the 2 colors on either side of its compliment.
- Triad Complimentary Colors: Three colors equally spaced from each other on the wheel.
- Tetrad Complimentary Colors: 4 colors on the wheel consisting of 2 sets of compliments.
Here are color wheels using 6 different sets of Primary Color combinations:
Paint Your Own Color Wheel with Watercolors
Download this image and print it out however large you’d like. I typically keep it around 5″x5″ or smaller. You can use carbon paper to transfer the image onto your watercolor paper or redraw it. The shape should be a circle but you can design it however you’d like. Whatever makes you happy. This is just my template I’ve created and used for years.
Then, select your 3 primary colors and fill out the circle as labeled. You can choose from the Primary Colors above to make sure you select colors biased toward each other. Study the 4 examples and how they relate on the bias chart to get a better understanding of choosing your colors.
Keep Mixing Primary Colors to Explore the Possibilities
You now have a better understanding of the Primary Colors and the Secondary and Tertiary Colors they create. Have some fun mixing them up and creating your own hues.
- Adjust color values (light to dark) by controlling the water amount
- To keep watercolor paint its darkest, use very little or no water
- In watercolors, white is the paper showing through
- When painting areas against each other, the paints can run together. To prevent this, wait for the paint to dry before painting next to it.
This watercolor exercise will bring you closer to your paint colors. You’ll practice gradients, strokes, and controlling your water and pigment levels.
The Grid Exercise
- Create a grid on a sheet of watercolor paper. My examples shows at 12″x9″ watercolor sheet with 1″ grids.
- Get clean water and a clean brush that fits with the size of your grids. I used a #6 for mine.
- Prepare your primary colors. I chose Cobalt Blue, Permanent Rose, and Lemon Yellow.
- Begin by mixing 2 of the colors with varied water levels. Paint the grid squares in any order you’d like. Mine is random.
- Start adding the 3rd color little by little. Then go back and ad more of one of the other 2 colors. Play around. Remember that wet paints will run together. Wait for a square to dry before painting right next to it. Or, leave a thin white border.