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How to Go Beyond the Rainbow using Colour Mixes

February 4, 2012

Accurate colour mixing is like baking a cake. It is as simple, and as precise, as that. You need a list of ingredients and a recipe, or method, to follow. After that, it's just a science anyone can learn: accurate colour-mixing isn't difficult  but the vast choice in the art shop makes it look harder than it really is.

The typical catalogue from a manufacturer of artists paints will boast a bewildering list of colours. In purples alone, there might be a dozen to choose from. Yet I've never heard a convincing argument for having even one tube of ready-mixed purple on your palette.

The makers' advertisements give an impression that the more colours you have at hand, the more easily you can express your individual style of creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more colours you have, the more you will be tempted to use them straight from the tube. Every other person with a big range of tubes will do the same. That is the explanation for the sameness you see at charity Art Fairs.

  • It doesn't have to be that way. Setting limits can set you free. Free to experiment. To find mixtures that will be exclusive to you. Fellow artists often remark on the range and subtlety of colour in my work. Then they visit my studio and exclaim in disbelief when they see only nine tubes on my palette - two of them Whites, one a Black.


(Well, I do keep four supplementary pigments on my palette. They have special uses, and I'll tell you about them in the next article.)

There are only three primary hues: Red, Yellow, and Blue. The names on all those pretty tubes - Viridian, Ultramarine etc - refer to the pigments the manufacturer has made. So, what about the rainbow? It shows more than three colours; anyone can see that. Here's why:

Back in 1672, Isaac Newton showed that 'white' sunlight is actually composed of myriad different-coloured rays. Each ray is refracted at a different angle when it passes through a prism. Aged only 29, Newton presented his startling discovery to the Royal Society of London, in the first scientific paper he ever published.

When light is passed through a prism - e.g. the crystal of a chandelier, the diamond in an engagement ring, the drops of water vapour in a rainbow - it separates into all the colours our eye perceives. Where the three primary hues merge, they form the secondaries. Red and yellow merge into orange; yellow and blue into green; blue and red into purple. But you need only the three primaries, plus white  (and sometimes ) black, to mix any colour your painting requires.

Accurate colour mixing is like baking a cake. It is as simple, and as precise, as that. You need a list of ingredients and a recipe, or method, to follow. After that, it is just a science that anyone can learn. The success of a painting depends as much on harmony and balance of colour as it does on the strength of design.

  • Here, I'm only concerned with alerting you to the many advantages of keeping your palette simple. I have already mentioned one advantage: the development of colour mixtures as unique to you as your handwriting. A second, and most useful one, is gaining control over those pigments that are notorious for 'taking over' a painting. I am thinking of blues like phthalo and cerulean, and most of the greens.


Endless books have been written on the science of colour mixing. You'll no doubt enjoy reading some of them. But if you just want to get on with your painting, the best thing you can do is to familiarise yourself with The Colour Wheel. This is one of the most useful tools ever devised for painters, cutting through the mystery and confusion.

  • Today, my hope is to give you confidence to see that you can take control of colour by simplifying your palette. To illustrate the point: Think of a healthy baby, just past the crawling stage but not yet walking without some help. He is so curious about everything, eager to explore and touch and taste. But he is behind bars, in a playpen.


Sounds restrictive? Any parent could tell you the kid has more freedom within the borders of his pen than he would have if he were on the loose. Safe from dangers that he lacks the experience to recognise, he is free to investigate all the possibilities of what he has at hand. And he can do it in his own time, in his own style.
© Dorothy Gauvin

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