How to Mix Bright Luminous Secondary Colors.

Mixing secondary hues (colors) from a split primary color wheel (with a warm and cool red, blue and yellow) is the best way to produce the purest (clean), intense (bright) secondary colors. To do this, the primary colors chosen must lean towards the secondary color that is being mixed.

In grade school, we learned the theory that 2 primaries mixed together=secondary colors, that is:
Yellow+ Blue=Green
Red+Blue=Violet or purple

However in reality, when you mix secondary colors, they are sometimes dirty looking and mixing purple often gives something close to brown!!!! Why is that?

The color wheel on the left shows dotted lines; this divides the color wheel into quadrants which are all biased (leaning towards) a particular secondary color. Staying within these quadrant/families assures clean bright secondaries, so when the dotted lines are crossed and quadrants are “contaminated”, the colors can become “sullied” and dull.

For example, mixing luminous violet/purple requires:

  • Warm Blue (Blue leaning towards violet) + cool red (red leaning to the violet) = bright luminous violet/purple. Going outside the dotted lines and mixing cool blue (green bias) and warm red (orange bias) will produce a brown-purple!

Similarly, mixing a luminous clean green requires:

  • cool Yellow (yellow leaning towards green) + cool blue (Blue leaning towards green)= bright clear green (and probably very unnatural looking!) Again going outside the quadrant lines and mixing a warm yellow (leaning to the orange) and warm blue (leaning towards violet) will give an olive green or brownish-green! (which is sullied but closer to the greens appearing in nature). More on mixing greens later!

The theory applies to all the other hues (colors)….

The purest, most intense colors come from combining colors that lean towards the color you are trying to mix. 

This includes tertiary or intermediate colors (which are produced when a primary and secondary color are mixed). eg. red and orange=red orange or orange red.
NOTE: The more colors that are mixed, the duller (greyer and sullied) the combination will become. Try not to mix more than 3 colors in any color mixture to keep colors bright and clean.

Split Primary Palette for Beginner Watercolorists.

Split Primary Palette for Beginners:
I feel it is the responsibility of the artist to use the most permanent watercolor pigments available. I have spent hours researching which pigments make the most sense to have on your palette without worrying that they will change/disappear when exposed to too much day light or fluorescent light. (colors that change are termed “Fugitive” and should not be on your palette. Certain pigments (eg Opera or Opera rose) can disappear-leaving white paper in a little as 6 months in the sun!

Here is the very basic palette (a warm and cool of each primary color) that I recommend:

Common Name      cool/warm    Pigment #         Chemical name               Brands I use    
Winsor Yellow           C                PY154     (Benzimidazalone yellow)                W/N
New Gamboge          W                PY153     (nickel dioxine yellow)                     W/N or DS
Pyrrol Red                 W                PR254     (di-keto pyrrolo pyrrol red)               DS
Permanent Rose  (Quin)   C          PV19       (gamma-quinacridone)                     W/N or DS
French Ultramarine Blue   W        PB29        (sodium aluminum sulfosilicate)       W/N
Phthalo Blue (green shade)   C     PB15:3      (alpha copper phthalocyanine)         W/N or DS

W/N  Winsor Newton
DS     Daniel Smith
H       Holbein

From these basic 6 colors (warm and cool of each primary color) most colors can be mixed which make them a great starting point for beginners in watercolor. A warm and cool is required because perfectly-balanced primary colors are not available as single lightfast pigments. The best place to check for color lightfastness is and “Guide to the Best Watercolor Paints” by Michael Cox or Hilary Page’s book “Guide to watercolor paints”.

Optional colors (but extremely useful) that I recommend include:
Common name                         Pigment #   Chemical name                      Brands I use
Phthalo green (blue shade)          PG7     (chlorinated copper phthalocyanine)         DS or W/N
Permanent Alizarin Crimson     PR N/A+PR206  (Quinacridone mixture)              W/N
Burnt Sienna                                PBr7  (Calcinated natural iron oxide)                     H
Burnt Umber                                PBr7  (Calcinated natural iron/manganese oxide ) H

With these extra colors, it is possible to mix rich deep luminous darks and more neutralized colors (tending towards grey).

NOTE: Until recently, the common names of watercolors have been confusing as they varied between manufacturers for the same pigment and beginners could unknowingly end up buying duplicate paint. Thankfully, paint manufacturers now provide pigment numbers and formulations so brands can be accurately compared. But the common names are still used extensively, and artists eventually will have to learn the new nomenclature (or have it easily available) to prevent ambiguity when shopping for/describing watercolors.

Mixing rich deep luminous darks

  • I do not use any watercolor paint that contains black (eg PBk6 thru 11) as this pigment is mostly soot/carbon and can give a flat dead-looking black.
  • My favorite deep dark mixed with Phthalo Green, blue shade (PG7) and perm. Alizarin Crimson (PR N/A and PR206)-if mixed up thick and juicily can represent close to “a transparent black
  • A mix of PG7 and Quinacridone violet/magenta (PV 19) can be substituted for a cooler black. 
  • All Phthalo colors (PG7, PG36, PB15:1, PB:3) are staining, transparent and have a wide value range (from their lightest lights to their darkest darks) which allows for deep dark color mixing. 
  • Unfortunately, a perfect neutral grey is not commercially available either, but the transparent “black” listed above can be diluted with more water….. but a better method is to mix complementary colors (colors directly across each other on the color wheel). More on complements later.