I have a lot of half-used paint tubes in my studio, but some years ago, when I started teaching, I limited my palette to 6 primary colors and burnt sienna (and large tube of titanium white, of course.) Why?
Well, a primary reason is that paints are expensive, and a certain percentage of my students were approaching painting for the first time. I didn’t want their first venture to be ugly because of the cost.
In addition, I had just read Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox.
If you limit your paints to one each of red, yellow and blue, this limited palette may disappoint you. In theory, the “primary” colors should easily make all the colors on the palette by mixing. But commercial paints aren’t exact primary colors. Looking at the exercise shown at the right, notice that the purple and the green (secondary colors) aren't very bright. You will get better results if you have two of each primary color.
The basic theory is that the color wheel as a whole has a warm and a cool side and each color has an inclination to be warm or cool. For instance, lemon yellow is cooler than cadmium yellow.
Since I need to replenish my oil paints in my personal kit anyway, I began looking at my choices to see if I could identify a more optimum selection of colors than I had been using.
The palette I had been using included: zinc yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, alizarin crimson permanent, ultramarine blue, Phthalocyanine (Thalo) blue, and burnt sienna. Zinc yellow, while it is a very cool yellow, I found to be a very weak color, easily overpowered in mixing with any other color. The cadmiums are getting outrageously expensive. Thalo blue (or Prussian, which is essentially the same) is a very strong and staining color and easily overpowers other colors on mixing. But I haven’t found a good substitute for Thalo or Prussian yet.
I am changing my basic palette to: Hanza yellow light, Hanza yellow medium, Napthol red, Quinacridone red, ultramarine blue, and either Prussian or Thalo blue (because I can’t find a good substitute for this color.)Hanza is a substitute for Cadmium yellow. Cadmiums are opaque. Hanza has some translucency and is said to mix well to form secondary colors and tints. Burnt Sienna stays on the palette because it’s essentially a shade of orange, but darker, so it’s easy to mix it with ultramarine blue to make a rich dark.
I did some comparison because I’ve been trying to get alizarin off the palette for many years without success. I learned long ago that alizarin is a “fugitive” color. (That means that it tends to fade.) On the other hand, it’s a very transparent color and is good for glazing. It also mixes well with thalo green to create a rich black. However, some years ago, manufacturers came out with Permanent Alizarin Crimson and I thought they had it handled. But NoooOOOooo. The result was sort of dull and dirty. I wasn’t happy but I didn’t think that I had a choice. Recently, a representative from Golden Acrylics mentioned that Quinacridone Red (in acrylics) is a good substitute for alizarin. Well, I’m switching to Quinacridone Red in both my oil and acrylics palettes.
I did a little experiment (shown at left) to determine the differences between some of the reds in my oil kit. I suggest that you try such comparisons at home. And if you can pick up old tubes of paint rather than buying every color off the shelf, you’ll find that oil lasts quite long in the tube. (Acrylics last somewhat less long, but their shelf life seems to be improving.
Now, to come back to the question: why do I recommend a 6-color palette? Well, I know of one artist who says he puts every color in his kit on the palette every time he paints. He says he uses 72 colors.That’s a lot of preparation. In addition, it uses up a lot of space on the palette that could be used for blending. And, as you can mix any color with the right primaries, putting more seems like overkill.
But some people just like to buy paint, and if that’s you, why go ahead. You’re obviously not alone. Manufacturers keep putting out new colors.