Split Primary Color Palette – Using It to Mix Vivid Secondary Colors

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A split primary color palette refers to a palette of colors with both warm and cool variations of the primary colors (being red, blue and yellow). The purpose is to mix a wider gamut of colors. I explain this in more detail below.

Color Wheel Using Just the Primary Colors

Mixing a color wheel using just the three primary colors reveals some limitations of our paints and highlights the importance of the split primary palette.

The colors on my palette are cadmium red, ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow. I start by arranging them in a circle, equal distances apart.

Primary Colors - Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow

I then use a palette knife to mix secondary colors (orange, purple and green).

Color Wheel - Secondary Colors

Finally, I take my palette knife and gently blend the colors together to complete the color wheel. I try to ensure there is an even gradation between the colors.

Color Wheel - Mixing the Wheel
Color Wheel - Primary Colors

Key Observations

Here are some of the key observations from this color wheel:

  • The orange is rich and intense because cadmium red and cadmium yellow are both vivid colors which lean towards orange.
  • The purple seems dull. This is because cadmium red leans towards yellow. By mixing ultramarine blue with cadmium red, I am essentially mixing all three primary colors together to some extent. This results in a toned-down version of purple.
  • The green seems even duller than the purple. This is because ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow both lean away from green and contain traces of blue. So again, by mixing these two colors together, I am essentially mixing all three primary colors together to some extent.

This primary color palette would be ideal for portraits, warm interior scenes or even still lifes, provided that you do not need vivid purples or greens. But it may feel restrictive for landscape painting.

A dull version of this primary color palette would be the Zorn palette, which includes yellow ochre, ivory black and vermilion (red). Ivory black in this case acts as a very dark blue. With this limited color palette, Zorn was able to paint stunning portraits and interior scenes filled with warmth. But for most of his landscapes, he expanded his palette to include more color.

Anders Zorn, Bread Baking, 1889
Anders Zorn, Bread Baking, 1889

Color Wheel Using the Split Primary Palette

I will create another color wheel but this time with a split primary palette which includes:

  • Cadmium red (warm red)
  • Alizarin crimson (cool red)
  • Cadmium yellow (warm yellow)
  • Cadmium lemon (cool yellow)
  • Ultramarine blue (warm blue)
  • Cerulean blue (cool blue)

Note: I am referring to warm and cool in a relative sense. Alizarin crimson is cooler than cadmium red but warmer than any blue.

I start by arranging the split primary colors in a circle.

Warm and Cool Primary Colors

I then mix secondary colors by using the primary colors which lean towards the secondary color I am trying to mix. For example, to mix purple, I use alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue (both colors lean towards purple).

Tip: Really dark colors sometimes need just a touch of titanium white so that you can properly see the color. In this case, I add just a touch of titanium white to my purple.

Mixing Secondary Colors - Split Primary Palette
Secondary Colors - Split Primary Palette

Finally, I complete the color wheel by blending the colors together.

Split Primary Palette - Mixing
Split Primary Palette

Key Observations

Here are some of the key observations from this split primary color wheel:

  • The orange is still rich and intense, obviously, because the same red and yellow are used.
  • The purple is much cooler and richer due to the use of alizarin crimson rather than cadmium red. Alizarin crimson is a cooler red which leans towards purple.
  • The green is much more vivid due to the cool yellow being mixed with the cool blue.

The split primary palette is ideal for landscape painting, as it allows you to mix rich secondary colors which you will frequently encounter in nature (particularly green). When you are outside painting the landscape, there is more light and this usually results in more color.

Isaac Levitan, Spring in Italy, 1890
Isaac Levitan, Spring in Italy, 1890

Disadvantages of the Split Primary Palette

Whilst the split primary palette allows you to mix a much wider gamut of colors, it does come with some disadvantages:

  • More colors mean more complexity. But this is only a disadvantage if you don’t know how to deal with the additional colors.
  • In most cases, you will not need to mix a vivid green, orange and purple, especially for still life or portrait painting. Sometimes, a partial split primary palette is all that you need. For example, in landscape painting I often have a red, blue and warm and cool yellows to give me more options for mixing greens.
  • The split primary palette is still not perfect, in that you will not be able to mix every color with it.

(If you want to learn more about color mixing, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy course.)

Additional Readings

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you learned something new! If you found the post useful, please share.

Want more painting tips? Come join me in the Painting Academy.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

41 thoughts on “Split Primary Color Palette – Using It to Mix Vivid Secondary Colors”

    • I would like to thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge and experience. I am unable to afford the lessons I would like, so your tutorials help more than you may imagine.
      Kind regards
      Carolyn

      Reply
  1. I wish someone had told me this years ago! It took me a long time, and some vague references from other artists to figure this out – mostly through trial and error. My art instructor didn’t tell us this. I love the way you explained it. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Thanks…interesting reading! How aabout explaining the use of transparent primary and secondary color…why some artists begin their paintings with a transparent color..etc., etc. this is mystifying to me!

    Reply
  3. Very helpful. Thank you. A lot of instructors have referred to using a cool and warm choice in the primary colours, however, none explained the reason for it as simply as you have here.

    Reply
  4. You’re a good teacher, Dan! You explained how to use the primary and split palettes very well, especially with the photos of how you mixed the colors! Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Thanks Dan, as always, a well presented and clear explanation of the topic. I look forward to reading all of your posts.

    Reply
  6. wow! thank you so much! I learn so much by reading your posts and carry out them in my canvas. I’m so glad! thank you a lot. All these explanations about understanding colours is so important and fascinate me.

    Reply
  7. Dan, I am enjoying your lessons via this page. I cannot afford to pay for the course or obtain the books so I am taking as much advantage as I can of your section.

    Reply
  8. 15 years ago I had an art teacher who only wanted me to use the split primary palette plus white. We had to use lemon yellow instead of Cadmium Lemon and we had to make our own black. My teacher insisted we could mix any colour with the split primary colour. I certainly learned to mix colours very well. It was hard work but well worthwhile. Thank you for the above lesson. Nowadays I use the earth colours often which I buy.

    Reply
  9. I started to use the Split Primary color palette a couple of months of ago and it has really helped me. Instead of Cerulean blue I use Prussian blue but I think I will try Cerulean now. Prior to this I laid out all the colors on my palette and it confused the hell out of me. I think for beginners it is best to mix your own colors. Thanks for explaining this so simply.

    Reply
  10. Dan, this was the most enlightening post on Colour Palettes that I have come across. Beautifully explained and displayed. I’m total learner and unfortunately Cannot afford Courses or Classes. I love reading your posts, they are so inspirational. Thank you, Dan.

    Reply
  11. I enjoyed reading about the split pallet. You explained it in a very simple and understandable language . Thank you very much. I’m a junkie in buying paints , I have all types of blues phthalo, cobalt, Windsor, cerulean,UM. Now I’m should try to purge them and to limit my collection.

    Reply
  12. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your site. This is excellent! When it comes to this particular topic it’s something I’ve felt and used but never heard it explained. Thanks, I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles 🙂

    Reply
  13. Dan, this is very helpful. I have a question I feel foolish asking – what is the difference between a color that says “hue” and just the color – like would I want cerulean blue hue or cerulean blue? You have probably addressed this somewhere and I missed it! Thanks so much for all the help you give us!!1

    Reply
    • Hi Joan

      My understanding is that the “hue” on the end means it is a lower quality paint. But it is usually cheaper.

      Thanks!

      Dan

      Reply
  14. Hi Dan. I’m your biggest fan. Thank you so much for this concise and easy to understand information you willingly share. Am I able to forward this to my students. Love R

    Reply

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