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.
I then use a palette knife to mix secondary colors (orange, purple and green).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, I complete the color wheel by blending the colors together.
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.
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.)
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