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Primary Colors

Selecting magenta, cyan and lemon yellow are the primary colors and will also yield bright secondary colors and tertiary colors.

This is a well-thought-out basic model for color mixing. It capitalizes on the wide span of color range in magenta as well as its organic synthetic properties that include intensity and transparency. Cyan is a synonym for phthalocyanine blue and while it is a very powerful pigment that can overwhelm a palette, it has far fewer bias tendencies than its counterparts, cobalt or ultramarine blue.  Lemon yellow provides a very cool hue that holds to the idea that it makes bright secondary colors, especially bright, vibrant greens. 

Pyrrole red, phthalocyanine blue, and cadmium yellow.  However, there are no true primary colors.

This reply ignores the foundation of the term primary colors, which are those that cannot be made by mixing any other colors to create red, blue, and yellow. So really, any red, blue, or yellow can be primary colors since they can’t be made by any other mixing solution.  So many artists get bent out of shape debating primary hues.  Picking any yellow, red, or blue will yield a variety of other hues and take advantage of or betray the shortcomings of the range a primary hue selected can make.  One will never achieve a vibrant green by mixing cadmium yellow with ultramarine blue.  While this is second nature to seasoned artists, novices get confused about the bias of pigments until they mix colors themselves and find out the strengths and weaknesses of each hue.

Start with cadmium red, lemon yellow, and ultramarine blue. You will also be required to use white. Cobalt blue is achieved by mixing ultramarine blue and some white.  Take the green you make and mix it with cadmium red to get brown. The fewer colors the better.

Uncertain where the idea of mixing ultramarine blue and white creates cobalt blue.  Maybe it could pass for cerulean blue if the ultramarine blue has a green bias, but certainly not cobalt blue.  So many artists tell others to make earth tones out of cadmium pigments.  Others go nuts telling artists that cadmium colors are highly toxic, as though opening a tube of cadmium paint is akin to being exposed to a radioactive substance or once the cap is removed cadmium paints will leap out under some mysterious internal pressure generated in the tube and immediately bombard an artist’s mouth or eyes.  Cadmium like ALL PIGMENTS must be handled with care and respect for their potential to be harmful if INGESTED.  A pile of cadmium on an artist’s palette is not going to be harmful unless it comes into direct contact with a living body.  It does not give off “deadly cadmium fumes.”  Good studio practice will address most issues and keep artists from being exposed.

PB 28 – cobalt blue, PY 35 Cadmium Yellow Light, and PR 108 Cadmium Red Light are a good set of primary colors.  If you desire to select non-toxic colors, you can use cobalt blue, PY184 bismuth vanadate yellow, and PR254 Pyrrole Red.

Nowhere in any art materials literature has the idea been circulated that synthetic organic colors are non-toxic and far safer to use than cadmium colors. If everyone treated all paints like they were toxic and were not to be accidentally eaten, smeared into open cuts, or sanded when in a dry state, then all pigments would be handled with the same level of caution.  None of the pigments used by artists provide a “free pass,” allowing the user to be cavalier about how they are handled.  The myth of synthetic organic pigments being safe alternatives needs to be curtailed. If a pigment has a complex chemical name it is a synthetic organic color. Pyrrole, Phthalocyanine, Benzimidazole, and many others are synthetic organic pigments.

A dual palette of primary colors provides a wide range of mixes. Use vermillion and or alizarine or quinacridone red.  For blue, use ultramarine and phthalocyanine blue.  You only need one yellow such as cadmium yellow.   A palette containing cobalt blue, alizarine (sic) crimson, and raw sienna can create the most wide-ranging color mixes.  You can also try a palette composed of cobalt teal, magenta red, and Indian yellow. Throw in burnt umber, ultramarine blue and white and the possibilities are almost limitless.

I feel sorry for the person asking the original question because this contributor went from Color Mixing 101 to an advanced color mixing course.  Not sure why raw sienna could be a suitable substitute for a primary yellow. Cobalt teal is a pretty complex color to play with when mixing secondary and tertiary hues.  An interesting palette of vibrant colors is achievable by using magenta or quinacridone violet along with ultramarine blue and Indian yellow.  All of them are transparent colors and the mixtures are strong. Beginning artists need to start slow and work up to adding new colors.   I also pity new artists who are told they need to only use primary colors to mix everything.  The exercise is labor intensive and achieving good secondary colors and matching colors is hard to do if the primary colors selected don’t have the range to make the color the artist is striving to make.

Cobalt blue is the truest blue, but it is very toxic.

So, if the idea is to stay away from toxic colors then give up painting altogether. All pigments have toxic aspects associated with them, some more so than others.

Use a cool blue such as cobalt blue and warn blue such as ultramarine. Select alizarine (sic) and transparent red oxide for the warm and cool red and use Naples yellow for the cool yellow and cadmium yellow for the warm yellow. 

Both cobalt and ultramarine had very similar hue and bias characteristics.  If you doubt this, see the section “Color Reflectance” and go to the blue page to view the color curve of both pigments.  Note that cobalt has an even redder “tail” (the area between 640 nm and 720 nm) so that any mixture with green will be neutralized.  The same goes for ultramarine blue.  The red bias negates the intensity of the green mixture.  I am dubious about using transparent iron oxide and Naples yellow as primary color selections. See the “Color Reflectance” section on Yellow to view Naples yellow.

Buy a color wheel and mix paints to match the colors on the wheel.  The red on the wheel will be composed of cadmium red Alizeran (sic) and something else. It is a good exercise to learn how to mix colors.

Trying to mix paints to match a color wheel is an exercise, but attempting to match the primary colors on the printed wheel is questionable. The idea is not to mix a “ideal” primary but to use whatever primary colors that have been chosen to see what secondary and tertiary colors can be produced.  There is NO standard for what constitutes a primary red, blue or yellow.


Cobalt blue is the most neutral blue. Cadmium red medium and cadmium yellow light are fairly neutral.  But, cobalt blue and cadmium red do not make an acceptable violet.  It is a grey-violet.  Cobalt blue and cadmium yellow make a wonderful green.

See the previous annotation regarding cobalt blue.  Understand that no pigments are neutral.  The closest one can come to a neutral primary is phthalocyanine blue.  It has very low bias hues within it. Cadmium red medium is a good primary as well. None of the yellow primary colors commonly used lack bias in the green, orange, and red parts of the spectrum.  Naples yellow is likely the worst due to its high degree of reflectance in the blue, green, orange and red parts of the spectrum.  Using Naples yellow creates a struggle to achieve predictable secondary and tertiary colors.

Also note, artists should check the spelling of paint colors and pigment names.  This helps novice artists when seeking advice on color choices.

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