Why You Should Use the Double Primary Palette

By Mary Gilkerson

There are two problems I hear about over and over again from my students.

The first is how to make the color in their paintings more vibrant and less dull.

The second is how to get some control over what feels like a chaos of color, how to make the color in their paintings more harmonious.

The answer to both questions really is the same.

Sometimes less is more.

To get your color under control and make them more vibrant, there are two main strategies.

#1 Use optical color in your paintings. (You can read more about that here.)
#2 Start using a limited double primary palette, one that includes a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries.

What exactly is a “limited palette”?

A “limited palette” means reducing the number of tubes of paint you’re working with. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re reducing the number of colors.


By choosing a double primary palette, using a warm and a cool version of each primary plus white, you can mix the full range of hues. 

Fewer tubes of paint are easier to control when you’re starting out. It’ll also be easier to keep your color schemes harmonious when you’re mixing your colors from the double primaries. 

Here’s the list I use when teaching color no matter what the medium. Note that these are pigment names rather than paint names. The names will vary by manufacturer.

Ultramarine Blue
Phthalo Blue
Napthol Red
Napthol Crimson
Yellow Ochre
Indian Yellow
Titanium White

With these 7 tubes of paint you can mix almost every color you can think of (check out this resource from Daniel Smith for another helpful look at a double primary color wheel!)

Why not use just three primaries to simplify color mixing? 

In theory we can mix a full range of colors from our three pure primaries. But that’s just in theory. In practice the three true primaries don’t actually exist in paints.

This is the frustration of the rabbit hole that is color theory.

The fact of the matter is it’s much easier to understand color by looking at paint rather than focusing on theory. Focus on the paint itself, learn how the colors you’re mixing are related to each other and begin creating a full range of vibrant hues with a limited double primary palette. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a few extra convenience colors…

Once you start getting the hang of color mixing with the double primary palette consider adding in a few convenience colors.

Some of my other favorites but not required. They’re convenience colors that are nice to have, but can be mixed from the list above:
Italian Terre Verte (Sap Green is the closest but there’s really no comparable Gamblin color. WN Terre Verte is almost the same.)
Italian Green Ochre
Egyptian violet (Dioxazine Purple)
Cinnabar Green Light
Monserrat Orange

I use black very rarely, but if you want one I’d suggest Ivory Black.

Need additional resources on color? I’ve got you covered…

Check out my top supply recommendations – Selecting Basic Painting Colors and Materials

Take a deep dive on Color: 7 Keys to Vivid, Rich Paintings


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