Although there are dozens of colors available from any given manufacturer, painters never use all of them. Instead, they use a much narrower set of pigments that are chosen to “fit” the color strategy they are working with. Like ingredients in a recipe, the particular pigments that make up a palette will direct the kind of colors or “flavors” that can be achieved. Some palettes are called “limited palettes” because they use as few as three, four or five pigments. Limited palettes can be quite useful, as they encourage unified and harmonious mixtures.
Nearly every palette, and certainly any landscape painting palette, will include at least one of each of the three primary colors: a red, a blue, and a yellow.
The palette I recommend in my landscape workshops is the “expanded primaries” palette. It’s called that because it includes both a cool and a warm variety of each of the primary colors.
A note on restricted limited palettes
Some palettes are so limited that they that restrict or guide mixtures in a specific direction. I call these restricted limited palettes. For example, a palette of ultramrine blue, alizarin crimson and yellow ochre can produce very unified color mixtures, as a limited palette should, but those mixtures will tend to be muted. The yellow ochre (which is a neutral yellow) will not permit you to achieve bright, saturated greens or yellows. With a restricted limited palette you cannot mix any color you want. You don’t boss your mixtures around, they boss you around.
For landscape painting, I prefer to be armed with enough pigments to mix any color I need. That’s where the expanded primaries palette comes in. It would probably not qualify as a true limited palette, because it has seven or eight colors; however, these colors are few enough to be manageable and “expanded” enough to allow you to mix nearly any color you want.
Each of the primary pigments shown below are described as leaning toward the cool side of the spectrum (blues and violets) or the warm side of the spectrum (reds and yellows). This helps you see the relative temperature of colors and how they relate on the color wheel. (See Mapping pigments to the spectrum, below.) A few optional colors are listed after the expanded primaries.
I recommend titanium white. It is a versatile all-purpose white that is opaque with the ability to strongly influence mixtures. Tip: oil painters can replace the oil-based white with an alkyd-based white to speed up drying time, especially in plein air painting. (See Advatages of the Alkyd Medium.)
“Warm” Blue (above) – When mapped to the spectrum, a “warm” blue shifts slightly toward the green side of the spectrum. (See Mapping pigments to the spectrum, below.) Phthalo blue is the most common variety of warm blue, but is so intense that it easily overpowers any mixture unless used very sparingly. For that reason I no longer recommend using regular phthalo; instead I suggest these alternatives: Manganese Blue Hue, which is very similar to phthalo, but not nearly as strong, or either of these two colors: Sennelier’s Azure Blue or Daniel Smith’s Mediterranean Blue. See the complete post on alternatives to Phthalo: Why I Dumped Phthalo Blue and Started Dating Her Less Intense Cousin.
Ultramarine Blue (cooler blue) above, is an essential color and present in nearly every landscape painter’s palette. It is a strong, transparent blue with a subtle shift toward the violet side of the spectrum. Straight from the tube, ultramarine is fairly dark. It is one of those colors whose brilliance is heightened by the addition of white.
Alizarin Permanent, cooler red is a magenta-like color, leaning closer to the violet side of the spectrum. As a transparent color, it needs to be mixed with other colors in order to achieve adequate covering power. Traditional alizarin crimson is not lightfast and has a tendency to fade. Instead, use Gamblin Artist’s Colors Alizarin Permanent, a lightfast alternative to traditional alizarin crimson.
Cadmium Orange (above) serves as my warm “red.” It’s not a true red, but it is advantageous for two reasons. Any needs I have for red are easily covered by the cadmium orange and alizarin. Also, the richness of cadmium orange cannot be matched by admixtures of other pigments. If you prefer a non-cadmium alternative, try (in oil) Gamblin Artist’s Colors Permanent Orange or other cadmium orange substitutes (sometimes called hues).
Cadmium or Hansa Yellow Medium, warmer yellow (above) – When mapped to the spectrum, cadmium or hansa lean toward the orange side of the spectrum, while the “cooler” lemon or nickel titanate yellow leans slightly toward the green side. Hansa yellow is a good alternative to cadmium if you want to avoid cadmium. Both are opaque and hold up well in mixture.
Lemon Yellow or Nickel Titanite Yellow, cooler yellow (above) – Compared to warm yellows, cool yellows have less of a red component, with an ever-so-subtle shift toward the green end of the spectrum. Lemon yellow is the traditional cool yellow; however, the cool attributes of nickel titanate (a pigment which many artists are unfamiliar with) are more apparent than those of lemon yellow. It is also opaque and holds up well in mixture. For more information on nickel titanate yellow, see Nickel Titanate: The Coolest Yellow.
Technically, Dioxazine Purple (above) is not essential to expanded primaries palette. You can mix something very similar with alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. I list it here as an option. It’s a favorite “go-to” color of mine, a time saver, and very useful in landscape.
By mixing the primaries together in various proportions you can create a wide variety of neutral colors. However, many painters like to include at least one neutral color on their palette — a single “go-to” pigment that can quickly be added to other mixtures to make them more neutral. The pigment I recommend most for this purpose is Burnt Umber.
Burnt umber has a slightly reddish tint (raw umber has a green tint), which is revealed when lightened with white. Some would argue that a palette would be better off without burnt umber because you will learn more by mixing your own neutrals from the primaries. But I disagree. Trying to mix neutrals from the three primaries is very difficult. Burnt umber is simply a quick and easy way to achieve neutrals. It’s worth noting that when burnt umber is added in equal parts with ultramarine, it makes a rich chromatic black. Play with the proportion of ultramarine to burnt umber, and you can make a wide range of cool or warm neutrals. For a full rundown of neutral pigments, see Neutrals: Selecting the Right Neutral Pigment for Your Palette.
Yellow Ochre (left) or Raw Sienna (right) are not essential to the expanded primaries palette. Similar colors can be mixed with the primaries. But many landscape painters like them because they are effective colors for underpainting. They are classified as earth colors, but I often refer to them as neutral yellows: if you mix violet with its complement, yellow, you can get a color similar to yellow ochre or raw sienna. Compared to yellow ochre, raw sienna is darker and redder.
What about greens?
Although there are many green pigments available, I usually mix my greens from the two blues and two yellows in my expanded primaries palette. That said, if you want to include a green pigment on your palette, here are some recommendations.
Viridian Green is a relatively cool green with less of a yellow component. It is particularly good for starting mixtures for the cool dark green shadows sometimes seen in nature. It can also be warmed with yellow pigments. As a transparent pigment, it needs to be mixed with more opaque pigments in order to achieve covering power. When lightened with white, it reveals a mint-like hue. Sap Green is a relatively warm green, with a shift toward the yellow end of the spectrum. As a transparent pigment, it may need to be mixed with other, more opaque pigments in order to achieve covering power. When lightened with white, it reveals a yellow-olive hue. Chrome Oxide Green is a good choice for a single all-purpose green. It can easily be modified with the yellows and blues in your palette and it holds up so well in mixture that it can handle being manipulated in a variety of ways. Out of the tube, it is a medium-value, slightly neutral olive color. When lightened with white, it reveals a pale yellowy-olive hue.
Mapping pigments to the spectrum