Mitchell Albala’s “Expanded Primaries” Landscape Painting Palette

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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.

White

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.)

Blues

Phthalo Blue
“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
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.

Reds

alizarin crimson
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
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).

Yellows

hansa yellow
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.

nickel titanate yellow
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.

Neutrals

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
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 ochreraw sienna
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, sap green, chrome oxide green

Viridian Green (left), Sap Green (center) and Chrome Oxide Green (right).

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

Mapping primary pigment colors to the spectrum

To understand the cool and warm varieties of each pigment, it is helpful to see where each falls along the color spectrum. The magenta-like alizarin permanent, for instance, lies closer to the violet end of the spectrum, while cadmium orange is much warmer and leans toward the yellow end of the spectrum.


Additional Resources

Neutrals: Selecting the Right Neutral Pigment for Your Palette

Nickel Titanate: The Coolest Yellow

Why I Dumped Phthalo Blue and Started Dating Her Less Intense Cousin

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

10 Comments

  1. Both your book and your blog are especially helpful tools for understanding color and using it creatively in one’s work. The clarity without fluff in the explanations is enjoyable. Thank you, Dona M

  2. Thank you so much for this information. I was looking for a palette for my landscape paintings. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  3. By far the clearest, concise, most useful description of a limited palette, and the rationale behind a “expanded primaries” limited palette, that I have read.

  4. You say that ultramarine blue is cooler than phthalo blue? On your spectrum illustration above, ultramrine blue is physically closer to red orange (warmest hue in the spectrum) than the phthalo blue. I use cobalt blue and consider it a neutral blue, but cooler than ultramarine. Do you consider ultrmarine blue to be (true blue) neutral? I suppose that would explain your preference.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    You raise an interesting point, Troy. Occasionally, when I discuss this topic, someone sees ultramarine blue as warmer and the phthalo as cooler. My answer then: it doesn’t really matter whether you label the ultramarine as cool and the phthalo as warm — what matters is that you see the temperature difference. Ultimately, color is an entirely relative business. No color exists in isolation, but always in relationship to other colors. So as long as you see the differences, the labels don’t matter as much. That said, although ultramarine is closer to the red end of the spectrum, it feels very icy and cool to me. Phthalo, by comparison, has significant hits of green (and by extension, yellow), which I tend to read as warmer than the red that shows up in ultramarine. But again, that’s not as important as recognizing the differences. As for cobalt blue, I agree with you; I see it as a “true blue” (another label), falling perhaps in between ultramarine and phthalo.

  6. Marcel Schwarb on

    This discussion of expanded primaries was very helpful to me. Thank you! I now feel the need to do a color chart by progressively adding white to get four or five different ranges for each expanded primary color. Then I can actually see what color they are, especially the darks, and then see how much white affects the temperature and color for each.

  7. Elizabeth Sandia on

    I so appreciate your info on the neutrals you mention. I will purchase ones shown that I don’t have. I sent Gamblin a message several months ago that I discovered Radiant Violet as a wonderful “neutral”!
    And seeing again your choices for a palette – I’m always trying new combinations. I am forwarding your entire email to my friend in MA.
    Keep the info coming.
    I own and get inspired by your book “Landscape Painting”. Thank you very much. Elizabeth Sandia

  8. I just found your website yesterday and really appreciate it. I’m wondering whether any of your blogs or your book address the issue of when/how to use cools and warms? One teacher of mine said to just paint what one sees, but then another teacher was very rigorous about applying warms/cools depending on whether the lighting was indoor/outdoor, what time of day, etc. This teacher seemed to follow rules more so than just painting what he saw. Thanks for any help you would be willing to offer on this. I have been struggling with this issue for quite some time.

  9. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this brilliant blog! I suppose for now I’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!