How Many Colours Do You Need for a Successful Painting?

Warm and cool primary coloursThe short answer:
Try black or Payne’s grey or sepia.
(If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself how black-and white photography is still a thing so many years after the invention of colour photography.)

The colour theory answer:
A warm and cool blue, yellow and red.

The typical answer:
The primaries, white, and some earths, perhaps a green.

The Colourist’s answer:
Whatever floats your boat.

My slightly longer answer:
However many you wish, but probably not all in one painting.

Exploring colour is part of the joy of painting, getting to know the personality of each, how it behaves when it’s by itself and how well it plays with others. (I mean: the properties of a pigment and how it mixes with others.) Everyone has their preferences as to how many they want to play with, both at any particular moment and overall.

There is no magic number, it’s about personal preference and it’ll change. If you don’t enjoy colour mixing, you’ll likely use more straight-from-the-tube colour.

How many colours make a successful painting depends on how you use them. Mix them all together and you’ve a muddy mess. Have scattered colour across a composition and you’ve disjointed visual chaos. Worked together, considered and intuitively, it can be intriguing and full of discoveries for a viewer. Never let anyone insist that you limit yourself if you’re enjoying playing with your colours.

Six Primary ColoursWhen painting with acrylics, I tend to use a subset of colours that has got slightly larger over the past few years (I now need two hands to count the colours, not only one). I do have tubes of many other colours I’ve tried, and occasionally I play with these again. But mostly I use titanium white, Prussian blue, cadmium orange and yellow, lemon yellow, magenta, and?perylene black. Phthalo blue, cobalt blue and phthalo turquoise are also regulars, cerulean blue sometimes joins in. Burnt umber is now neglected as I’ve shifted to mixing greys with orange and blue, and I still don’t like ultramarine blue much (sorry Sharron.

But when it comes to watercolours, since discovering Daniel Smith’s granulating colours, I’ve increasingly been having a ceilidh with colour. Pigments with distinctive characters, not homogenized to all behave the same way like well-socialized, good little colours. I’m not using every single colour in every single painting, and the more successful ones do have fewer colours, but I think these also work because they retain the joy of mucking about with all the colours.

When I moved to Skye 10 years ago, my watercolour set looked like this:
Thatch watercolour set

My current watercolour box looks like this:

big watercolour tin

It feels indulgent to have so many colours, but it’s also so joyous. Sometimes one is all you need, but how will you know which one unless you’ve tried many?


A big thank you to all my Patreon supporters and subscribers; you enable me to spend more time writing. In the past six months I’ve written twice as many blog posts as I did in the same period last year, as well as create my “Word Prompts” drawing workbook and my “Think Like an Artist” book. Thank you too all my followers, readers, and encouragers. Here’s to whatever the next six months bring!

Thinking Outside the Colour Box

There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.

While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?

At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.

So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.

Testing the watercolour dot card from Daniel Smith watercolours

Art Workshop Photos: Looking at Blues

Art Painting Workshops Isle of Skye Scotland with Marion Boddy-Evans

One of the (many) joys of painting is exploring the properties of all the different pigments we have to use. Each has its own personality, and some we’ll like more than others. A few will become best friends, some drift in and out of our lives, and some forever kept at arm’s length.

For yesterday’s workshop I took along a dozen or so different blues from my stash. We started by creating a colour chart with all the blues, making notes of what pigments were in a colour and a opacity/transparency line on the edge.

Art Painting Workshops Isle of Skye Scotland with Marion Boddy-Evans
Looking at different blues, and the pigments in each.

We discussed what was meant by hue, specifically Prussian blue hue, and compared different versions which have different pigment combinations in them. Consensus was that Schmincke’s version, which has black in it, was suitably moody for a Skye winter. We also talked about how many blues you really need, and why I have so many.

We had some debate whether turquoise was a green or a blue, or a bit of both. The ultimate question was: if you were sorting tubes of paint out into boxes labelled “green” and “blue”, which one would you put “turquoise” into? I’d put it in blue.

In the afternoon we looked at working in layers, focusing on shapes of colour (rather than “it must look like XYZ” or “I’m painting an XYZ”) and patterns. An approach where no one single mark or layer makes or breaks a painting.

Art Painting Workshops Isle of Skye Scotland with Marion Boddy-Evans
Looking at different blues, then working in shapes and layers.

There were two layers of in pencil/coloured pencil before the first paint layer. It’s an activity that also gives a feel for glazing — transparent layers of paint over one another — vs blocking bits or breaking shapes using opaque colours.

A great day all round!

Transparent vs Opaque Colours in Oils and Acrylics

Pigments Transparent vs Opaque

A misunderstanding I regularly encounter in workshops is what is meant by “transparent” in a paint colour. It seems to come from conflating “see-through” and “colourless” into “transparent”.

We can see through some things that have colour. Think of stained glass or coloured cellophane or sunglasses. You see through it, though it adds colour to what’s behind it, changes the colours of things seen through it. Normal window glass is colourless; stained glass is transparent (to varying degrees, but that’s a digression).

If you’ve done a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen this “visual aid”. One day I’ll create a neater, textbook version!

At the bottom right of that sheet is a black line with opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent colours painted over it.

Pigments Transparent vs Opaque

How opaque or transparent a pigment is depends on the inherent properties of a pigment, but also how thickly you use it. Red iron oxide is one of the most opaque pigments there is, even more than titanium white. It obliterates whatever’s beneath it.

Figuring out which colours are which is best done by creating a chart of your own. Yes, many tube labels give an indication, but you can’t beat trying it for yourself, straight from the tube and thinned somewhat, as well as adding white to transparent pigments to shift their opacity.

It’s an excuse to get out every tube of paint you’ve got and say hello to it. Neatly in a grid or not, that’s a potential procrastination. Just put brush into paint onto paper and save neatly for another day.

Also: Transparent Watercolour Doesn’t Mean Colourless Paint

To Ultramarine or Not to Ultramarine

Ultramarine blue jar of paint

“Really? Who doesn’t use Ultramarine Blue! I never knew anyone who doesn’t consider it a staple. Intrigued! Is there a reason?” — S.B.*
(*In response to my previous blog post in which I said, right at the end, that I almost never use ultramarine.)

Well, you do now. <cue: smile>

I really, truly, genuinely, rarely use ultramarine. I definitely don’t consider it a staple. As to the reason why: I simply don’t like it enough.

If used unmixed, it’s instantly recognisable; you look at a painting and tick the mental “that’s ultramarine” box. It’s a learning-towards-brash bright, brilliant blue. It’s not a sea blue. It’s not a sky blue. It’s not a river blue. It’s not deep-dark shadows blue. It’s the blue of fabric, of Virgin Mary’s dresses, not landscape.

It’s not that I don’t have any, or haven’t tried it. I have it, and occasionally try it again because I know so many people love it. But as you can see, I’ve not used much.

Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters in The Craftsman’s Handbook, describes ultramarine as ?illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours?. [He was writing about genuine ultramarine, of course, created from lapis lazuli, not French ultramarine, a pigment invented in 1828 by the colourmaker Jean-Baptiste Guime (no prizes for guessing what country he lived in).]

What blue is my favourite then? It used to be Prussian blue, but phthalo turquoise may well have moved into that spot. Prussian is still my go-to dark blue and stormy-sky blue. I also use phthalo blue (I love its staining quality), cerulean blue, cobalt teal. In some seascapes I use every blue I’ve got, and that includes ultramarine. But it’s rarely a starting point blue.
Prussian blue jar of paint
Could I live without ultramarine? Most likely. Though it feels almost sacrilegious saying so down: my least-favourite blue is ultramarine. And now I have I’m feeling guilty for not loving it enough, and might just have to try painting and mixing with it once again to see if I can’t love it a little more.

What’s your favourite and least favourite blue? Post a comment below and let me know.


Mixing Whites: Tube White is Merely the Beginning

White Studio Cat -- Mixing Whitesfor PaintingWhite cat, white wall, white clouds (and white words). Are any truly straight-from-the-tube white?

Is the bit of wall which is painted “exterior pure white” (but not the bit with a shadow falling on it) or is the glare from the sun behind a cloud (but might that not simply be camera glare/burnout and really sunlight is yellowish)?

What we so readily call “white” isn’t generally the same single white. As with all colours, there are variations, in tone (light/dark) and saturation (intensity). Reflected colours in the white, form shadow colour, cast shadow colour.

We easily learn to add white to a colour to lighten it — a lighter yellow, a lighter blue. But it’s harder somehow to switch my mind to start with white as the colour and add another to darken (relatively speaking) it — a vaguely yellowish white, a subtly blueish white.

Which leads to questions of when is it still a white and when is it a grey or pink or light yellow? Does it really matter?

Monet’s whites remain the benchmark for me. What’s yours?

The Manneporte (?tretat) by Claude Monet, 1883. Size: 65 x 81 cm. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Pondering Green

Sitting in the sun yesterday with my view filled by the rose hedge (that rambling greenery behind the small sheep painting in the photo below), I found myself thinking about the quote attributed to Picasso about “they’ll sell you thousands of greens, but never that particular green”, and the quote about the secret of Constable’s greens being small bits of different green (full quote here).

Complicated Greens, with sheep painting by Isle of Skye Artist Marion Boddy-Evans

Staring at just one bit of rose, you really see it’s a multitude of shades of green, depending on the age of the leaves, the light, the shadows, the angle a leaf is growing. I was rather relieved I had only a pencil with my sketchbook so didn’t have to be up to the colour challenge and instead could focus on line. “Lazing with line in the sunshine” … sounds like the title for a painting, or perhaps a song. (The resultant drawings aren’t up to much, which is why there aren’t any photos.)

Later in the afternoon, when I was back painting in my studio again, one of the things I did was to add a glaze of lemon yellow to two small wildflower verge paintings-in-progress, to give the greens more oomph. This photo shows the result; the one of the left has the extra yellow layer and looked like the one on the right before I added it. The application was deliberately a little uneven, rather than uniform, to enhance the variations in the green.

Glazing Greens with Lemon Yellow

My Palette Isn’t Pretty

You know those beautifully laid out palettes with a rainbow of colours arranged equidistant from each other around the edges and a mixing area in the middle? Well, mine doesn’t look like that at all, because:
(a) I’m not using a stay-wet palette with acrylics so too much of such squeezed-out paint would dry before I’d used it all.
(b) I don’t decide on all the colours in advance (though I do have regulars).
(b) I don’t use all my regular colours in every painting.
(d) I work with one colour at a time (single or mixed), applying it across the whole composition before moving onto the next, working with the fast-drying of acrylics, not against. Any leftover gets used to build up coloured grounds on a small canvas, so it’s not wasted.
(e) I like colour-mixing through layering and glazing.
(f) I often squeeze paint (and medium) directly onto a canvas, particularly in the initial layers of a painting.
(g) There’s less wet paint for studio cat to jump onto.
My palette is a small mixing area that reflects the last colour I used, in the photo it looks like “sheep black” over Prussian blue over cobalt teal. I wipe the space if the next colour doesn’t want any traces of the last in it. It’s not a pretty, photogenic palette, but it works for me.


Question about Opacity/Transparency

Q: I paint with acrylics and have found reds in my paintings most difficult to photograph. Blues and greens are less problematic. My lasted painting has a lot of red in it. The coverage was not great and photographing was a challenge. Tubes and jars of paint do not list transparency vs opaque and for the purposes of my painting style I only want opaque.

I was reading through what you wrote about paints and titanium white was noted to make paints opaque. Hence, when mixing any colour would you suggest that any colour mixed, other than black, which I use as outlines, include titanium white as part of the basic mixture? and I add other colours to get what I am wanting?

monsier-p-artiste-explores-watercolour-dots_5807542075_oA: Adding titanium white will certainly make colours opaque, but it’ll also lighten colours, and turn reds to pink. You could then paint over it again, to intensify the colour, but it’d be easier in the long run to figure out which of the colours in the brand(s) you’re using are most opaque and stick to these.

Create a chart by painting or drawing a strong black line down a page, then paint a strip of each colour over this. You’ll soon see which colours hide the most black. I’d use these to paint and for mixes where possible. Cadmium red is possibly the most opaque red; if it’s not quite the right red, overpaint it with another red.

Some artist’s quality brands of paint have an stripe of paint on the tube/jar over printed black bars. Others have a little symbol such as a black/white square. Colour charts on the manufacturers’ websites should have the info, e.g. on Golden’s colour chart if you click on the individual colours it gives the transparency rating plus an image.

Stop Overcomplicating Colour Theory

No wonder people get to believe colour theory is hard. Colour Theory MixtureI came across an article describing secondary and tertiary colours as colours mixed “in equal concentrations“. How would you measure it? Is it equal in volume or tinting strength? What fearful disaster is going to happen if the mix is not perfectly equal?

Keep it simple and straightforward. There are three primaries: yellow, blue, and red*. You mix two primaries together to get a secondary: blue+yellow=green; red+yellow=orange, red+blue=purple. When you’ve enough mixed blue into a yellow that it looks more green than yellow, then you’ve successfully mixed a secondary. The shades of this secondary will vary on the proportions of the two primaries. It will also vary depending on what particular blue and yellow you mix.

The word “tertiary” comes from Latin tertiarius/tertius meaning “third”. Mix three (or more) colours together and you’ve a tertiary colour. Those browns and greys that are ‘interesting’ colours when you do it deliberately and ‘mud’ colours when you do it inadvertently. (Remembering that a secondary colour is two, and what’s in a tube colour may be a mixture of pigments.)

Quit fussing with blue-green and yellow-green or red-orange and yellow-orange, giving names to variations of primaries and secondaries. Forget the colour theory that insists you quantify these variations. Keep the theory simple. The colour-mixing journey is a lifetime’s; we’ve so many pigments available to us, giving so many possible combinations. Working with fewer colours and internalizing how these mix, and practice, is how you mix the same colour again and again.

(*For CMYK followers, cyan counts as blue, and magenta as red.)