Color Theory Thursday: Secondary Palette

This week I thought I’d show a palette that most of you have probably not seen before. I’m assuming you all know about the color wheel and both primary and secondary colors, where the three primaries are red, yellow, and blue, and by mixing them you get the three secondaries of green, purple/violet, and orange. It’s probably been explained to you that the reason the primary colors are called that is because by mixing them you can get any color but you can’t mix any color to get them. Well today I’m going to challenge that.

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Above I have green, purple, two oranges, and white along the top of the palette. I mixed each with a little white just give a fuller picture of what they look like. I didn’t end up using the cadmium orange, and instead opted for indian yellow from Blue Ridge. Although classed as a yellow pigment in the Color Index, Blue Ridge correctly describes it saying “not really a yellow, more orange than anything,” and besides this gives me an excuse to try more mixes with my new paint anyways. I added a second violet in the bottom left to see how it’d mix with the green.

Green + Purple = Blue

When mixing any two colors what you’ll end up with is basically whatever is between them on the color wheel. Normally you’d get green by mixing blue and yellow because it’s between those two, but since blue is between green and purple that’s what you get from mixing them, as you can see in the PG7+PV23 and PG7+PV16 examples.

The blue was a little dull, and different greens and purples might result in a more intense blue, but this is an important point to notice here- From my experience, whenever you mix two colors the overall chroma (aka intensity) of the resulting mix will be less than at least one, if not both, of the original colors, especially if the two colors are far apart on the color wheel, and especially when your mix is midway between the two colors. There could be exceptions I’m not thinking of, but that seems to be the case to me. So if you want a really high chroma green, for example, using something like a phthalo green will get you higher chroma than a mix of yellow and blue.

Purple + Orange = Red

So here my goal is to get a red, and since it’s between purple and orange that’s what I’m mixing. I made three mixes with different amounts of each. The middle mix is an earthy orangish red and was a nice surprise. I’ll definitely be recording that one for latter.

Green + Orange = Yellow

Yellow was a hard one for two reasons: First, the green I was using is very overpowering in mixes and I started off with way too much of it, so I kept adding more and more orange. Second, yellow is only a very narrow slice of the visible light spectrum, and there wasn’t a lot of room for error in the mix. I actually went a little too far with adding more orange and should have stopped at the bright yellow I had right above the last color in the bottom right, which you can still see some of. I think the whole range of greenish yellows I got leading up to it were also a nice surprise too, and worth recording.


The idea of “primary” colors being something that can’t be produced by mixing other colors is false. While there may be something to be said about about psychological colors, for example psychological yellow (a yellow that has no visible traces of green or orange), I think there’s an overemphasis on the traditional primary colors of blue, yellow, and red on artists’ palettes. Having more colors on your palette does give more mixing options and make it easier to maintain high chroma in mixes, however a full range of hues can be achieved through the mixing of any three colors that are sufficiently spaced on the color wheel, primary or not.

4 thoughts on “Color Theory Thursday: Secondary Palette

  1. Nice one. Much that we learned about colour theory turns out to be false. Co-incidentally I am just reading issue 11 of Turps Banana, in which the systems artist Jeffrey Steele “dismisses the whole notion of colour theory”.

    1. The more I read and see of color theory the more I see an asymmetrical world of human color vision that refuses to be confined to a wheel, square, cylinder, or any other clean, neat, orderly model of color that was always taught to me in school. I think seeing this is why Monet said “Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”

  2. This is a really helpful article and I started a new painting using Orange, Violet, and Green today. I like the colors I am getting so far, so thank you for your excellent post. I am using Gamblin oils that have only one pigment for each color, and the mixes are beautiful I think.

    1. Thanks a lot, I hope things worked well. Something like this can also be a great way of exploring different color schemes than what you’d normally even try.

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