Introduction to Oil Painting #4: Primary Triad


Prepare a primary palette. Choose red, yellow and blue. Hmm, you wonder. Which tube colors make the best palette? Truth is there is no “best” palette. But there is one that’s  “best for your painting”.

Primaries are noted because one can mix many other colors from this simple limited triad. But, there are many reds, yellows and blues available to us in tubes so, which ones are the right ones? It all depends on your “key” color. The key is the color your work is about. A painting about a red apple will have red as it’s key. Is the apple red-orange, red-violet, magenta ? Your choice will determine the color which you will then be mixing with blue and yellow. Experience will tell you how your red choice will play with blue and yellow choices. These colors will be in relationship with each other, pick colors which “play well” with each other.

I’m not sure which colors “play well” so I practice mixing a few different blues and reds. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it. In descending order: Alizarin Crimson, Cad Red Lt, Cad Yel Lt, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue.


I mix my 3 choices together to create a neutral, then add a touch of white to make sure the temperature is not too warm or too cool.

In descending order:

1) Alizarin, Cad Yel Lt, Ultramarine

2) Cad Red Lt, Cad Yel Lt, Cerulean

3) Cad Red Lt, Cad Yel Lt, Ultramarinecpp8

I like Cad Red, Ca Yel and Ultra. I eliminate the other colors and begin to premix value ranges for each of the tube hues.cpp9

I take the neutral that I mixed from the three and divide it into three blobs.

In descending order:

1) Neutral with extra red added. (plus white for tint and tone)

2) Neutral with extra yellow added.

3) Neutral with extra blue added.


Now for the technical exercise. This shows me how my choices will work together. I’ll have this example to refer to in the future to compare to other examples of other primary combinations.  cpp13




And now for a “little quickie” painting. I pick something with an obvious cad red key.


I use big brushes to start even a little painting.These are the brushes I’ll use on this 5×7 inch canvas board.


I pull those cool, med, and warm neutrals off the palette and rouge in the back and fore grounds. I mix Gamblin Galkyd lite or Neo Megilp into this first layer to thin/extend the paint and speed the drying time. Galkyd lite dries quicker.cpp20

Place lights and darks to get a feel for the value range.


Final touches include adding details and softening and hardening edges to emphasize light and space.


Look for a still life which has a strong primary triad feel. Key to the dominant color. Here I choose yellow. Cad yellow light is a good choice for this yellow. I’ll use the same primary palette for this painting.




Now, let’s see what the secondary colors look like from the primaries we picked.


Not bad…but not that great, especially for violet and green.

For further work make a painting with a key that is a secondary color. You may need to choose different primaries to create better secondaries: Ultramarine and Alizarin make a less dull violet. Cerulean and Cad Yel Lt make a brighter green.

Other Reds: Cadmium Red Medium, Alizarin, Quinacridone Red, Pyrrole Red, Red Oxide, Indian Red

Other Yellows: Hansa Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Indian Yellow

Other Blues: Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Turquoise, Cobalt, Cerulean, Prussian Blue

If you want to experiment with more primary triads for another primary triad painting. Here are a few suggestions for Primary triads which “play well”: Most of these combinations have similar saturation, tinting strength and opacity/transparency. Check out the mixed secondaries also.

  • Cad Red, Indian Yellow or Cad Yellow Med, Ultramarine
  • Indian Red, Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue (opaque earth triad)
  • Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Paynes Gray (old masters triad)
  • Venetian Red, Caput Mortum, Naples Yellow
  • Pyrrole Red, Hansa Yellow Light, Phthalo Blue (red shade)
  • Permanent Rose, Transparent Yellow, Cobalt Blue
  • Quinacridone Magenta, Azo Yellow, Phthalo Blue (green shade)

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