On Watercolor Palettes: Warm & Cool Primaries (1 of 6)

On Watercolor Palettes: Warm & Cool Primaries (1 of 6)


Do you struggle with “muddy” colors in your paintings? If so, then this article may help you not only fix unintentional muddiness, but also shift the way you think about color temperature so you better understand how things work.

What we talk about is the temperature of our paint colors. This is an important consideration when setting up your palette. I would like to explain and demonstrate that there is a good reason for having both warm and cool of each primary. This is important because incorrect selection of paints can either severely restrict or broaden our mixing capabilities. This knowledge is important especially when you’re just beginning to explore color. It is really a simple concept. Once you understand it, your washes will result in the intended colors.

There is a common misconception that says: With the three primaries [yellow, red and blue] you can mix any color of the color wheel. This is false. For a balanced wheel you need a selection of 12 hues to produce both warm and cool hues. You can cut those down to 6 (only primaries and secondaries) but even that poses serious limitations. For limited palettes you can go down to 3 hues, of course, but that’s a strategy for a particular painting and doesn’t make for a balanced wheel.

Warm, Middle and Cool Varieties of primary Blue Hue

Before proceeding any further, I would like to note that throughout the article I refer only to warm and cool primaries to demonstrate my point. There is also a middle hue of each primary (corresponding to Cobalt Blue for Blue, for example – as shown on the illustration above) as well as a whole range of subtle variations for either warm, cool or middle hues. These I’d like to omit entirely on purpose to simplify the problem. That’s why I don’t use actual watercolor paints for this demonstration but hues that I “mixed” in my graphic software.

I also want to note that in this article I refer to pigment colors as opposed to the colors of light. The final note is a disclaimer that my experience is based on my own study of color theory combined with practical experience and may therefore deviate from a strict understanding of color theory.

Absolute And Relative Temperature

Absolute and Relative Temperature Shifts

There are, as we know, warm and cool colors. In absolute sense, yellow, orange and red are generally considered warm colors, while violet, blue and green are cool. (*It has to be noted though that this is too broad a generalization which is not entirely correct, but for the sake of simplicity we will go with it for now.) The issue we face is that we must differentiate between hues in relative sense. What that means is that any hue is only as warm or cool as the one next to it. As artists, we must learn and see these subtle differences and think in terms of context. We cannot simply think of a red. Rather, we should be thinking of warm red, or cool red. We need to understand that there is a relative and an absolute temperature. This means that you always need a reference to establish what temperature a color is.

In absolute sense yellow is always warm and blue is always cool. This goes for other colors of the spectrum when we use general color names such as red, yellow, green, etc. On the other hand, when we judge a specific hue we need to get closer and be more specific in locating the hue within the spectrum and most importantly, establish a context. Therefore we say that a color is relatively cooler or warmer in comparison with another color. What this means is that a cool yellow is indeed cooler than warm yellow, but the same cool yellow is actually warmer than a warm green.

Blue hue relative appearance dependent on a reference color

Another example of this can be observed on the image above. If you think of a warm blue hue, such as French Ultramarine, you immediately recall a nice warm blue. If you place this hue next a cool blue hue (example on the left), you see immediately by contrast that the color is very warm. Now place the same hue next a violet (example on the right) and you’ll see that it looks very cool. That is because violet is basically a blue enriched by a red. It is closer to red, thus it’s warmer. Therefore we can in this case conclude, that in relative sense the violet is a warm color, but if we remove the context, we know that in absolute sense violet is indeed considered a cool color.

Context and Practice

Orange-Red and Violet-Red as Affected by Adjacent Hues

Now for the practical demonstration. Thus far I used yellow and blue, so let me use color red as an example demonstrating what difference it makes when you mix your color with each color temperature variation of your primary. Let’s say we have two reds on our palette, a cool red, such as Quinacridone Rose, and a warm red, such as Cadmium Red Light. I generalize here for a reason, so I won’t go into particular pigment choices, I only use the common/marketing name of the colors. I take some liberty here with accuracy as more factors come into play when mixing paints, but I only wish you to understand the concept of how things work. A warm red, such as Cadmium Red Light is properly described as an “orange-red”, whereas cool red, such as Quin Rose could be considered a “violet-red”. These terms describe the leaning of the color red. The color name before “-red” describes the adjacent secondary color. The primary variant “leans” into the secondary color. This is caused by the “addition” of the neighboring primary, e.g. red that contains yellow is orange-red, red that contains blue is violet-red, etc.

Possible and Optimal Violet Mixes

Now let’s say we want to mix a fresh, clean, high chroma violet hue from red and blue. Which of these two reds would be best suited for the task? Now that you understand your colors, you can logically conclude that a clean violet mix will result from a cool red, or “violet-red” and a warm blue, or “violet-blue”. Both of these colors have red in common and so they should produce the cleanest mix. In other words, cool red is cool, because it has blue in it. Warm blue is warm, because it has red in it. And so, in effect, we mix only red and blue.

On the other hand, were we to use warm red, or “orange-red”, to get a violet, our mix would come out much more muted. Whatever blue we decide to use, be it “violet-blue” or “green-blue”, the mix would now contain traces of all three primaries: yellow, red and blue. As you can see that’s a pretty complex mix and one that won’t ever produce clean results. It may very well be what you’re after, and so it is a valid strategy in mixing your colors. That is, if it is in fact your intention. But when you are frustrated to end up with a “mud” on your palette, chances are it’s not what you actually wanted.

Please look at the illustration above to explore and recognize the effects of mixing warm and cool primaries. Also, in the following painting you can observe a wide range of subtle hue changes resulting from only using a primary triad of warm yellow, warm red and middle blue. Painting with a strict palette of three primary hues is an excellent exercise in improving your understanding of the effects we discussed in this article.

That’s all for today. I hope you found this article useful and you won’t struggle with making muddy washes by accident any longer. Feel free to leave your comments and questions down below. Also don’t hesitate to share this article on your favorite social sites, it helps me, the blog and hopefully your friends as well.

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