Colour · Painting · Painting Techniques

Why You Can Have Too Many Paint Colours

Many learners are quite surprised when I tell them that you can get by with just three paint colours.  These paints, the primary colours are red, blue and yellow and in theory you can mix any colour from them.  Is it true? Can you have too many paint colours?

The Importance of Colour Mixing 

When you are learning to paint it is important to learn how colours are created. You can only really gain a knowledge of colours by mixing them and for this you need to just work with the primaries.  I recommend that all beginners work with primary colours and mix all the colours themselves.

It is important to learn how to mix colours
It is important to learn how to mix colours

Black Is Not Always Black

Black is a very powerful colour, the darkest colour in the palette so it should be used sparingly.  Once everything is darkened it is very hard to get back to bright and lighter colours.  I have heard of art teachers who ‘ban’ black paint in their art lessons because they feel strongly that it is overused.

The famous artist Monet never used black
Monet never used black

Once we really study a subject what we first see as dark areas or black is often not really black.  It can be dark brown, purple or green or a mixture of darker colours. There is a skill in identifying colours for what they are but as a rule black is rarely black. There is no real black in nature.

Colour also works in context so a colour like dark green will appear darker if it surrounded by lighter tones.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong in using black in small quantities but it is important to realise that there are other options.  Before you next reach for the black paint, try mixing these very dark colours and experiment with mixing them with tiny amounts of the primary colours.

Indigo blue, Ultramarine blue, Prussian blue, Burnt umber, Burnt sienna, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo green.

Try some alternatives to black
Try some alternatives to black

Can You Have Too Many Colours?

I think you can have more than the primaries but it is surprising how few you do need once you know how to colour mix.  The danger is reaching for the ‘flesh tone’ when you need it rather than mixing your own.

Painting can’t be treated like painting by numbers,  some colours can be created by layering paint of different colours.  Mixing is where the mastery is in colour so don’t get lazy with flesh coloured paint.  If you currently can’t mix a flesh tone (and there isn’t just one flesh tone) then experiment!

There is world of colour that can make your painting more dynamic
There is world of colour that can make your painting more dynamic

Also see How Can I Learn about Colour? and What does Temperature Mean in Artwork for more advice.

6 thoughts on “Why You Can Have Too Many Paint Colours

  1. It’s interesting what you said about black not always being black but often being different darker shades. This year I’m really noticing more subtle differences in hue across the whole value range. It’s not only happening when I’m painting either, but at work and especially as I drive to and from work in the sky. ( At this time of year I’m going to work at sunrise and coming home at sunset). When I began this painting journey years ago, I was greatly in love with saturated colour, but now I’m discovering this fascination with much more subtle hues within greys, blacks and whites. I try to teach myself art, but the art is also teaching me.

    1. Good point, I think art makes you notice more generally even if you are painting/drawing or not. It opens up your eyes to the things that you didn’t notice before, one of the great things about it!

  2. Good points here.

    The timing is bad though as I’m here having just been gifted with a Windsor and Newton set of 40 colours 😁

    I do use a lower choice for my portable sketching set though so mixing is essential there. What’s your thoughts on having a set of six? The three primaries in both cool and warm varieties?

  3. I’ve recently started (oil) painting and have been trying to mix from the three primaries — to train my eye, as you said — but, man, some colors are difficult to reach. A good rich brown still eludes me. I just discovered your blog, and am looking forward to reading more!

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