Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sticking to the Secondary Palette

Comparison of tertiaries mixed from a secondary palette versions a primary palette.

When I read about the secondary palette at, suddenly some rather surprising elements of what I'd painted in the past came back to me.

You see, before I had a better sense of what colors I needed, I just grabbed bargain-bin (relatively speaking, these are still Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors) on-sale watercolor tubes. I ended up with Phthalo Blue Red Shade, Organic Vermilion (in the form of a watercolor stick on sale), Lemon Yellow, Viridian, and Quinacridone Magenta. A split-primary palette just wasn't in the works for me.

Yet I never mixed "mud" (e.g. highly desaturated colors) unless I wanted to. While my tutor says that my sense of color, including color mixing, is pretty developed, everything I'd read said that watercolor would-be artists who start out with random colors couldn't help but mix mud.

Turns out that I'd picked out a palette that satisfies most of the tenants of the secondary palette, so-called because it features three secondaries alongside three primaries. This reduces the distance to get to any tertiary, and greatly expands your non-desaturated color range. For a comparison, see the above image where the top row shows mixes with the secondary palette, and the bottom row shows similar mixes with a primary palette.

You also get to spend less time doing mix experimentation, since color distance is very short amongst your home pigments, and you have exquisite control over neutrals (since you'll have three pairs of neutrals straight-up). You don't have to worry about remembering what warm/cool means for any particular primary—if you need a red-orange, you know that's your orange and your magenta, rather than remembering that you want a warm red and a warm yellow. If you need a kelly green, you know that's a bit of your yellow and more of your green, rather than recalling that you need a cool yellow and a warm blue.

Secondary palettes are far easier to reason about. I highly recommend them, and in watercolors you can actually get by with five rather than six (watercolors mix good purples and violets between magenta and cyan, nearly as good as having an actual violet between them).

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.