Choosing a red for a three-color palette

I recently finally took the plunge and purchased a few tubes of casein paint, of which James Gurney is a fan, after practically a year of “I really shouldn’t be buying paints since I get to touch them so rarely” deliberation. In a bout of overly frugal stupidity I decided to limit myself to three tubes (a total of about $30) and chose to buy white, yellow ochre and ultramarine. I often have these moments where the desire to save a trivial amount of money really just costs me more in effort in the long run…

Of course I quickly found that I need at minimum a red to realistically represent any of the things I would want to paint. I’ve been spending the past hour trying to figure out the difference between various reds: alizarin crimson, the cadmiums, vermillion, venetian red. Honestly, I’m confused by paints, and I get embarrassed in art stores because I feel like an amateurish imposter who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. My only experience with color is from digital painting where paint is unlimited and bountiful, and because I have really not painted much at all my work is at a very elementary level. Opaque paints are entirely a mystery to me at the moment.

The most famous limited palette is probably the “Zorn palette” of vermillion, yellow ochre, black and white, particularly good for portraiture. Charley Parker at Lines and Colors also has a good post about alizarin crimson, ultramarine and cadmium yellow light as a three-primary palette. He notes:

The weak point of a palette consisting of just these three colors (while simultaneously one of its strengths) is the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light, which lightens almost any mixture to which it is added. This is the reason a dark orange-red like Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna is often added.

With this in mind, since I have quite a dark brown-yellow neutral (yellow ochre) I think I will go with a cad red light, which I hear is similar in some respects to vermillion (a highly toxic paint). I am attracted to bright subjects and may have fared better with a cad yellow light, but oh well – as long as it gets me painting at all it will be a good thing.

In other art news, I’ve just discovered Stapleton Kearns’ blog – he is a landscape painter and I am looking forward to going through the archives of his blog. He writes with a delightfully subtle snark. The Encyclopaedia of Dumb Design Ideas series is particularly enjoyable (and very useful).

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Author: krysjez

I'm a product person, artist and geek. Nice to meet you! Follow my adventures at

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