Basic Color Theory in Oil Painting – Primary, Secondary and Tertiary
One of the most important parts of color theory in oil painting is the existence of three levels of color.
You probably remember learning about the primary colors when you were a young child beginning school, but you
may not be aware of the terms secondary and tertiary colors that describe the rest of the spectrum and combinations
These distinctions become very important when mixing paints and trying to create exactly the color you are
envisioning for your piece (something that is harder than it may seem).
Understanding how color combines to create
new colors is a fundamental part of painting.
For color theory in oil painting, the three primary colors are often cited as red, blue and yellow. It is said
that with just these three colors, you can create every other color. While this is partially true, it’s more
important to realize that the hue of the red, yellow and blue colors is extremely important in terms of color
While pure red, yellow and blue can create more colors, a more accepted combination is actually cyan, magenta,
and yellow. These are the three colors present in the ink of printers, which along with black, can produce a larger
variety of hues and tones than the traditional red, yellow and blue combination.
The secondary colors are what you get when you combine two (and only two) primary colors. Red and blue make
purple, red and yellow make orange and blue and yellow make green. You’ll get different secondary colors depending
on the proportion of each primary color you used in addition to the type of primary color you used.
Cadmium yellow and azo yellow mixed with the same type of blue will render completely different types of green.
When first painting, it’s helpful to create a few samples of colors with the type of paint and proportions listed
to help you recreate those colors in the future. Once you have a lot of experience under your belt, you’ll be able
to do this more intuitively.
The tertiary colors are what you get when you mix more than one primary color together. In other words, the
tertiary colors are brown and gray. The best browns will come from mixing a primary color with its secondary
complementary color—otherwise you might end up with muddy, indistinct browns. The complementary colors are red with
green, blue with orange, and yellow with violet.
When you think about it this way, it’s really just mixing the three primary colors together in different
proportions (as red with green is really red with yellow and blue mixed, blue with orange is just blue with yellow
and red mixed, and so on). Combinations of blue and orange make the best grays as well, once a bit of white is
mixed in the lighten it.
Speaking of white, you may be wondering where white and black fit into color theory in oil painting. Black can
be made by combining colors, but since it and white are not used to create any of their own colors, they aren’t a
part of color theory. White and black are simply used to change the tone of colors, which is the lightness or
darkness of the color.
All in all, choosing colours in art paintings is a delicate
skill in which you need to play around and experiment in order to get the desired results you wan.t
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