Naming the colors that reflect nature and the world around us is a pretty ordinary task for most of us, because we don’t give it too much thought. As children, when we draw and color in our pictures, we stick to the simple idea that the sky is blue, the grass is green, the sun is yellow, daylight is white and the night is black. Our minds perceive and acknowledge the hundreds of colors around us at any given time, which is truly remarkable, yet many of us continue to simplify our world into as few color terms as possible. Artists, especially painters, cannot and do not. They know that the color palette they choose matters greatly, and therefore the uses and distinctive differences of the paints matter greatly as well.
The selection of paints for a color palette form the foundation for all other colors we can create. Given a red, blue, and yellow, just about all other colors can be created with the proper ratio of these three primary colors. Mixing primary colors in equal portions will create secondary colors and mixing those in an equal portion with a primary color will create a tertiary color. Continue mixing, so on and so forth and given sufficient time, it is nearly possible to mix every wavelength across the color spectrum.
Now here is the dilemma; which red, blue, yellow and white? Which neutral color? At a quick glance, Old Holland makes 27 different colors of yellow alone. Should they choose Yellow Ochre Light or Cadmium Yellow Medium? What about Nickel Titanium Yellow? It doesn’t end there, because when an artist adds in a white, then they gain the ability to lighten and cool a color, but there are even 5 different colors all claiming to be white and they all do appear white! Anyway, at the bare minimum, these 4 colors (primary plus white) should be the staple of any palette. Painters can also add a nice neutral color for underpainting (an initial layer of paint which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint) to round out the palette at 5 base colors.
Visualizing at a glance, which pair of colors will mix, say, a bright orange, would be much easier if instead of starting with yellow, artists can start with a green-biased yellow and an orange-biased yellow. Obviously, to create a bright orange, they would select the orange-biased yellow to mix with red. However, instead of just red, perhaps an orange-biased red and a violet-biased red would prove more useful? The idea to use the color blue quickly turns into an option to use either a violet-biased blue or a green-biased blue. However, even then, which oil colors would most closely resemble these 6 base color needs? Are you confused, yet? Don’t feel bad, I’m confused, too!
Artists have a choice, they can learn all the nuances of color mixing, or they could just paint in the primary colors alone. Piet Mondrian painted a colorful Impressionist scene in 1900 titled Idyll, and then in 1908 he began to work with mainly primary colors. So in fact, some artists such as Piet Mondrian, (for example, his Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930), Franz Marc (Fighting Forms), and others in the De Stijl art movement, have ‘done’ primary colors well, but let’s get back to the majority of artists in all art movements.
The costs of the different colors and qualities of paints have often had an effect on the choices that artists have made in the past and will continue to make in the future. In a perfect world artists could choose to mix the various colored paints as would suit their imaginations and needs, no matter what the cost or availability. However, it’s not a perfect world - BUT we have enjoyed all of their care and efforts to create wonderful paintings with the paints that they have had at hand. So, we should really appreciate that artists have made full use of their knowledge and skill to master the color wheel, and to match the true colors found in the world around us.