Starting a new artistic medium is a big challenge; there is so much to learn and it can be so overwhelming. When it comes to oil painting there are a number of factors to consider, for example; brands of oil paint, types of solvents and their potentially harmful effects, color choice, brush types and sizes, mediums, palettes, canvases, palette knives and so much more…
In a previous post Researching Oil Paint Brands In Kuwait, I initially started by looking at what brands of paint I had easy access to myself. This did not include brands that could be internationally imported since I don’t know how much oil paint I will use and how fast it will be consumed.
Once I got the brand selected I can then tackle the next step – selecting my starting colors. Even this can be a challenge, as depending upon art style and subject the choice of colors can vary significantly. Then there are debates by many artists about the “quality” of certain colors causing cracking whilst drying, or not being lightfast enough for long-term projects.
Limited Palette vs Starter Extended Palette
The first choice to decide is just how limited one’s starter palette should be. It’s generally encouraged for beginner artists to keep a rather restricted palette as this aids learning color theory and color mixing whilst keeping the painting harmonious. A limited palette will generally consist of the three primary colors – a blue, red and yellow. I have since learnt that unlike watercolor, you will often include a black and white as well. Primary colors differ between paint brands, but examples include Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.
To summarise, a limited palette will include:
- Black, and
This means you only have to buy 5 colors for a limited palette when starting out. This is an ideal option for those who aren’t sure whether they will enjoy oil paint.
An extended starter extended palette will include a number more colors to aid with a greater range of mixing capabilities. These palettes will generally include the three primaries, however they will be split into two of each with both warm and cool tones. Thus a warm blue, a cool blue, a warm yellow, cool yellow, warm red and cool red. They will also include a white and black. This palette is often referred to as a Split Primary Palette.
An extended starter palette will include:
- Warm Blue,
- Cool Blue,
- Warm Red,
- Cool Red,
- Warm Yellow,
- Cool Yellow,
- Black, and
This means that you will generally gave to buy 8 colors for an extended palette when starting out. This can be a more expensive option but will give you a greater range of mixing capabilities.
From both of these palette options, as your needs and ability grows, you can be ease-colors. Ease-colors, as I refer to them, are pre-made mixes that are just for ease-of-use; a green would be an excellent example of an ease-color.
The different colored text is my personal notes to indicate whether the color is available in Maimeri Classico or Sennelier Etude student grade paints – both brands of paint that I have easy access to.
Warms vs Cool Colors
If picking a limited palette, one thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to be mixing warm and cool colors together as they tend to muddy. Ideally pick all warm colors or all cool colors or primary colors.
I need to make an important mention regarding Hue colors. In many cases, particularly for student grade paint, manufactures will use cheaper ingredients to make a particular shade. For example, a Cadmium paint will be composed of organic material. However a Cadmium Hue paint will consist of other materials (either organic and/or synthetic) to make that shade. Unfortunately since a Hue paint has different ingredients it doesn’t always mix with other colors quite as expected. This can cause beginners some difficulty, particularly when learning color theory and color mixing.
Examples of Starter Palettes
Popular by his painting courses taught at PaintWithKevin.com and his YouTube channel, Kevin Hill uses the following colors:
- Sap Green,
- Prussian Blue,
- Burnt Umber,
- Napthol Red,
- Yellow Ochre,
- Hansa Yellow Light,
- Titanium White, and
- Ivory Black.
- Titanium White,
- Cadmium yellow pale,
- Cadmium Orange,
- Cadmium Red,
- Quinacridone Rose,
- Dioxazine Violet,
- French Ultramarine Blue, and
- Cadmium Green.
Bob Ross’s color choices are (from his own brand of paint):
- Alizarin Crimson
- Bright Red,
- Cadmium Yellow,
- Dark Sienna,
- Indian Yellow,
- Midnight Black,
- Mountain Mixture,
- Phthalo Blue,
- Phthalo Green, and
- Prussian Blue.
Common Color Suggestions:
Many of these colors are commonly suggested on the WetCanvas forum for starter palettes.
- Titanium white is the whitest of all whites. It is not a mixing white as it makes colours cloudy since it is quite opaque. Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Zinc White is a very clean mixing color. It is transparent, making it ideal for tinting and glazing. Because it is brittle it cannot be used as a underpainting. Maimeri only.
Blacks can also be made from mixes of Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber, and Yellow Ochre; or Burnt Sienna and Phthalo Blue. Many artists prefer their self-made blacks as some feel that a tube black can deaden the look of a painting’s vibrancy. Pre-made mixes have a level of ease, however, and is often used in paintings.
- Ivory Black (cool). Semi-transparent. It’s good for glazes. When mixed with white makes a bluish grey. It doesn’t overpower colors and thus is an easier mixing color. Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Lamp Black (cool) is very opaque. It’s best for when you want really dark blacks. Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Cadmium Red Deep (warm). Full chroma. It is an opaque color. Sennelier has Cadmium Red Deep Hue as a primary color. Maimeri.
- Cadmium Scarlet (warm). Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Rose Madder (cool). Full chroma. Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Spectrum crimson (cool). Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Alizarin Crimson (cool). Semi-transparent. Sennelier only.
- Ultramarine Blue (warm). Full chroma. Semi-transparent. Sennelier only.
- Cerulean Blue (Cool). Full chroma. Semi-transparent. Maimeri. Sennelier has Cerulean Blue Hue as a primary.
- Phthalo Blue (cool) is often recommended to avoid since it’s a very strong and staining color. It is semi-transparent. (Indianthrone Blue is recommended as an alternative). Sennelier only.
- Indanthrone Blue (warm) is recommended instead of Phthalo Blue. Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Cadmium Yellow Deep (warm). Full chroma. Sennelier has Cadmium Yellow Deep Hue (semi-transparent). Maimeri (opaque).
- Golden Yellow (warm). Some suggest uses Cadmium Yellow instead of Golden Yellow. Neither Sennelier or Maimeri.
- Lemon Yellow (cool). Sennelier. Maimeri has Permanent Yellow Lemon (semi-transparent) and Cadmium Yellow Lemon (opaque).
- Cadmium Yellow Pale/Light (cool). Maimeri has Cadmium Yellow Light (opaque). Sennelier has Cadmium Yellow Light Hue (semi-transparent).
- Naples Yellow (warm). Opaque. Many argue that it’s not a good mixing color. Sennelier only.
Umber and Earths:
Many artists use earth tones such as umber and sienna as ease colors. Some artists dislike using them however as they are easily mixed, and in many cases can easily create what is known as “mud”.
- Raw Sienna. Some debate that its better than Yellow Ochre.
- Yellow Ochre. See Raw Sienna.
- Raw Sienna (ditch since easy to mix mud).
- Burnt Sienna (ditch since easy to mix mud).
- Raw Umber (ditch since easy to mix mud).
- Burnt Umber. Very fast drying. Best for bottom layers.
- Viridian for seascapes – a great transparent green shade.
- Phthalo Green is a great pairing mix color with Ultramarine Blue.
Moving From A Limited To Extended Palette
Sometimes you can’t afford to purchase 8 or more paint colors, plus supplies, in your first shopping trip. Or perhaps you don’t want to make such a big investment if you are unsure whether you will enjoy the medium. So I have composed a little guide on how to purchase a limited palette that can be easily converted to an extended split primary palette at a later date.
Important: you will need to purchase your initial colors as either warm or cool colors, but not both. Mixing warms and cools will create greyed and muted tones. It’s best to start with the most vibrant colors you can achieve and mute them down as needed. Whilst my list below isn’t exactly following this rule, I will explain why…
First store purchase:
- Titanium White,
- Cadmium Yellow Light (cool),
- Alizarin Crimson (cool),
- Burnt Umber,
- Ultramarine Blue (warm).
A lot of palettes don’t recommend Burnt Umber as it can cause some beginners issues due to it’s faster drying time.
Ultramarine was included in the list above instead of a cool blue for a couple reasons:
The most commonly suggested cool blue is Phthalo Blue. Phthalo Blue causes many issues for beginners due to how strong it is – you can’t mix it in equal quantities like other paint. Because of this people strongly recommend beginners don’t use Phthalo. If you wish to start with a cool blue, consider Cerulean or Indanthrone Blue.
Cerulean isn’t as dark traditionally, so you might not be able to achieve such dark values as you would with Ultramarine. Indanthrone Blue can alleviate this problem.
Mixing Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna together will help you to create a natural black. This is good for beginners to learn the basics of mixing blacks, and in general color theory, rather than relying so heavily on a multitude of store-bought pre-mixed colors.
Second store purchase:
- Cadmium Yellow Deep (warm),
- Cadmium Red Deep (warm),
- Cerulean Blue (cool – see notes above about Ultramarine), and
- Ease colors such as Viridian Green and Raw Sienna.
My Starter Palette
My starter palette will include:
- Ivory Black (cool, semi-transparent).
- Titanium White.
- Alizarin Crimson (cool).
- Cadmium Red Deep (warm).
- Ultramarine Blue (warm).
- Cerulean Blue (Cool).
- Cadmium Yellow Deep (warm).
- Lemon Yellow (cool).
- Burnt Umber.
- Raw Sienna.