back view of girl with purple hair looking at a black board with table of mixing colours

Expanding the CMY colour wheel

This is the fifth part of this series discussing colours, the CMY colour wheel, revisiting the idea of primaries and concluding about what would be the right hues to begin watercolour painting with.

Previous posts are here.

    1. Primary Colours?
    2. Colour Vocabulary – Hue, Value and Saturation
    3. CMY colour wheel
    4. Colour Temperature

In this post I want to explore the variation of mixes we can get with the CMY primaries, the pros and cons of this palette and how we can expand the three primaries to form a balanced and useful palette of colours.

Mixes from the 3 primaries

Here are some of the mixes we can get from the same three colour CMY (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow) palette!

Cyan can be warmed by mixing with magenta (left) and Yellow can be mixed by adding cyan (right).

Common cool mixes from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

We can get a range of more natural greens by playing with the ration of mixes.

For example, warming up either Yellow (with magenta) or Cyan (with Magenta) will add a bit of neutralization to the greens, resulting in a wide range of natural greens.

Mixing leafy greens from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

Mixing mossy greens from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

Mixing deep greens from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

Earth Tones:

Earth tones are the range of stone, ground and earth-coloured hues which are especially useful for depicting any natural element. They were some of the earliest pigments discovered by man, from…you guessed it! The earth. They came from the soil, stones, rocks, trees, and plants. Originating from naturally occurring minerals which range from warm yellow to burnt red -brows and earth greens and some blues.

Earth tones also tend to be dull and desaturated.

To achieve these, we need to desaturate the hue (by mixing some of the complements) or make a mix of the 3 primaries in varying proportions


Mixing Earthy yellows from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

Mixing Earthy Browns from cyan, magenta and yellow watercolour

The CMY colour wheel, while capable of producing a large variety of hues, also poses a problem. If I have just those three hues in my palette, I would be spending more time mixing colours than ever getting around to finishing a painting. I would also need a lot of mixing space in the palette.


*sniggers* Yes, I created a meme for this blog post 😁😁

Pros and Cons

The pros of a CMY wheel to be retained are:

– Wide range of hues

– Vibrant purples and greens

– Harmony of colours of a triad

The cons of the CMY wheel to be solved:

Too much mixing involved to create further hues.

– Sometimes we don’t want such bright intense hues, light or softer colours also need a lot of mixing and watering down.

– Earth tones need to be mixed from complements. We need to be careful in mixing ratios.

– Greens while vibrant and bright, are too unnatural for green foliage as seen in nature. Needs more mixing.

– The Cyan and Magenta are both quite cool, requiring mixes for warm colours. Read about colour temperatures here.


Expanding from three primaries:

1. As discussed in the colour temperature post, a split primary palette resolves many of the problems.

For instance, if we had a ready to use warm yellow, blue or magenta, we would be able to get to those brown and greens much easier.

2. The three primaries are fully transparent, staining, and bright pigments. Watercolour pigments also have some natural physical characteristics like pigment granulation, varying opacity, and staining properties. We are missing these in the CMY wheel. So added colours can offer some different properties than the existing ones.

3. To ease the amount of mixing we can add premixed or convenience colours, these could be the secondaries (green, purple, red) or some others.

A starting point to adding any new colours into a palette is that the colours should work well together.

Here the cyan is Phthalo Blue Green Shade, Magenta is Helios Purple and Yellow is Yellow Lake – all paints from Sennelier. Though my current preference is for most colours from this brand, these concepts work regardless of brand names. Look for swatches of the brand colours and choose similar hues to achieve the same effect.

I will link to these specific paints and brands mentioned below at the end of the post.

To achieve further harmonious mixing, we can add colours which could be mixed from the original primaries. Only these similar hues are directly available out of a tube (or pan!)

For example, observing the warm blues I can create from the cyan and magenta, I can say that a good addition might be Ultramarine blue, or even Phthalo Blue Red shade – called Blue Sennelier.

Including more warm hues:

Since Ultramarine is warmer, as well as offering some contrasting physical properties such as being granulating and non-staining, it makes for a better addition.

For a warm red, I could choose to go with a bright red. But I hardly ever reach for a bright red in my painting work, so I choose a deep orange instead. Something like scarlet or vermillion would work.

The existing magenta is also tad too intense. I never have a requirement to use it as-is. So, I could choose to go with a more usable cool red- which in this case would be a typical Quinacridone rose. In Sennelier, it is called Rose Madder Lake. Carmine is also a similar colour.


When I come to the yellows, I can add simply a warm yellow like Indian yellow, or Cadmium yellow deep. But a warm yellow is remarkably close to the warm red/orange I have just chosen and may not offer me that much use. The yellow primary is also quite strong and can easily become too warm.

Either I could simply leave the yellow as a single hue, or I could replace this intense yellow with two yellows- warm and cool.

In that case I would choose a lemon yellow for the cool. For the warm, I still don’t need to go to the extent of having any orangish-ness in it, due to the presence of the warm red. Instead, I will add a medium warm yellow like Sennelier Yellow light or Azo Yellow.

This gives us a wheel with the split primaries replacing the three original primaries. You may also feel this looks close a traditional RYB colour wheel. It does, but still retains the pros of the CMY wheel that we have already explored.

Earth Tones:

I will add some earth yellow and earthy brown to this. For example, Burnt Sienna is a great, granulating brown, which also is a complement to ultramarine blue. The two neutralize to a dark grey which is perfect for stormy skies or deep shadows. Adding this makes sense since I already have Ultramarine blue.

I will also add Yellow Ochre since it is a yellow can be mixed with any warm shade to lighten as well as reduce saturation. It also has an additional benefit of not mixing green with Ultramarine blue, which can be useful when you want to warm up a blue sky without having any green appear! It is also a bit opaque so offers some new mixing possibilities.

Other Convenience colours:

These are optional colours which are not a make-or-break for the palette. They do offer ease of use.

A colour I need frequently is a natural foliage green. Common choices include Sap green, Hooker’s Green, Olive green etc. I choose Sap green in Sennelier since it is made of the exact pigments PB 29 and PY 153 – which are my warm Ultramarine blue and my warm/medium yellow Sennelier yellow light. It is the colour I would end up mixing anyway (thus being a convenience colour!) A great base which can be lightened, darkened, or neutralised with any of the other colours to produce a broad range of greens.

Many artists often make the choice to not have any green, preferring to mix it on the spot from their yellows and blues, to ensure a good variety and avoid using the same green everywhere. You could do the same!

Another convenience colour I like to have is a dark to easily mix with other hues to darken. I like to have any one of the following, they all produce great mixes with the primary triad, thought each a bit unique. Of course, I can mix a nice dark grey with Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine, so none of these are essential.

Choosing from Sepia, Payne’s Grey or Neutral tint- all of these are medium to deep darks. Sepia tends to tilt towards warm, Payne’s grey is bluish and Neutral tint is a balanced neutral dark which can darken the tone of any hue you mix it with.

You can’t go wrong with any of these in the palette, experimentation and play helps one narrow down what they prefer.

Final Palette

In total we have a flexible and useful palette of colours which gives us all the pro’s of the CMY colour primaries, yet with many more benefits.

Though few of our original CMY primaries are visible here, this palette works the same way.

It offers the same or even greater flexibility as that triad, as well as convenience in mixing colours with more ease.


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Sennelier L’Aquarelle Artist watercolours:

These are my go-to paints for most colours. I buy them in the 21ml size to maximise my value-for-money and pour them into empty watercolour pans for portability. I will link the specific shades mentioned in this post. Pigment information is mentioned in brackets


Phthalocyanine Blue (PB 15:3) – Cool Blue / Cyan

Ultramarine Blue Deep (PB29) – Warm Blue


Rose Madder Lake – (PV 19) – Cool Red/ Magenta

Rose Dore Madder Lake – Warm Red


Lemon Yellow (PY 3) – Cool Yellow

Sennelier Yellow Light (PY 153) – Warm/mid Yellow


Burnt Sienna (PBr 7) – Earth Brown – This is out of stock in the 21ml size, but I’ve linked to a smaller size which si available right now!

Yellow Ochre (PY 43) – Earth Yellow

Sap Green (PB29 + PY 153) – Convenience Green

Neutral Tint (PB 60, PBk 7, PR 209) – Neutral Dark


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