Primary colours?

I have long been obsessed with watercolours, but have never found my own attempts at it satisfactory. My colours always sucked.

Much before Instagram sharing and social media blew up, I was ogling watercolours done by friends at college, and the few painters whose blogs and work I followed on the erstwhile world of ‘Blogspot’!

I marvelled at how a simple pen drawing could be livened up with a soft wash of watercolour, and despaired when my work never got such results. My colours were often dull, muddy, and generally ‘bleh.’

I later realised there were 2 reasons.

Reason 1 was simple. Decent quality materials. I had a ‘prized’ box of Camel watercolour cakes from my very first year of art college. 2005 to be precise.

Here I was, even in 2018, still with that very same box.

Reason 2 was more important though – my choice of primary colours, the colour wheel and understanding of colour mixing.

How do we mix colours?

Since my 2nd year of college when I bought my very first graphic drawing tablet, I had not coloured extensively in physical media. I was a digital software junkie and hooked onto Photoshop and its magical colour picker.

In the back of my mind, the colour wheel was essentially the three primary colours- red, blue and yellow- which would mix to form the secondaries of – purple, green and orange. I had seen my college professors and seniors use colours in the strangest ways and never understood how blue made its way on a face or green on a pink shirt.

For the 2 years of studying ‘Art’ in school I painted with poster colours tried acrylics, oils and watercolours. The opaque media were all great fun and I enjoyed all of them so much, and produced some decent results as well. But then I hardly painted for 2 years before getting into art college, and suddenly I had to level up! The little bit of experience I had over 4 years before that was just not sufficient. My reaction was to deep dive into Photoshop. I made most of my drawings on paper with pen, ink, black and white, sepia or such tones and reserved my colour play for Photoshop! I carried this trend into my post grad, for the next 10 years remaining obsessed (while getting proficient) with the digital medium.

But in my on-and-off relationship with watercolours , the same struggles continued, not understanding why it had many colours which looked similar, and why my purples were always dull and sad. One random night, I had a thought.

The concept of primary colours was that, with just those colours, one should be able to mix all the shades they require. But in my experience, be it water or poster or acrylic colours, I had never been able to mix vibrant and rich (not dull and muddy) pinks or purples, ever! I always had to dip into the fresh premixed purple out of a tube/pot. In fact, I famously had the largest range of colours in the entire class in one of my middle school years. Was it just my paint quality? Or was it actually a lack of understanding?

The traditional colour primaries:

Here is our traditional, known and familiar colour wheel. Red, yellow and blue. Right?

I’ve chosen these pigments to represent the primaries here. (For those pigment junkies!)

Red – Sennelier* Bright Red  (Non Rated Pigment) – it looks like a classic red

Yellow – Sennelier* Yellow Light (PY 153) clean and bright

Blue – Mijello* Cobalt Blue No. 2 (PB 28) the classic neutral blue

You might notice, that the range of colours seem okayish, but I can’t get real darks, or neutral greys, or any bright pinkish tones. The only pink I could possibly get is to mix red with water (or white) and that becomes pastel. How would I ever get a bright magenta or a brilliant turquoise or a bright-ass green, or at the very least, a nice clear purple and not that sludge-like one?

How can these colours be the primaries yet, not enough?

Well, this particular Red, Yellow and Blue are NOT true primaries, at least in paints. They just can’t produce some of those bright and vivid colours we can see and are familiar with, like bright purples, greens or pinks.

But here’s how I thought about it. Where do we see colours, other than in nature…? We see them on digital screens and in printed materials.

Digital screens – well ofcourse can produce waaaay more colours than printed simply because of the range of the LEDs or other thingies powering them, AND because of additive mixing. (ie- the primaries mix together to form white, like how a prism splits white light into the VIBGYOR- whole different shebang– read about it here!)

But print- must be close to paint right? They both follow Subtractive mixing- ie: mixing the primaries gives us grey or black.

So let’s look at those printer inks – CMYK. Key is for black- ignoring that, how can we interpret the rest?

C- Cyan – a really bright and intense blue?

M- Magenta- a super bright and saturated pinkish red? Maaaybe.

Y – Yellow – could be the same yellow as the RYB, or maybe following the above two, we take the brightest and most concentrated yellow we get?

A Revised set of primaries:

So here is a primary colour wheel trying out this hypothesis.

CMY instead of RYB.

The Secondaries become: Red, Purple and Green- but very different kinds of purples and greens!

And would you believe it? A red! As a secondary? Whoa!

This colour wheel seems to have so many hues in between as well. Slant the secondary mix towards either one primary and you get even more hues!

These are my primary colours:

Here is a colour wheel depicting the range of colours mixed using the CMY primary colours.

For the pigment addicts, my CMY primaries here are:

Cyan – Sennelier* Phthalocyanine Blue Green Shade – PB 15:3

Magenta – Sennelier* Helios Purple, PR 122

Yellow – Sennelier* Yellow Lake – PY 154

But wait, there is more!

Look at the wide range we get between 2 primaries, because of their intensity!

I will go further into the possibilities of just these three colours in a future post. It can lead you to quite a beautiful and vast range of colours.


This post is part 1 of a 5-part series on colour theory and the basics of the colour wheel. The others in the series are linked below.

2. Colour Vocabulary – Hue, Value and Saturation

3. The CMY Colour Wheel

4. Colour Temperature

5. Expanding the CMY colour wheel


Thank you Internet!

So how did I arrive at some of these conclusions above?

My go-to is Jane Blundell’s amazing blog which is a treasure trove of information and best resource an artist can ever ask for.

In particular, her post about just 4 colours in a super limited palette is the one which led me down the rabbit hole of exploring my colours, understanding pigment and more.

The other is the Handprint website. This is another labour of love created and maintained by Bruce MacEvoy since 1994! Its simply amazing, especially all the details on the pigments and their natures.

There are hundreds of blogs posts, videos, and resources available online about this idea of the CMY being a more suitable primary triad. Here are a few, I wish you all the best as you deep dive into this exciting discovery.

A video by Sarah Renae Clark explaining a lot more!

A straightforward explanation of the concept above by Denise Soden of ‘In Liquid Color’ 

Sennelier L’aquarelle paints and Brustro Watercolour paper from Creative Hands, Kolkata

Mijello Mission Gold paints and Art Essentials Oyster Brush from Art Lounge, Mumbai.


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