Color Tutorial—What Paints Should You Buy?


Specific colors to use for portraits:

The topic of what paints to buy can be a controversial subject, with many opinions and passions unleashed! So with some caution, I will give you my preferences and suggestions for a good starter palette for portrait artists. But by all means, don't take what I say as gospel! There are many other very legitimate "palette"s (choices of tubes of paint to use).

I have a few palettes that I use. There's my "Full" palette (what I'd use if I was painting anything from portraits to animals to landscapes). Then I have a limited primary palette, tailored especially for portraits. (This is good if I am just doing something simple, or am on the road and don't want to drag a lot of colors with me.) There are a few other more limited palettes I've used. I'll list them all here!

I use warm and cool primary colors, so I choose tubes of paint that I consider to be "warm" and "cool." (If you don't know what I'm rambling on about with my "warm" and "cool," consult the portrait painting tutorial.)

FULL PALETTE: (Everyday palette, for painting anything from portraits to landscapes) These nine colors have given me a very serviceable palette. (But does that mean that I only have nine tubes of paint? *cough cough* I refuse to answer that!)

  • White—Titanium, Titanium-Zinc White (sometimes called "Mixed"or "Mixing" White, but it depends), Permalba White, Flake White (contains lead), Flemish White (contains lead), or Cremnitz White (contains lead). (NEWBIES: Get Titanium, Titanium-Zinc, or Permalba White)
  • Cool yellow—Lemon yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light (or Cad Yellow Lemon), Cad. Yellow Lt. Hue, or Primary Yellow. (NEWBIES: Cad Yellow Lt/Lemon Hue, or Primary Yellow. Get the real Cadmiums if you can afford them)
  • Warm yellow—Yellow ochre or Yellow Oxide. Some variation of Yellow Ochre/Oxide. (Yellow Ochre Light, or Yellow Ochre Pale would be okay too). It cannot be replaced with anything else! Yellow Ochre is a must-have in my opinion. Naples Yellow is another favorite, but if pressed, I'd choose Yellow Ochre/Oxide over Naples Yellow.
  • Cool red—Permanent Alizarin Crimson, or Permanent Rose. (If pressed, another "magenta" type red will suffice. Many paint manufacturers have a "Primary Red" or "Primary Magenta", Quinacradone Magenta is also okay, but not my favorite.) (NEWBIES: Get Permanent Alizarin Crimson or Permanent Rose if possible.) Note: "Regular" Alizarin Crimson is not lightfast, which means it will fade over time. I recommend that you avoid.
  • Warm red—Cadmium Red Light (or Cad. Red Light Hue) or Vermilion Red Hue (real Vermillion is too much!). (NEWBIES: Try for Cad. Red Light or Cad. Red Lt. Hue)
  • Cool blue—Cobalt Blue or Ultramarine Blue (NEWBIES: Go for Ultramarine. Cheaper, fabulous, very versatile.)
  • Warm Blue—Manganese Blue or Cerulean Blue (Phthalo Blue Green Shade or just Phthalo Blue would also be okay, but this is a powerful color. Use with caution!) (NEWBIES: Try to get Cerulean Blue Hue or if you can afford, Cerulean Blue.)
  • Earth Red/Brown—Burnt Sienna (the most popular) or alternatives would include Light Red (an earth red), Venetian Red, English Red, Indian Red, Mars Red, Red Oxide, Transparent Red Oxide. (NEWBIES: Burnt Sienna is the easiest to find, but the others are great too.)
  • Dark—I don't use black in my Full Palette, so instead I've been using Indigo (Hue) and/or Prussian Blue (or one of the Prussian Blue Hues). I'm especially in love with Prussian Blue. Payne's Grey will also do. But lately I'm finding Prussian Blue to be better. (NEWBIES: Prussian Blue! It'll create a nice black if you mix it with your Earth Red/Brown.)

I don't find myself using any other earth tones for some reason. I long since gave up on Raw Sienna. Other people swear by it, though. I occasionally will need a purple or green. Some purples and greens are essential, as not every bright, vibrant purple or green can be mixed with the colors I list above. But for everyday portraits, not so much.


If you are wondering why I don't use black, I gotten in the habit of not using it. My first oil painting teacher was against its use, and her teaching stuck in me! I usually mix a black from a strong blue (like Prussian Blue) and a brown (like Burnt Sienna). Also you can get a near-black by mixing Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna (or other earth color). By mixing your own black, it's one less tube you need to buy!

I'm not totally anti-black paint. But I believe it needs to be used carefully, with knowledge and understanding of color mixing. Get Helen Van Wyk's book on color mixing to help you learn how to mix colors properly.


Limited Primary Palette for Portraits: This is the palette I use when I only want to carry a few tubes of paint with me, or just want to see how many colors I can mix from these few colors.

  • White—(Same as in the Full Palette.) Titanium White, Titanium-Zinc White, Permalba White, or Flake, Flemish, Cremintz white (these last three contain lead).
  • Blue—Ultramarine Blue or Prussian Blue. Usually I try for Ultramarine but I've been known to do Prussian. Both of these are transparent blues with a lot of potential.
  • Red—Permanent Alizarin Crimson (most frequently used) or Permanent Rose. I've also used other "rosy" magenta colors or magenta "madder" colors.
  • Yellow—Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide (by far my first choice) or Cadmium Yellow Medium.
  • Brown—Burnt Sienna, English Red, Light Red, or some other "reddish earth." This is optional, but I'll use it if I can.

Primary Palette (suggested by Jose Parramon): This is a challenging palette that is lots of fun to try out.

  • White—Titanium White or Titanium-Zinc White (or Permalba, Mixed, etc etc)
  • Blue—Prussian Blue
  • Red—Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Yellow—Cadmium Yellow Medium (get Hue if you can't afford regular Cadmium)

The Goya Palette: As discussed in more length on the "Real World" Color Theory page. This is a particularly useful palette if you are a newbie or simply want to see how far you can push your color mixing with a few colors. Especially useful for portraits. Excellent if you are cheap and want to do portraits with a minimum of tubes of paint.

  • A White (Titanium, Titanium-Zinc, Permalba, and so forth and so on.)
  • A Warm Earthy Yellow (I recommend Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide)
  • A Warm Earthy Red (Burnt Sienna, English Red, Venetian Red, Red Oxide, Red Ochre, Light Red, Transparent Red Oxide, Mars Red, and many others. Usually based on an Red Iron Oxide pigment.)
  • Black (Ivory Black, Mars Black, Lamp Black.)

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What paint brands to use?

This is a fascinating subject that cannot be covered in this mere page! I'll be writing more about that soon. I do touch on recommended brands (for oil painting) on my blog here. For acrylics, I give a few recommendations on the Acrylics Page. But there's much more to be said, so stay tuned!

A few color formulas:

My "formula" for a typical peachy flesh tone might be: White, Yellow Ochre, and Cadmium Red Light. I would mix a lot of white, with a bit of Cad. Red Light, and a touch of Yellow Ochre.

A darker flesh tone might be Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, White, and a bit of Rose.

You need to mix and experiment. And - when you lay down your palette, you should already have a color scheme in mind. (Once again, read my portrait painting tutorial if you don't know what I'm talking about).

And, keep your color scheme harmonious by mixing one color blend with others. For instance, if you have mixed a flesh tone you like, and now you want to add a shadow to a face, consider blending your mix of flesh tone into the shadow color you have chosen. (If you were to make a blue shadow, don't just put down some blue paint out of the tube onto the canvas. Add some of your flesh tone mix into the blue, then paint it on the canvas.)

If you want to learn more about color mixing and color palettes, look into these wonderful books by Helen Van Wyk. I've always admired her beautiful paintings,and her colors are fresh and alive. It's a real treat to look through her books, and the information she gives on paints and color is invaluable!

Also, I discovered these very nice books by Faber Birren (and Itten) when I was in art school. (My color theory teacher recommended them to us.) It helped me understand why certain color schemes create certain "moods" or effects. They are good books on color.

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