Art Blog

The Ultimate Guide to Acrylic Paint Colors

Pthalo blue. Alizarin crimson. Cadmium yellow. If you’re new to acrylic painting, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the paint color choices out there. What are these colors, and more importantly, which ones do you need? This guide to acrylic paint colors is designed to take some of the guesswork out of the process.

Mixes made with primary colors of acrylic paint

First off, do not despair: you do not need to buy every single color nor do you need to break the bank to try your hand at acrylic painting. By starting out with a strong foundation of colors, you can mix just about any color. From there, you can decide which pre-mixed colors will be helpful in your collection. 

Note from the author: I went to art school, and on the first day of my foundation year studies, a teacher gave us a guide to acrylic colors, dividing them into “vital” and “good to have if you can afford it.” I have taken the same approach here. 

Vital colors

Armed with these acrylic paint colors, you can mix just about any color you need. Basically, what is detailed in this list is two variations of each primary color: a warm and a cool version of each. Since primary colors cannot be mixed, it’s very helpful to have two variations of each primary color. 

Red

Alizarin Red Acrylic Paint

Alizarin crimson

Picture a rich, crimson velvet fabric. The color you have in mind is likely Alizarin crimson. A powerful hue, it is a slightly cool red in its purest form. However, since it is often a semi-opaque paint, it can easily be watered down to a warmer hue and friendly pinks. It also mixes well with other colors and can be used to create rich violets and complex orange colors. 

Cadmium Red Medium Acrylic Paint

Cadmium red

This is a classic, assertive red: the stuff that stop signs and traffic lights are made of. Bright and opaque, this red goes a long way in your painting, standing alone as your go-to red or pairing well with other paint to create mixed colors. You may find light, medium and dark varieties; the choice is yours, but I suggest medium for versatility. 

Yellow

Cadmium Yellow Light Hue

Cadmium yellow light

Sometimes also called lemon yellow, this light yellow is bright, but cooler than the golden medium yellow. I think of it as a “Tweety Bird” yellow. It can be used to create delicate highlights or it can be combined with blues to create cool greens. It is typically a semi-opaque color, so it is often a good idea to mix it with a little bit of white for more assertive highlights in your painting.

Cadmium Yellow Medium Acrylic Paint

Cadmium yellow medium

Cadmium yellow medium is a fairly classic, warm yellow. Think of the color a small child would use to draw the sun. Typically a semi-opaque paint, it is often combined with another color for opacity. For a light yellow, combine with a bit of Titanium white paint; to create a darker hue, mix the yellow with a little bit of its complementary color, violet. Why not just add black? As you’ll see if you try, rather than darkening the yellow, it creates a muddy, murky green color. Cadmium yellow can also be combined with blue paint to create a variety of greens.

Blue

Cerulean Blue Acrylic Paint

Cerulean blue

This warm blue is the shade of a summer sky. While a similar color can be mixed with ultramarine blue and a touch of green, it’s difficult to create this bright, true hue. Having a warm blue acrylic color in your repertoire is extremely helpful, not only for mixing with a little bit of white for a clear blue sky, but also for creating warm color combinations.

Ultramarine blue acrylic paint

Ultramarine blue

This is the deep, dark blue of the ocean. It’s the vibrant blue of Delftware porcelain. While the paint is often semi-opaque, it is a powerful color, which can be used to create an ocean scene or rich, velvety night sky. A touch of ultramarine blue can be mixed with white paint to create a lovely powder blue. It can also be mixed with brown paint to create subtle shadows that are not quite as overpowering as black paint, as in this tutorial.

Black and white

Titanium White Acrylic Paint

Titanium white

Titanium white is a powerhouse. Opaque and bright, it can stand alone, it can be used to lighten any color it is mixed with and it has the power to add opacity to slightly more translucent colors of paint. Not only is titanium white acrylic paint vital to your collection, but it’s suggested that you buy a jumbo-sized tube.

Mars Black Arcylic Paint

Mars black

While this is an important color to have in your arsenal, a little goes a long way. While mixing white with colors can lighten them, mixing black doesn’t necessarily darken them; it makes them murky. Black can be mixed with white to create gray or can be used for shadows or outlines. 

Helpful colors to have on hand

While less vital than the colors listed above, these colors can be awfully nice to have on hand. The majority of the list is particular varieties of the secondary colors which can be tricky to mix, with some browns and neutrals added to the mix as well. 

Tertiary colors

Cadmium orange

Especially if you are just getting started with acrylic, it is nice to have an orange color on hand. This basic orange can be mixed with yellow to create a tangerine tone or mixed with red to create a faceted, deep color.

Phthalo green

While there are a variety of greens to be purchased, this forest green color will give you a lot of bang for your buck. It’s a difficult color to get quite right by mixing alone, so it’s nice to have a tube of phthalocyanine green on hand. As an added bonus, it combines well with other colors to create a myriad of greens. A bit of yellow combined with phthalo green will give you a grassy hue; adding white will give you a minty green.

Cobalt violet

This rich, classic violet isn’t too blue, isn’t too red, but is right in the middle, and very vibrant. It’s typically semi-transparent, but when combined with a touch of white it remains a vibrant violet, and it can also be easily transformed into pastel lilac.

Browns

Mixing brown is as easy as combining a little bit of each primary color. However, attaining specific shades of brown can prove more difficult. By stocking up on these two brown acrylic paints, you will save yourself a lot of time by having commonly used browns pre-mixed. 

Burnt umber

Think of this as a warm, reddish brown: the color of cherry wood or even a toasty slice of bacon. It can be mixed with yellow to create a more robust color or it can be used to paint natural elements. 

Raw umber 

This is a cool brown. The color of trees in winter, dark hardwood floors. This dark, rich color can be lightened with a bit of white paint or it can be used to darken other colors with a slightly less muddy result than black. 

Neutrals

These are the unsung heroes of the paint box. They are rarely used on their own, but they play a powerful supporting role in mixing subtle hues and adding shadows and highlights to paintings. 

Payne’s gray

This dark, gray-blue color is like the sky on a rainy day. While it likely won’t be the most frequently used color on your palette all by itself, this is a handy color to have on hand as it is a preferable alternative to black paint for darkening colors. It won’t muddy the colors quite like black paint will, and Payne’s gray creates more subtle shadow colors in your painting. It’s difficult to mix this color, so it’s good to have a tube on hand. 

Titanium buff

This is a basic beige tone. Boring? Maybe, all by itself. But it can be mixed with colors as a slightly warmer alternative to white paint, giving them a gentle, subtle lightness. It can also be used to create highlights in your paintings that are not quite as piercing as those painted in pure white. 

What colors do you consider vital in your acrylic paint kit?

10 Comments

ginny

They are what I started with 20 yes ago

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Tom

What do you use to clean up [ brushes ] after you are done painting???

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Judy

Murphy’s Soap is what I use and suggested by my teacher.

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Connie

I am about to do my first acrylic painting. Any pointers/suggestions for success or prevent total failure?

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Emma

Wash your brushes thoroughly when you are done!

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Susan Pless

I’m having trouble getting the color of a deep blue summer sky at sunset, Every blue I’ve tried just doesn’t look realistic! Any ideas on the best color in acrylics for a deep blue realistic sky?

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Emily

Cerulean blue mixed in with a little bit of ultramarine blue and white

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Joan

I’m use to using acrylic craft paints and now want to do more professional looking paintings… can you give me suggestions on using tub paints… this is. More of a thicker paint I’m use to…. like covering a large back ground……. do you use a medium with it to cover more space…. seems like the tubes just are small and you would use more.. advice on this would be appreciated

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Jans Wisniewski

Gloss or matte medium will make the paint more transparent, almost like adding water, but it gives you more body and more control of the application than water, so it would not help with coverage of an area.
I am not expert at acrylic, mainly a watercolorist, but generally you get the best results with better paint. Student grade paint is not going to work as well as professional quality paints. I have seen the term “heavy body” used in acrylics paints to denote high viscosity or “buttery” texture that will hold brush strokes, and some also claim to have “high pigment loads”.
You might be better off buying a few larger tubes to get a good price than a lot of small tubes. I actually bought a starter set that had white, black, the primaries and a couple of earth tones, and I have added just a couple of other tubes, of warm or cool primaries.
I never use the black… I mix ultramarine with burnt sienna or burnt umber instead, but am into my 2nd tube of titanium white.

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Elise

Hi Joan, only just joined, hence the late reply, lol.
It is really important to do several layers of gesso onto your canvas, even though the bought ones are already gesso’d you still need to add at least one more layer, two is better, the paint flows on very smoothly and is not sucked into the canvas. Use a large brush, 2 or 3 inch, but not a good one … keep this one for gesso, lol. Have a look on YouTube and search for ‘preparing canvas with gesso, and heaps come up down the right hand side. When dry (about 20 mins.) and you do your background, use another ‘good’ large brush and you can get a fine spray bottle to lightly spray canvas with water which helps move the paint across quicker. Hope this helps … you can search for just about anything related to painting with acrylics on YouTube. Have fun with your painting 🙂

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