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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.