The Best Traditional Primary Colours to use in Watercolour

The traditional primary palette usually consists of Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, and Ultramarine Blue. This is a simple and powerful combination, which creates beautiful oranges and muted greens. It’s often paired with Alizarin Crimson, Gambodge Yellow and Cerulean Blue in a Split Primary palette, opening up a range of intense greens and purples.

There are signficant drawbacks to using the traditional primaries over the modern primaries; Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow are both warm-toned and opaque, which means they can overpower mixtures easily. Both are also toxic, and so require more care. You also need all six colours to create the full range of the rainbow; unlike the four colours required in a CYMK palette.

However, while there are some drawbacks, this traditional primary palette is a reliable choice for artists who are looking to learn the basics of colour theory, or who want to paint in classic colours.

French Ultramarine


Ultramarine Blue is a deep, rich blue pigment known for its intense colour, excellent lightfastness, and versatility in creating a wide range of hues, making it a popular choice among artists for its reliability and permanence.

Cerulean Blue


Cerulean Blue is a distinctive cool blue shade, often used for painting bright clear skies. It also performs well in mixes, especially when used to depict foliage and water. It has a granulating texture, is semi-transparent, although can be fugitive in some formulations.

Cadmium Yellow


Cadmium Yellow is a bright and opaque yellow pigment, valued for its vivid colour, excellent lightfastness, and versatility in mixing a range of hues. Caution is advised due to its cadmium content.

Gambodge Yellow


Gambodge Yellow is a warm and transparent yellow. Genuine Gambodge comes from the Gardenia tree, and is unfortunately unstable in light. Most manufacturers sell a modern Gambodge Hue, which uses more lightfast pigments that mimic the original colour.

Cadmium Red


Cadmium Red is a warm, intense, and opaque red pigment known for its excellent lightfastness, and versatility in mixes. This paint is toxic due to its cadmium content.

Alizarin Crimson


Alizarin Crimson is a rich and versatile red with a cool undertone. It is a transparent, smooth colour. As it comes from an organic dye, Alizarin Crimson is fugitive; many manufacturers have sought to overcome this by creating a modern ‘Permanent Alizarin Crimson’ using PR177 / PR264 / PV19.

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