The art foundation course I attended in Newham, London in 1990 taught me fundamentals of image composition and construction. Theories such as tonal and colour relationship were key to creating images that looked real and natural, especially when practising observational drawing and painting.
One concept I was introduced to was the colour wheel, based on three primary colours of red, yellow and blue, from which secondary complementary colours of orange, violet and green could be mixed. These secondary colours in practice, however, often appeared muddy and less intense in hue, due to the limitations of pigment. (To achieve vibrant hues one used warm and cold variants of each of the primaries e.g. cadmium red (warm) and permanent rose (cool).
Over the years I became curious with the practical usage of a different set of primaries: magenta, yellow and cyan. Most people are familiar with this trio as these are the base pigments used in colour printers. From these primaries one can, in theory, create any colour of the spectrum the most easily, including true opposite colours such as red, green and blue.
My working palette became a loose hybrid of the two wheels, with a very limited colour selection (except blue… I’ve always kept a varied set to choose from) which often resulted in harmonised but understated paintings. I’ve always enjoyed this austere quality and it also reminds me of owning a Commodore 64 home computer during my youth, with it’s highly washed out set of sixteen colours that had an earthiness to them. The colour red, for example, appeared like rusty terracotta, reminiscent of old paintings. (The manufacturers had based the computer’s colour wheel values on resistor ratios.)
Ultimately any practical palette is as subjective and useful as it is theoretical. Painters and artists have always adapted and changed colour palettes for all sorts of reasons including pigment availability, advances in colour theory and technology as well as developments in artistic style and expression. The Fauves (such as Andre Derain, for example) were well known for applying vibrant and raw and unmixed colours in their work.
When working with oil paints, I often prefer to use the painter’s standard selection of burnt sienna, yellow ochre, black and white. This limited selection creates a remarkably vivid and wide varied set of colours which look natural and harmonious. In recent times I have added brighter pigments into my work such as fluorescents to help reflect the urban subject matter that I paint more confidently.