Basic Colors to Start Painting with Acrylics

paint brush dipped in paint
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With so many colors available, it can be difficult to know which ones you should buy when you first start painting with acrylics. While we all know that it is possible to mix a rainbow of colors from just three primary colors (blue, red, and yellow), most of us don’t, preferring the ease of being able to squeeze a particular desired color directly from a tube; and some colors from the tube are simply brighter or darker than anything you can mix yourself. However, you can't buy or carry with you every color and tube of paint that's available, so knowing how to limit your color palette while still being able to mix the colors you want is an important skill.

While there are many limited color palettes you could use to start off painting with acrylics, the colors listed here make up a good basic palette of acrylic colors and from it you should be able to mix all the colors you might want.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Red

Get a tube of cadmium red medium (you also get a cadmium red light and dark). Cadmium red medium is a yellowish, warm red and relatively opaque.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Blue

Phthalo blue is an intense, extremely versatile blue. It gets very dark when combined with burnt umber and, because of its high tinting strength, only a little need be mixed with white to create lighter blues. (Also called phthalocyanine blue, monestial blue, and thalo blue.) It takes a bit of practice to use phthalo blue because of its high tinting strength, but many artists swear by it. If you find that you prefer to use phthalo blue more selectively, ultramarine blue is a good substitute and a very useful standard blue to have. Like phthalo blue it is transparent, although the actual hue is different, and the tinting strength is high but not as high as phthalo blue.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Yellow

Start with a tube of cadmium yellow medium. You can easily create a lighter yellow by adding white to this, though if you find you’re doing this regularly, consider buying a tube of cadmium yellow light too. Remember that if you want to darken yellow to try adding its complementary color, purple, rather than black, which tends to produce an olive green rather than deeper yellow.

Acrylic Painting Palette: White

Titanium white is an opaque, bright white with a strong tinting power (meaning a little goes a long way). Some manufacturers also sell a "mixing white", which is usually the cheapest and, as the name suggests, formulated to blend well with other colors.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Black

Mars black is a relatively opaque color and should be added to other colors in small quantities until you’ve got used its strength. Another option is ivory black, but only if you’re not squeamish about it being made from charred bones (it was originally created from ivory).

Acrylic Painting Palette: Brown

Burnt umber is a warm chocolate brown that’s extremely versatile and likely to provide itself indispensable. It’s great for darkening the tone of other colors. Raw umber is very similar but slightly lighter and cooler.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Green

Greens can be hard to mix consistently unless you’re meticulous to note the colors and proportions you used. Phthalo green is a bright bluish green. Mix it with cadmium yellow medium to get a variety of shades of greens.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Orange

Yes, you can make an orange by mixing yellow and red, but if you’re mixing an orange often, you’ll save yourself time having it ready-made in a tube, so buy a tube of cadmium orange.

Acrylic Painting Palette: Purple

It is worth buying a very dark purple such as dioxazine purple since a pure purple can be very hard to mix, particularly using warm reds and blues. 

Acrylic Painting Palette: Other Useful Colors

  • Payne’s grey: a versatile, transparent dark blue-gray made from a mixture of blue and black, often with some red.
  • Yellow or golden ocher: a glorious, golden, yellowish brown.
  • Titanium buff or raw titanium: a deep cream useful for mixing with burnt umber to create skin tones.

Updated by Lisa Marder 10/26/16