Guide to Colour


Written by Hannah Clark, staff member at Lovelys 

One of the most common questions asked of us is what colours should I use or start out with? It is only through experimenting, acknowledging your own personal preferences and perhaps a little knowledge of what makes colour that you will find what suits.

As a starting guide, the 3 primary colours of red, blue and yellow in an artists quality paint is the way forward. As to what kinds of red, blue and yellow you choose is down to you and highly depends on what brand of paint and quality you start with. It would then to be to choose a few secondary colours, like green, brown, purple, orange and pink. Beware buying too many colours! Not only will you most likely not use them all and therefore be a waste of money, but if you did use them all (especially in one single piece of work), the work may look muddy, too busy, too confusing. Worse still, the colours will most likely not compliment or work together. It is your choice as to whether you have a black and/or a white in your palette! There are pros and cons for both and many get taught to never use them whereas others are more relaxed about their usage. I feel it depends on what medium you’re using and what the subject matter is!

The best advice is to spend as much as you possibly can afford to obtain the best quality paint. There are obvious exceptions to this rule: I wouldn’t advise buying top quality acrylic for a 4 year old to play with! If you’re an artist, even just starting out, it is my recommendation to buy the best you can afford as you will gain from the better quality experience that the materials will give you.

When buying, try to obtain a sample of the paint beforehand to make sure it’s the texture and finish you’re after: at Lovelys, we can provide you with a free sample depending on the product before purchase. If not, then getting a hand-painted colour chart will help you to see the colours on a surface. At Lovelys, we have these in store and on our website, we have provided hand-painted colour choices for the Sennelier and Winsor and Newton oil ranges (though your computer screen may alter the projection of colours!) for the best accuracy possible.

Most modern colours are reasonably lightfast aka have a strong permanence, and is therefore not too much of a concern to most modern artists. Naturally, lightfastness of a pigment is dependent on amount and quality of light, but careful storage and conservation of work through good quality framing is recommended. At Lovelys, we also provide a specialist conservation framing service (please contact us or see the website for more details).

The opacity aka the transparency of each colour is usually listed on the packaging of the paint. It is dependent on the size and shape of the particles in each pigment. Naturally, transparent pigments are more see through than opaque ones, though thinned down opaque colours will have some slight transparency. Several transparent layers on top of one another will mean each colour is visible. An opaque colour on top of these will cover up the previous colours.

Pigments are made up of organic or inorganic materials. Some colour names reflect what each colour is made from, such as Rose Madder made from the root of the ‘Madder’ plant, or have a ‘common’ name created for it such as Payne’s Grey named after artist William Payne. Most manufacturers use the same names or similar names for consistency across the board: beneficial to artists, but sometimes they don’t or one manufacturer will have more choice of colours than the other. However, just because the names are the same does not mean the colours will be, so buyer beware!


Need more help? Feel free to contact us on 01843292757 or or come in store.

Or read these excellent books:

Colour: Travels through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

Colour: A Workshop for Artists and Designers by David Hornung and Michael James