'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Monday, 11 May 2009

How to make Purple

Most people are taught at school that there are three primary colours; red, blue and yellow.  And that mixing any two of these, creates the secondary colours of green, orange and purple.
Grab your brush and dip in in the yellow, wash out, then the blue:  magically, green appears.  Hey, this is easy!
The yellow and the red this time, orange is easy too!
But how many of you have mixed red and blue and got a manky reddish brown colour instead of the purple you wanted?  
Like this:

Where did you go wrong, you wonder, and hide your work from the teacher, believing this was proof you had not an artistic bone in your body.
Or, having more confidence, you ask the teacher to try, and the teacher, rather embarrassed, gets the same (only usually neater):

So, why the brownish plum?  How do you get purple?  

Unfortunately the teacher was at fault for not being able to explain (or possibly even knowing why the red (or blue, or both) supplied was incapable of making a purple.

Here's the reason: 
To make a good rich royal purple, you need a red that is more crimson than scarlet - ie one that doesn't have too much yellow in it.  (Save the scarlet for making your shades of orange)
Now mix this crimson with a reddish-blue, that is, one that is not too green...  ultramarine is good, cobalt no good...

Now, you'll be able to make a number of good plums and violets and purples.

Greens and oranges are not quite so crucial.  The crimson red does make a reasonable orange, and the reddish blue makes a dullish green.

To make it easier, let's just say there are not three primary colours, but six:  two primary reds, two primary blues and two primary yellows.  

I'm convinced that children in art classes at school should be provided with two of each, and allowed to experiment with mixing them in a systematic way so they understand that you cannot make all three secondaries from only three primaries.

The fun should be in the exploring!


  1. Good heavens! You are like the Rosa Parks of the art world! How can you dispute the age old rules about primary and secondary colours? Get thee to a nunnery!

  2. Thank you for this. I've always wondered about my purple-deficit disorder. Now I know.

    Here's the mystery I'm left to wonder about: How does an iris (or any other purple-flowering plant) take water, sunlight, CO2, and some minerals from the soil and make purple?

  3. Thanks Katherine - I am also guilty of producing muddy brown soup from a pallet of brilliant colours. I find having a lot of white on hand is good too - to turn red into pink and black into grey and to soften the vibrancy of some of the colours - and white seems to transform some of this brilliance into pastel shades which also give good effects to children's paintings.

  4. Ah, yes .. I remember the bitter disappointment of my colour-mixing days at primary school! In fact, it wasn't until OH was working at home as a graphic artist that I learned about the facts of colours.

    The reds, blues and yellows we buy as paint are not 'pure'. As you so rightly point out, they are all a mix of each other, they'll put some red in yellow to give a warmer tone, some blue in red to give it depth, likewise red in blue. And that's putting it simply, it seems to me.

    I bet you've pleased a lot of people with this one!

  5. I'm no artist. Color me stupid. But your post is brilliant. I may even link to it....

  6. This is so, so like my mother - who has just been for her annual visit! She sees colours so differently now since she took up painting. She was sitting here reading a gardening book and saying how she didn't understand the language, and I realised how much I had learned too. It's all there around each of us, but until you learn the names and the know-how, you don't see it in anything like the same detail. Hmmm... I detect a posting in this!

  7. I've learned yet another thing today. It's been a Good Day for learning.


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