Beginners guide to acrylic paint - Basic colour palette

Author: Art Shed Team  Date Posted:4 November 2014 

A basic guide to selecting the essential colours to have in your artists tool box. When you are starting out, the world of art supplies can seem very daunting. There are so many mediums and brands on the market its really hard to know where to start. In this guide we break down the basic colours everyone should have in their tool box.

When you are starting out, the world of art supplies can seem very daunting. There are so many mediums and brands on the market its really hard to know where to start and what you really need in your artists tool box. Remember its still down to personal choice however below is a suggested list of basic colours i would recommend.




Acrylic Paints:

There are many mediums to experiment with but i believe acrylic paint is the easiest for a beginner. Acrylic is forgiving, washes up in water and dries quickly. For those artists who wish to lengthen the amount of time it takes for the paint to dry, it can be mixed with extenders or retarders. Extending the drying time of acrylic paints makes it possible to blend colours more easily with one another while working on an art piece. Those who paint model figures often use extenders or retarders, as do those artists who simply prefer acrylics over other paints but need a little more time to complete the work.

Acrylics can be mixed with a wide range of media. You can add a lot of textures and variety to your art by mixing other media into the paint. Some of the possibilities include sand, rice or pasta. Or, when the acrylic dries, you can use other media, such as charcoal, pen, and pastels on top of the paint.







What colours do i need to start out?

With so many colours available, which ones should you buy when starting out?

We all know we can mix a rainbow of colours with red, blue and yellow, however most of us like to squeeze the colour we need directly from a tube. The colours listed below make up a good basic palette and you should be able to mix all the colours you need.


Cadmium Red - Cadmium red is a yellowish, warm red and relatively opaque.






Phthalo Blue -  is an intense, extremely versatile blue. It goes very dark when combined with burnt umber and, because of its high tinting strength, only a little needs be mixed with white to create a lighter blues. 


Cadmium Yellow -  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.


Titanium White -  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.






Mars Black -  A relatively opaque color and should be added to other colours 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).


Burnt Umber  - 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.


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


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 orange.






Purple - It’s worth buying a very dark purple as you can waste a lot of paint trying to mix one.


 Other Useful Colors

Paynes Grey - a versatile, transparent dark blue-gray made from a mixture of blue and black, often with some red.

Yellow or golden ochre - a glorious, golden, yellowish brown.


Titanium buff or raw titanium- a deep cream useful for mixing with burnt umber to create skin tones.






Pthalo who? Cadmium what?





Pthalo, Cadmium, Napthol, Titanium, and Dioxazine all refer to the pigment name that creates the colour.

Some artists don't use real cadmium colours because they are carcinogenic (and expensive).

Some of the brightest colours are made with cadmium, which is a poisonous heavy metal like mercury. If you use the real cadmium colours just remember not to eat your paint! If you're painting with children maybe the "hues" are the way to go.

If the bottle or tube colour reads Cadmium Yellow (hue) then its okay. That (hue) indicates that it is a paint made with a different pigment than the original, carcinogenic, version. It could also mean that the colour is made from an old colour that is no longer made anymore, or it is a more light fast version of the original.

It is a common misconception that you can't mix different brands of acrylics. Don't believe it! That was only true in the very earliest days back when acrylics were first introduced 50 years ago. The formulations used by the different manufacturers have all become so similar over the years that you can mix brands with impunity now. 

So go ahead and experiment, remember art should be fun!

Next week i will be talking about the differences in Acrylic Paints - Eg Heavy Body, Flow, Structure, Dimensions  etc

Below are links to our favourite acrylic paints




















Comments (2)


Thanks am Nelson Okorafor Ogbonnaya a painting artist, thanks for your help to Artist and art beginners as well

colour pallet

I am just a beginer what colours do I need for Australian desert painting? and how do I mix them.

Hi there, Thanks for commenting :) Learning to paint Australian landscapes will take some time and practice, and would be a very long response to cover - however, I would highly recommend checking out the Matisse Acrylic Paint range as they have some wonderful Australian Colours. The main thing to remember will be to use lots of neutral and also earthy colours. And perhaps it would be good to start with a very limited palette to challenge yourself to colour mix. We have some colour mixing wheels and other products which can assist figuring out which colour to combine in your mixes.

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