“Whenever I mix my own paint colors, I get brown!”
Sound familiar? This is the most common complaint from artists, and it can drive you to spend money on too many tubes of specialized colors you only use once or twice.
If this sounds like you, or if you just want some tips and tricks on how to mix paint colors and make your color mixing more fun and less expensive, then read on for a look at mixing paint colors.
- Why Should You Mix Your Own Colors?
- Color Mixing Tips and Tricks
- What Are The Different Mixing Strategies?
- Understanding Paint Characteristics
- Advanced Mixing Tips and How to Make Different Colors
- Materials Needed
- How to Mix Colors in Different Media
- Color Theory
- Color Palettes to Use
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Ready to Start Mixing?
Why Should You Mix Your Own Colors?
If you’ve tried to paint a field of grass, leaves on a tree, a portrait, or any other subject that you want to make look natural like it does in real life, then you’ve made some mistakes when mixing paint colors.
Why should artists put time and effort into something that is challenging and can be frustrating? Let’s find out!!
Advantages of Mixing Your Own Colors
- Become a better painter: If you practice mixing colors to match the subject’s color from life or a photo you are trying to paint, you will become a better painter. You will learn how different hues and color temperatures affect each other and their surrounding colors.
- Save money: Paint is expensive, and buying a tube for each object and lighting condition you might want to paint will add up.
- Your studio will be more organized: Artists like to have their supplies handy, and when you need 14 tubes of paint for one painting, your workspace can get cluttered.
Drawbacks of Mixing Your Own Colors
- It can be frustrating: You won’t likely get mixing paint colors perfect on your first attempt. Each time you paint a new subject, you will have to go through some trial and error as you mix paints.
- Wasted paint in the beginning: As you learn mixing paint colors to match specific settings or subject matter, you will make mistakes and waste paint.
- It takes longer: It is quicker to open a tube and start applying the “perfect” color to the canvas.
If you want more direct instruction about oil paint color mixing or other advanced art topics, consider this professional course, perfect for beginners.
However, if you are looking to get a quick and dirty overview of paint mixing, read on!
Color Mixing Tips and Tricks
In this section, we will look at some basics that will make the process of mixing colors easier and less frustrating.
How Much Should I Mix?
It pays to squeeze out and mix more than you think you will need when you are experimenting. Money you spend now pays for itself later when your mixing skills are on-point, and you get it right on the first try.
The last thing you want is to mix the perfect color and only have enough to paint half the face of your portrait.
If you have less paint to work with when color mixing, you will be less likely to experiment with multiple different mixtures until you get it “right.”
Ratios of One Color to Another
The most important factor for minimizing wasted paint when color mixing is understanding the Dark-into-Light rule. When mixing colors, always add tiny amounts of the darker color into bigger puddles of the lighter colors.
For example, if you are trying to mix green, make a puddle of cadmium yellow and add the tiniest dab of ultramarine blue into the cadmium yellow and mix. If you don’t get the green you are hoping for, add another dab of blue and so on until you get the color or value you want.
If you start with a puddle of blue and try adding yellow into the blue, you will use up more yellow to achieve the same green than you would by adding the blue into the same size puddle of yellow.
When mixing colors, it is helpful to consider all values (different shades and tints) of each color you are mixing.
For example, if you are mixing a specific red to paint an apple, mix enough of the base color of the apple (under regular lighting with neither highlights nor shadows), to be then able to add white for the highlights or shade the dark parts of the apple.
Be careful because tinting a color lighter or shading it darker can alter the color in temperature or hue (i.e., black contains a lot of the primary color blue and can turn some mixtures “green”) and can ruin your mix.
Color Matching is the process of mixing colors to result in a color that is the same as the object in real life or in your resource photograph. This is very important and could be an article all its own.
It is important to isolate the color you are trying to achieve by blocking out all other colors around it. You can do this by cutting a small hole, or window, in a piece of paper so when you place the paper over the photograph, only the color you want is visible.
You can learn more about this concept here.
Natural Mixes (Toning Down)
Our minds imagine colors brighter and more intense than they are in real life. Leaves and grass are rarely as “green” as our memory or imagination pictures them. Think of a pastoral field that has neon-green or bright yellow-green grass. That would look artificial, right?
However, you can tone down or dull the mix to make it appear more natural.
The most common technique is to add a tiny amount of complementary color. If you have neon-green grass, just add the tiniest dabs of red paint until you tone down the yellow-green and get a more natural-looking hue.
Toning down a mix can backfire and give you “mud.” Mud usually occurs when all three primary colors end up in a mixture in equal proportions.
There are times when you want browns, like to paint a tree or a wooden canoe.
But mud is a brown that looks and feels unnatural. This also can occur from over-mixing, which will be discussed in a moment.
Wet Color vs. Dry Color
As paints dry, many of them change in color and value. Some change a little, and some change a lot. The quality of the paint contributes to this effect, with higher quality paint retaining its hue better than cheap paint.
It is best to test a small square of paint and speed up the drying process with a hair drier or a fan before determining whether a mix is perfect for your painting.
What Are The Different Mixing Strategies?
There are different strategies for how and where to mix your colors. Such a choice depends on personal preference and the style of the painting.
Color Mixing on the Palette
The most common strategy is to mix colors on the palette. Mixing on the palette ensures you achieve the right color before applying it to the painting.
If you make a mistake, you can start over without having to take drastic measures to get an undesirable color off your canvas.
Mixing on the Canvas
Painters that desire a looser look choose to mix colors directly on the painting surface.
Alla Prima is a method that involves painting Wet into Wet or placing fresh wet paint on top of paint that has not dried yet. The look is more spontaneous and can give energy to a painting.
Painting En Plein Air is a category of Alla Prima painting that is done outdoors and involves mixing colors on the canvas.
A third, less used, strategy for mixing colors is not to mix them at all.
The Impressionists used this strategy frequently. Instead of mixing blue and yellow on the palette or painting a dab of blue paint onto wet yellow paint on the canvas, these painters would paint marks of blue next to marks of yellow on the canvas.
With this strategy, the eye optically mixes the two together to create the impression of green.
Understanding Paint Characteristics
To be able to anticipate problems and avoid wasted paint and time, it is important to learn how your paints are made and how they behave.
Some paints are more transparent, some are opaquer, and others fall somewhere in between. The mixed colors you buy will usually have symbols to indicate how transparent or opaque the hue is.
The square with a diagonal line separating half black and half white on the yellow ochre below shows this is neither fully opaque nor fully transparent.
Cheaper paints, like student grade, will sometimes be more transparent. Hues like Alizarin Crimson are more transparent than other hues in the same color family (in this instance, the primary color red), regardless of which brand you buy.
Pigment load refers to how strong the paint is and how much is needed to change the color of another color or white. Pigment load is determined by how much pure pigment powder is used in proportion to the medium it is mixed with and/or the particle size of the pigment powder.
You may find that one brand of paint requires more of the primary color blue to give you the green you are looking for than when mixing with a different brand of the same hue.
Advanced Mixing Tips and How to Make Different Colors
Now that you understand some of the basics of color mixing, let’s look at a few advanced concepts.
When practicing mixing colors, it is recommended to use the medium and amount of medium you will normally use in your painting. If you don’t use mediums in your paintings, then don’t add them when experimenting with color mixing.
Keep in mind some mediums cause the color of your paint to change over time as it dries and ages. Often, dark tones or darker hues, when wet, will change to a lighter hue as they dry.
For a variety of reasons, some artists never use black paint to create different shades or darken other colors. Even when the subject is “black” such as a black-top highway, mixing your own black gives the color and painting more vibrancy; tube black paint can “deaden” black mixtures.
In my artwork below, no black pigment was used. The black stripes and nose in the zebra are a mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Burnt Umber.
Mixing grays, or tones, can be fun and allow you to harmonize your paintings. If you have a painting of a warm, summer garden, you don’t want sterile or cool black to darken the shaded parts of the garden.
Grays can be achieved by mixing the primary colors, or combinations of primary and secondary colors (complementary colors). Consulting the color wheel is your best resource.
By learning how to mix warm and cool grays using different hues of complementary colors, you can make grays that fit the mood of the painting and make the subject matter feel alive!
Color Mixing Chart and Keeping Notes
To take advantage of the paint you use and the time you spend when experimenting with mixing colors, it is advisable to make a color mixing chart and take notes in a journal or your sketchbook.
As you mix colors, you will observe things that surprise you, so jot them down, take pictures, and make color charts
Mixing paint doesn’t require more than paint, a surface, and a stick, but there are some things to consider having to make the job easier.
For more information on painting supplies, check out this article on everything you need to get started painting.
As mentioned earlier, it is best to practice mixing with the same paint brands and colors you will use in your paintings. If you paint with student grade, practice with student grade. If you paint with expensive paint, practice with expensive paint.
Not all brands of the same hue will mix the same. Even hues of different grades made by the same brand will react differently. For example, Cadmium Red is often an Artist Grade hue that has a stronger tinting strength than Cadmium Red Hue, which is a Student Grade of the same hue.
Palettes can be simple, like an old dinner plate from a thrift store, or even some cardboard covered with foil. You do want to make sure your palette isn’t absorbent (paper plates or uncoated cardboard), as that will pull out some of the oil from your paint and change its characteristics.
There are commercial palettes that have different features to meet different artists’ specific needs, like a sealing lid to delay paint from drying out.
It is not recommended to mix paint with brushes, especially when experimenting, because the paint will become embedded in the bristles or hairs. Tiny bits of one color may contaminate your mixture, and some hues, such as phthalo blue or green, are incredibly strong.
Palette knives are a great solution, but metal ones clean easier than plastic knives.
You will need something to spread your paint on, away from the palette, to assess the mixture of colors where other colors won’t interfere with your perception of the color. This surface can be anything but should be primed so the colors and oil don’t soak into the surface and become dull.
Usually, artists will use old scraps of canvas, but you may want to use neat scraps if you plan to save the test mixtures like a color chart.
There are ways to save your paint and mixtures for later use and prevent them from drying out. From commercial palettes with sealable tubs to old film tubes or small glass jars with lids.
You can even cover your palette with plastic wrap and put it in the freezer to save it indefinitely!
How to Mix Colors in Different Media
While the tips and strategies provided above mostly apply to all paint types, there are a few considerations for each individual medium-type paint.
How to Mix Acrylic Paints
Acrylic paint is usually looser than oil paint but has a thicker consistency than watercolor or gouache. This acrylic paint consistency is important because when spreading the paint on the test surface, you may need to apply a few coats to prevent the color of the surface from influencing the resulting color.
If your test surface is white, then a mixture of acrylic paint applied with only one coat may appear lighter as the white of the canvas or paper will look “tinted” or as if white had been added.
If you use water to loosen your acrylic paint, even dark colors, like a dark blue, will appear lighter than when use full strength.
How to Mix Oil Paints
Unlike acrylic paint, most oil paints out of the tube are thick, they may need to be “loosened” by spreading them around with your palette knife or mixing tool. Some brands and hues are thicker than others, so while one color of your chosen palette may need loosening, others may not.
You may be tempted to use a medium like linseed oil to help loosen oil paints and make them easier to mix, but only do this if you use the medium in your regular painting as some mediums can change the look of your oil paints, especially as they dry and age.
How to Mix Watercolor Paints
Watercolor paints typically come in cakes, tubes, or liquid, and each has its own unique characteristics. However, each of these will be more transparent than other types of paint, such as oils. It is best to “mix” the paint during practice the way you normally work with it on finished paintings.
For example, if you layer your colors, say the primary colors blue and yellow, on the paper to get green, then that is how you should experiment. If, however, you mix your blue and yellow on a pallet to create green, and then apply that green to your paper, that is how you should experiment.
How to Mix Gouache Paints
Gouache is a semi-transparent, water-based paint that is somewhere between tube watercolor and acrylic. If this is your preferred medium, then you should experiment using considerations from both and take careful notes.
Color theory is a way to think about, organize, and apply color to your paintings. You can use color theory for strategies for mixing colors, like using complementary colors to tone down saturated colors.
To understand color theory, it is critical to get a color wheel and understand how primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors are made and work together when you mix paints.
The Basics of Color Theory and the Color Wheel
The color wheel is made up of 12 colors.
Primary color red, primary color blue, and primary color red are the three primary colors.
Secondary colors consist of the secondary color green, the secondary color orange, and secondary color purple.
Tertiary colors are created when one of the secondary colors is mixed with one of the primary colors. These tertiary colors are often referred to as something like “yellow-orange.”
For painting, the RYB (Primary Colors Red, Yellow, Blue), or Triadic color wheel is used. It will help you organize and compare warm and cool colors and understand the relationships of primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
The primary colors of paint are different from the primary colors of digital screens (RGB or Red, Green, Blue) and the primary colors of color printers (CMYK or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black).
Color Schemes, or harmonious colors, are different strategies that have emotional effects on the viewer. The colors you use together can influence the viewer in interpreting your painting as sad, happy, energetic, or other interpretations.
Understanding and using color theory effectively will elevate your paintings!
Color Palettes to Use
Some artists have different tubes of paint, or hues, for different subject matter. These differences can speed up the mixing time and help achieve a specific color that can be hard to achieve without a special tube color (Naples Yellow is common for getting realistic skin tones).
Most, but not all, palettes consist of one of each of the primary colors. Some include tubes of mixed colors for secondary colors and tertiary colors, while others prefer to mix their own.
Warm and Cool Primary Colors
The most common color palette is having a warm and cool of each of the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, plus white paint. Sometimes artists will add an umber or ochre to modify different shades or temperatures of their mixes, such as cool tones with a raw umber or a more neutral color tone with a yellow ochre.
Skin complexions come in a wide variety of colors and values depending on ethnicity, exposure to sun, and age. However, most portrait palettes don’t need bright yellows like lemon yellow (as yellow skin is sometimes an indication of illness) or bright blues. For this reason, yellow ochre or naples yellow are a common choice over something like a bright lemon yellow.
The secondary color green is useful for skin tones as it is a good foil, or contrast, to the pinks of many skin tones. Muted greens can be accomplished by using black or even raw umber.
Depending on whether you are painting pastoral fields or bright, flower gardens, your landscape palette will vary. For landscapes with minimal flowers, your focus will be on having more blues and yellows in warm and cool varieties to achieve a range of greens. Having a dynamic assortment of greens will make your landscapes look more realistic.
For flower gardens, most artists will have a greater variety of reds and blues which will allow for a wide range of purples and violets.
The old masters’ palette refers to colors used by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and other Renaissance-era painters and includes some colors that are no longer in production because of harmful minerals used to make them. Modern companies have developed synthetic ways to make approximations of these colors.
Heavy earth tones and muted primary colors of reds, blues, and yellows dominate this kind of palette.
The Zorn Palette is a limited palette that utilizes modern versions of Vermillion (red), Flake White, Ivory Black, and Yellow Ochre. Using a limited palette like this will build your color mixing skills and minimize the number of paint tubes you must buy.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Colors Can Make Other Colors?
The primary colors of red, blue, and yellow can’t be made from other colors. Painters must have at least one version of each of these to be able to mix paint and create secondary colors and tertiary colors.
To learn which colors make which, look at a color wheel to find the color you want to make (target color). Then look at the color on either side of the target color, and those two combined should make your target color.
What is the Best Way to Mix Colors?
The short answer is “whatever works for you.” The long answer is you should follow the tips provided in this article and practice and experiment A LOT. Keep good notes, and make a color mixing chart to keep track of your mixed colors and to refer to in the future. Take pictures to support your written notes.
What Should I Avoid When Mixing Colors?
Avoid overmixing your combinations because this can deaden or dull your colors, and avoid mixing more than three colors in most mixtures.
Also, avoid mixing complementary colors in equal proportions. Complementary colors will make mud if mixed equally. It is best to make one of the complementary colors dominant and the other subordinate.
Isn’t There a Formula for Mixing Colors?
As mentioned frequently throughout this article, colors or hues can vary a lot between brands and grades of paint. Yes, red and yellow make orange, but whether it is a warm or cool red and a warm or cool yellow will determine if your orange is bright, dull, yellowish orange, or brownish.
The point is, through experimentation, you will make your own formulas!!
Ready to Start Mixing?
If you have made it to the end of this article, congratulations! There is a lot of complicated information here, and you have the passion to learn about color mixing. This is the first step to getting the most out of your mixed colors.
If you are ready to learn more art concepts and techniques, there are several quality online art courses to help you advance to the next level.
Happy Color Mixing!