Are You Mixing Your Colors Right?

Selecting and Mixing Color

An eloquent and unexpected use of color is often what divides beginning painters like me from the greats. But we can build on several basic rules of thumb to propel ourselves and our paintings onto higher, more sophisticated ground, artistically speaking.

With practice and attention, one of the most challenging aspects of painting — selecting and mixing colors — can become a rewarding one, too. Here’s how.

Dans la crainte by Edwin Austin Abbey | Color Mixing | Artist Daily
Dans la crainte by Edwin Austin Abbey. *Post is adapted from an article by Stephen Doherty.

1. Start painting with just one or two colors

When you start off with just a few colors in your arsenal, you understand how they differ in opacity, temperature and tinting strength. Most instructors recommend students start painting with a limited palette of colors so they become familiar with those, before tackling 20 to 30 more tube colors.

The experience helps us remember whether the colors are warm or cool, transparent or opaque, slow drying or fast drying, etc.

2. Use a palette of recommended colors

Check out magazine articles, websites, books or even art DVDs/videos for palette recommendations. Many art-instruction articles list the specific colors the featured artist works with. Most art instruction books and DVDs offer similar information. And, a few paint manufacturers and retailers also offer recommendations and instruction on their websites.

Sometimes the lists seem to duplicate one other. But if you look carefully, you’ll note that some artists depend heavily on earth colors, whereas others eliminate them from their palettes.

There are specific reasons why one artist will use titanium white and another will rely on lead white; and why a plein air painter chooses to use heavier, more opaque colors when painting outdoors and a completely different palette in the studio. You may find it helpful to use what is already working for another artist before you buy expensive paints.

3. Intermix colors to achieve harmony

Many painters pre-mix one or two colors that will dominate their pictures. And then, they adjust those colors to paint smaller shapes, knowing that this is more apt to be a harmonious relationship between the various combinations.

For example, artists might prepare a mid-value flesh tone and then make portions of it lighter, darker, warmer or cooler as they develop a portrait. Similarly, they might mix one dominant color to paint the largest area of a river or stream, then intermix other colors to enrich the representation of the water.

Color Mixing Tips | Color Tips | Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky | Oil Painting | Artist Daily
The Ninth Wave by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, oil painting, 1850.

4. Pre-mix all the basic colors you’ll need

Consider pre-mixing a full range of colors and values. Many artists feel strongly that they can work faster and more accurately if they pre-mix a full palette of colors before beginning to paint on canvas.

This is especially the case with portrait painters who know their clients will only give them a limited amount of time to paint. But it is equally true of landscape and still life painters who work from life and want to be fully prepared to make the best use of their time.

5. Note the difference between mixing colors on a palette and on the surface of the painting

It is generally true colors become more dull and muddy if they are overworked on the surface of a painting. So, most artists try to mix the correct color and value on their palette and apply it directly to the paper or canvas in one stroke.

However, there are times when it does make sense to blend fresh strokes of paint into the wet surface of the developing painting to achieve greater subtlety and harmony. The key is to recognize the differences between mixtures created on the palette and those blended into the wet surface of the painting, and to use that knowledge in appropriate ways.

6. Write down the names of the tube colors that prove to be effective

Some artists make a point of writing down the color combinations they’ve used so they can repeat them. This is especially true if one is doing sketches that might become the basis of large studio paintings.

As you continue on your path of artistry, keep these simple ideas in mind as a way to strengthen your confidence with mixing color, or use them as an exercise in refreshing your color palette if you feel it is getting stale.

And, if you are interested in all color possibilities in painting, consider streaming Basic Color Mixing Techniques with Mark Menendez on ArtistsNetwork.tv. It’s a resource that can definitely assist you along the way as you experiment with mixing color.

Enjoy a preview trailer of this video trailer, below!

Do you have any tips and tricks for mixing color not included on this list? Share them with us in the comments!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

One thought on “Are You Mixing Your Colors Right?

  1. To get the exact color, try to make sure to use the same brand of colors all the time. If not you would have to try and compare first before you start painting.

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