Premixing Your Paints: Pros and Cons

Sometimes it is helpful to set or premix your palette, so that colors you anticipate using will be ready and waiting for you. This is especially true if painting outdoors, as C.W. Mundy did in this work titled The Lilly Mansion, where light and weather conditions can change rapidly.
Sometimes it is helpful to set or premix your palette, so that colors you anticipate using will be ready and waiting for you. This is especially true if painting outdoors, as C.W. Mundy did in this work titled The Lilly Mansion, where light and weather conditions can change rapidly.

A lot of painters have strong opinions about whether or not it is helpful to premix colors on the palette or ‘set’ a palette before painting. I’m not talking about making your paints from scratch but rather about mixing a few colors, or even just one, after you’ve identified what the main colors in the work are going to be. Then, you don’t have to remix those colors during the painting process. For example, if you are painting a still life with green apples, at the onset you could mix a large quantity of the green you’ve decided to use so that you have it in reserve throughout the process. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other on this, but here are some of the pros and cons of premixing your colors:

PRO: It can be easier to maintain consistent values in the areas of the painting created with premixed colors because you’ll always be starting with the same hue and can concentrate predominately on lightening or darkening the color.

CON: Painting what you see is largely about admitting that colors change quickly and dramatically. Using premixed color may make it harder to address minute changes in light and color as they occur, especially if you are plein air painting or like to create landscape paintings from life.

PRO: You don’t have to scramble or go back to square one each time you run out of color. Premixing means you can stay focused on executing your vision, not on trying to re-create a color that you’ve run out of.

CON: Premixed colors can be a crutch of sorts. You may err on the side of sticking with the color you premixed rather than adapting to what you see in front of you.

Some artists prefer not to set their palette and instead mix each color as they go along, allowing for more immediacy in their work.
Some artists prefer not to set their palette and instead mix each color as they go along, allowing for more immediacy in their work.

Some artists feel very strongly about this subject, and others could care less. For me, it’s an interesting learning process to think through both sides of the issue. That’s one of the things I like best about Artist Daily—the myriad details, opinions, and points of view to consider. Taking it all in and being exposed to new views about traditional subjects and techniques makes me more informed in my own artistic pursuits—always a plus!

But I’m pleased to have so many accomplished artists and instructors to learn from as well. Without them, I know I would spend more of my time frustrated and off track rather than making strides and getting things to click. The Color Foundation video series with Stephen Quiller is the art resource for painters seeking serious instruction in landscape painting, and the video content lives up to the highest standard. Delving into the details of the methods and approaches most painters hunger to know about, these videos explore the artistic pursuits we want to know about with clear and concise instruction, thought-provoking information, and substantial insights. There’s even one on expanding your palette and the characteristics of pigments that actually inspired me to write this very article! Investing in this video series could mean the difference between tiresome trial and error and insightful, informed choices. I know which I prefer—what about you? And don’t forget to let me know where you stand on the premixing issue. Can’t wait to hear!

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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.   

28 thoughts on “Premixing Your Paints: Pros and Cons

  1. I was just wondering about this the other day, after about 6 months of mixing colors as I go when I paint. I think it’s probably most important for plein air painters to have at least some colors ready to go before they start. For me, I work in my studio and usually take a bout a week per oil painting, so I just mix as I paint, as needed. I guess time is a factor, because I don’t always know how long I’ll be able to work uninterrupted at each session and I don’t want the paint to sit on the palette any longer than absolutely necessary. Premixing might mean I have to walk away from it for a bit and there it sits. The water soluble oil painting medium I use accelerates the drying time of the oils, especially in the winter months, so I have to be mindful of that, too, when I mix colors.

  2. Courtney- I don’t think this works for watercolor or especially acrylics. Acrylics dry so fast, I think that this method would be a waste of paint. However, i’m pretty new to acrylics so maybe this is just my frustration talking! Thanks for all the wonderful tips. Patsy Heller

  3. Hi there,

    For me, it’s about getting the right colour groupings to capture how the light(s) is(are) rendering the subject & scene.

    I typically work with a high palette so, I want to select my base triad (RYB, etc) to match in hue and temperature to suit the subject / setting and to mix down to the proper dark grey. I’ll probably have two base triads: one for hot/neutral highlights and one for cooler shadows & “low-lights”.

    So, that gives you your base palette for that piece. If I need larger amounts of colours between those of the two groupings, then I want to add them to my palette so that I won’t be slowed down or distracted from capturing the flow and energy of the subject / setting. (For instance, I might want to use larger amounts of split complements.) If I can find a tube colour that fits in one of those two groups then I’ll use it to ensure the best saturation possible. If I don’t have it in a tube, then I’ll mix it, understanding that it cannot be as brilliant or intense as I would get from a tube (i.e. the mixture can only be muddier than a pure pigment).

    With all that background, it’s likely clear that I would tend to mix a larger amount of a base colour to ensure hue and temperature matching with the rest of the colours in the piece. I can easily push and pull the premixed extra base colours to suit local colour / temperature demands and, so, minimize the number of premixed colours required. For me, I find it easier to keep things cohesive this way and yet still minimize paint wastage.


  4. Per goldbug64’s comments, I am using oil w/ Liquin. So, I don’t have the super-speedy setting issue as w/ acylics.
    => Have you considered using a drying retarder to facilitate? If no & you still like the v. quick drying time of acrylics, I would suggest buying tube colours to fill in the gaps (i.e. matching what you would otherwise need to premix) and then have less paint on your palette at any given time. Obviously you would then adjust this wider array of base colours to satisfy local colour requirements.


  5. I mix as I go. This allows me to be more creative and not worrying about sticking to the colors I had in mind before I started the painting. It also keeps the paint fresh.

  6. Hi Courtney,
    My latest acrylic painting focal point is done with premixed colours – mainly because it is created by brush(most previous ones were with a knife), and because it was -really important for me to keep the values correct, since the subject is liquid and fabric; and it is being completed over a greater period of time. it has been extrememy helpful to not have to stop and mix, and just to concentrate on painting. I kept my colour premixes in small squeeze bottles. I would do this again for similar subjects with a brush technique, because with a knife I love the colours to stay fresh and unblended in most cases.
    thanks for this article
    Gill Knox

  7. I think it is important to have your paints on the palate mixed to the consistency that you like to paint with and perhaps a couple of greys, then the color you really need will mix very fast and easy as you are painting.

  8. I mix my oil colors as I go on my palette and on the canvas as well. And the con about sticking with the premixed color choices – I have colors in mind for a particular item, such as one color of blue for one part of the painting and an entirely different color of blue for another, so I don’t feel that I limit my choices. I am always mixing new colors as I go. I paint mostly in my studio and as others have stated, I don’t mix a very large amount because of the idea of not wasting them.

  9. Courtney,

    I sort of use both methods. I premixed the color I want, than when I run I just mix a new batch as I need it. It adds interests to my subject since the color I started out with is slightly different than the color I ended with.

    from Clinton, MD

  10. Hello Courtney,

    I eagerly pursue your essay every day. As I work in gouach, coloured pencil and dry pastel what I always do to avoid frustration is try premixing my palette in some abstract design before applying it to the final realist representation, and this with very satisfying results.

    Gihan Zohdy

  11. Have tried both options and, as an oil learner through many DVDs and art instruction magazines, found that I learn more about color by always working with a carefully pre-chosen limited palette (according to subject) then mixing as I go. Choosing the limited palette in itself is often a struggle…RIchard Schmid’s advice on determining color families has been invaluable. Also very helpful have been Artist’s Colour Solutions by Michael Wilcox and Richard Robinson’s Master Class in Color.

  12. I’m an oil painter. Months ago, I started to premix the colors I intend to use in a project before I start it. I definitely prefer this way to work because I won’t have to stop painting every 5 or 10 minutes to search the particular color. It’s already on my palette.

  13. I have gone both ways. I sometimes premix and most of the time do not. If I have a big chunk of time to work on a portrait or sitll life, I prefer to premix much of my paints. I have taken workshops with Daniel Greene and Frank Covino and feel that they go too far. I spent so much time premixing my whole palette, that I pretty much lost the impetus for my painting. I also found that it was quite a waste of paint.I would much rather premix and tube my paints according to John Sanden. I do however, find that premixing does speed up the painting time.
    Ann Basuino, San Francisco, CA

  14. I’ve worked both ways, and find I do best when I have my main colors premixed.
    It does several things: provides a base of color that I can work off of, to either warm up or cool down in temperature, or go lighter or darker from. Having the colors on my palette allows me to compare them to each other, before I apply them to my canvas. If the color relationships work out on the palette, they’ll work on the canvas. Also, having the paint ready to work with helps when working plein air, when speed is important to capturing fleeting light. Last, I think every painter has to know their own weakness. I know for me, that if I don’t have enough paint on my palette, instead of taking the time to mix more, I just get absorbed in the painting process & will paint with what I have only diluting it. I end up with thin washes instead of a rich impasto paint application.

  15. I think each and every work has its need for either method. I tend to work shorter periods and sometimes the frequency is interrupted, so pre-mixing isn’t warranted.

  16. Thank you for your most interesting column. I find pre-mixing is helpful in 2 situations. 1. If there is a lot of white (like a building) I’ll mix 5 valuesfrom white to almost black grey. 2. If color harmony is the key of the subject, I’ll mix the main background and foreground colors. The focal point I’ll let the light and it’s myriad changes as well as my mood dictate where I go.
    Jeanie Stumbo Zaimes

  17. I paint portraits in oils at a 2 1/2 hour workshop. I find it most helpful to premix some flesh colors that I can adjust as I go. Wish I did it all the time. Wish I toned the canvas all the time too.

  18. I love your articles, it gets me thinking, and I learn so much from all of the other artists. I rarely premix, I paint with watercolor and water media. I love to get into a painting and choose different hues according to the feel of the project. I work in a studio and mix a lot on the paper, and with washes. It may not be the best way, however I prefer some spontaneity as I work, with a plan of course.

  19. I mix as I go. I work with acrylics and as we all know they dry fast, unless you use a retarder, which I rarely do. Another reason I don’t like to make large batches of pre-mixed colors is because I don’t like to waste paint. It’s too expensive, lol. And finally, I always work in the studio, at my leisure, so I don’t have to worry about changes in light.

  20. I do premix colors, but only when working on a still life or recreating an image. I find it easier to control my color palette this way.
    When painting for portraits and Plein Air, I mix on the fly, as this seems to “Liven Up” the subject matter by making instant and exciting contrasts within a limited frame. I feel that using the same colors in different areas, just because you mixed it, can confuse the viewers eye. They are left to wonder, ” What exactly is the subject here,, where is the focal point?”

  21. It’s always a pleasure to read your entries, Courtney! Regarding palette pre-mixing, I feel (for myself) that it might take the adventure out of the painting, as one eventually settles into one’s own palette, and your color choices become second nature . . . and then there is the wastage issue – what to do with all that premixed paint??? It would seem wasteful to me, and I would fret about chemical changes with exposure, etc . . .

    Kei, A Faithful Reader

  22. Pastel and colored pencil artists use premixed pastel sticks and pencils to work with. I just started prefixing values of colors and have found it very helpful when painting plain-air.

  23. Hi all!

    I think this is more about the technique in which the painting is being carried out, than about an either/or.

    I paint by glazing over a grisaille. I therefore prefer to mix the hue and tones as needed.

    People who paint a la prima naturally use a much larger pallete and therefore need most of their basic colors premixed in oreder to control hue and value.

    Impressionists also prefer to premix their colors where realists mix to precision as the colors change.

    What is most important is patience and perseverance to discover what works best for one’s techniques, and that can only happen with much practice.

    Happy painting! Live long!

  24. I find that mixing flesh colors in advance when I’m painting a portrait in a workshop (that only gives me 100 min. to complete a portrait) makes it easier and faster. I add to the mixtures as I go, but it saves so much time doing it this way. Wish I did it every time as well as prepping the canvas with an under painting color.

  25. I use acrylics so premixing colors is rare for me.
    What I do premix are my basic flesh colors. I use small Gladware cups. And spray them regularly with water mixed with small amounts of ammonia.
    I also premix some of my preferred ground colors.
    Stephen Moscowitz