Premixing Your Paints: Pros and Cons

8 Dec 2013

C.W. Mundy - The Lilly Mansion
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 a plein air painter 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. Richard Schmid's Alla Prima II is the art resource for painters seeking serious instruction in representational painting, and the content lives up to the highest standard. Delving into the details of the methods and approaches most painters hunger to know about, Alla Prima II explores the artistic pursuits we want to know about with clear and concise demonstrations, thought-provoking information, and substantial insights. Investing in this book 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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Take a journey of self discovery as you learn to improve you painting skills by diving into important theories and technique. Discover the solutions to fixing errors in your painting without having to start from scratch. Learn from historical refrences in addition to the master and author Richard Schmid with Katie Swatland to help you through trials and improving your artwork.

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Comments

Kisu wrote
on 24 Jan 2011 7:41 AM

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.

goldbug64 wrote
on 24 Jan 2011 8:35 AM

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

on 24 Jan 2011 9:45 AM

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.

Cheers,

MikeB

on 24 Jan 2011 10:21 AM

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.

Cheers,

MikeB

Squagmire wrote
on 24 Jan 2011 10:53 AM

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.

gnu61 wrote
on 24 Jan 2011 11:10 AM

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

unikrut wrote
on 24 Jan 2011 12:32 PM

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.

on 24 Jan 2011 2:22 PM

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.  

on 24 Jan 2011 5:39 PM

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.  

Carmen

from Clinton, MD

gihan zohdy wrote
on 25 Jan 2011 4:38 AM

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

mafalda2 wrote
on 25 Jan 2011 5:41 AM

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.

abricot wrote
on 25 Jan 2011 10:21 AM

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.

on 25 Jan 2011 1:17 PM

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

srwartist wrote
on 25 Jan 2011 1:28 PM

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.

on 24 Feb 2011 2:49 PM

Courtney you keep winning me over.  I am a senior art coach and I complement you on your open mindedness and clearly stated ideas.

Thank you.

Gary Smith

www.escapewithgary.com

MarthaJ@3 wrote
on 25 Feb 2011 10:12 AM

Am I the only painter that paints in the directions that the initial paint strokes lead me? It's from vision but cataloging viewed objects.  

Stephen K wrote
on 23 Apr 2013 8:29 AM

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.

zaimesmd wrote
on 9 Dec 2013 8:52 AM

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

AndyMay wrote
on 9 Dec 2013 9:32 AM

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.  

Jodear wrote
on 9 Dec 2013 10:26 AM

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.

kristinsande wrote
on 9 Dec 2013 12:45 PM

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.

jonakns wrote
on 12 Dec 2013 3:10 PM

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?"

on 13 Dec 2013 9:14 PM

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