6 Tips for Color Mixing

30 Mar 2014

An eloquent and unexpected use of color is often what divides beginning painters like me from the greats. But there are several basic rules of thumb that we can build on 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.

The Ninth Wave by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, oil painting, 1850.

The Ninth Wave by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, oil painting, 1850.
Adapted from an article by Stephen Doherty.

1. Start painting with just one or two colors so you understand how they differ in opacity, temperature, and tinting strength. Most instructors recommend their students start painting with a limited palette of colors so that 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 colors recommended in a magazine article, website, book, or DVD. 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 manufactures and retailers also offer recommendations and instruction on their websites. Sometimes the lists seem to duplicate each 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 very 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, they might prepare a midvalue 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.

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 that 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 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 the color possibilities in landscape painting, consider Dramatic Color in the Landscape as a resource that could assist you along the way. Enjoy!


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