Color mixing tips

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How to Mix Colors When Painting

Here, we are concerned not with the theory of color, but rather its practice: that is, how to combine pigments in order to obtain the required hues, or tints/shades of a particular hue. Even so, a knowledge of the color wheel, along with an understanding of the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors will make your color-mixing a lot easier, as will a grasp of complementary, warm and cool colors.

1. You Can’t Mix Primary Colors
When combining colors to obtain new hues, there are three basic colors that cannot be made by mixing other colors together. Known as primary colors, these are red, blue, and yellow.

2. What Happens If You Mix Primary colors?
If you combine two primary colors, you create something called a secondary color. For example, mixing red and blue produces purple; yellow and red makes orange; blue and yellow combined make green; red and blue make purple. The exact tint or shade of the secondary color you create depends on which red, blue, or yellow you use (light or dark), and the proportions used. If you mix three primary colors, you get black.

3. Which Specific Primary Hues Should I Mix?
It depends what secondary color you want and what tint or shade of that color you’re aiming to create. Mixing a deep cadmium yellow with red ocher produces a slightly different orange from that created with a titanium yellow. Basically, each differing pair of primary colors will produce a differing secondary.

4. Judging How Much of Each Primary color To Use
The exact proportion of (say) red-to-yellow you mix when creating orange will determine the exact type of orange you get. For instance, if you mix more red than yellow, you get a reddish orange; if you add more yellow than red, you get a yellowish orange. Play around with the colors you have and try out different combinations and proportions. Just remember to keep a record of your experiments!

5. Can I Buy Pr-mixed Reds, Blues and Yellows?
Yes. Nowadays you can buy a very wide range of primary reds, blues, and yellows, like: cobalt blue, Caribbean blue, cerulean blue, Prussian blue, and Sevres blue, among others. Types of red include Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Scarlet, Carmine, and Venetian Red, to name but a few; while Yellows include Cadmium Yellow, Naples Yellow, Lemon Yellow and yellow Ocher.

6: For The Brightest Colors Use Single Pigments
For the most intense, luminous results, use the minimum number of pigments. Ideally, make sure that the two color paints you are mixing are each made from one pigment only. If in doubt, check the label: most “Artist Quality” paints itemize the pigment(s) used.

7. How to Get Tertiary Colors?
Mixing a primary and a secondary color (like red + green) or two secondary colors (such as orange + green) produces something called a tertiary color. The latter, in particular, results in muddy colors – browns, greys and blacks. Tertiary colors like Blue-Purple, Yellow-Green, Green-Blue, Orange-Yellow, Red-Orange and Purple-Red are all created by combining a primary with a secondary color.

8: Always Add Dark to Light
When combining colors, remember that it requires only a small amount of a dark color to change a light color, but it needs a lot more of a light color to change a dark one. So, always add dark (eg. blue) to light (eg. white), not vice versa.

9. How Do You Get White or Black?
Although these two are used to lighten or darken colors, neither are used to “create” colors, so they are not usually included in color mixing theory. Most painters buy specific white or black paints, although it is possible to create the color black by combining red, blue and yellow (or cyan, magenta and yellow).

10: Always Add Opaque to Transparent
Similar to the situation when mixing dark and light, remember that only a small amount of opaque color is needed to change a transparent one. So make a point of adding opaque to transparent, not vice versa.

11: Mixing Complementary Colors
Each primary color – red, yellow, blue – has it’s own, exclusive, complementary color (its complete opposite in color theory terms), which sits opposite it on the color wheel. Thus blue and orange are complementary; as are red and green, purple and yellow. A primary’s complementary is made by mixing the other two primaries. However, take care when placing a primary color next to its complementary hue on a canvas. This is because their totally different wavelengths can cause problems for the eye and create optical distortion. On the other hand, placing complementary colors next to each other tends to make each other appear brighter and more intense.

12: Don’t Mix Color Too Thoroughly
When combining two colors on your artist palette, don’t mix them too completely. Don’t wait until you have a totally consistent blend result. You get a much better and more interesting effect by briefly mixing them, and then applying the mix to the canvas.

13: Mixing Warm and Colors
Each hue is considered to be either slightly “warm” or slightly “cool”. For instance, as a group, yellows and reds and considered to be warm colors, while blue is cool. Furthermore, within each color there are tints and shades which are warmer or cooler within its color group. So you can have a “warm” sky blue, or a cool lemon yellow, although yellows will typically remain warmer than blues. The point is, mixing two warm colors produces a warm secondary, while adding (say) a warm to a cool color yields a more neutral effect.

14: How to Create a Clean Green
To create a clean green color, add Phtalo Blue to Lemon Yellow. If you mix cold primaries together you will get a very brilliant green.

15: How to Create a Muddy Green
To create a muddy green color, add Ultramarine to Lemon Yellow or Warm Cadmium Yellow. If you mix hot primaries together you will generally get a ‘dirty’ color.

16: What’s the Best Palette For Making Clean Colors?
A good palette for creating clean colors might contain the following paints: Cadmium Red (yellow-shade red); Permanent Rose (blue-shade red); Phtalo Blue (green-shade blue); French Ultramarine (red-shade blue); Viridian (blue-shade green); Phtalo Green (yellow-shade green); Lemon Yellow (green-shade yellow); Cadmium Yellow (red-shade yellow).

17: Mixing Greys and Browns
The tertiary colors greys and browns contain all three primary colors. They are made by combining either all three primary colors, or alternatively a primary and secondary color – remember, secondary colors are composed of two primaries. To obtain the required tone, experiment by (say) mixing different combinations (and proportions) of the three primaries.

18: What’s the Quickest Way to Create a Brown?
Consult the color wheel and mix a primary color with its complementary. (Remember a primary’s complementary is made from a mixture of the other two primaries). For instance, add red to green, yellow to purple, or blue to orange. Each of these combinations produces a different brown.

19: How to Make an Earthy Brown?
To create an earthy brown, mix red and green colors.

20: What’s the Quickest Way to Create a Grey?
Mix orange with blue, then add white. You will need more blue than orange, but play around with white and see how much you need. Alternatively, mix blue with an earthy hue like raw umber or burnt sienna.

21: How to Make a Delicate Grey?
To create a delicate grey, add white to red-green mixtures.

22: How to Make a Warm Grey?
To create a warm grey, mix purple with yellow.

Tip 23: How to Tone Down Colors?
If a color seems too strident you can tone it down either with a complementary color or with an earth color. For example, you can tone down reds and greens with raw umber. Or, you can cool down a hot red with a little green. In comparison, adding black to a color tends to dull it.

24: How to Stop Tertiary Colors Becoming Muddy?
Basically, the more colors you mix, the greater the danger of producing a muddy result. So, if your brown or grey is getting muddy, scrap it and start over, rather than adding more color.

25: Use Pure Color For Maximum Chroma
For maximum chromaticity (colorfulness/brightness) it’s best to use a pure color rather than a mixed color. When two pigments are combined, their relative intensity declines. So, for example, if you want an intense green, use a single green pigment rather than mixing blue and green.

26: For Brightest Intensity Use Optical Color Mixing
Optical color mixing is regulated by our “perception” of color, rather than the mixture of colors on a palette. In other words, instead of mixing two colors then applying the mixture to the canvas, place the two unmixed single colors next to each other on the canvas and allow the viewer’s “eye” to do the mixing. The effect will be similar, except that when the eye mixes the colors the result is usually brighter. This technique of optical color-mixing (Divisionism) was exemplified in the Pointillism style of the Neo-Impressionist painters Georges Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Signac (1863-1935). See also: Italian Divisionism(c.1890-1907). A modern practitioner is the Irish Impressionist artist Arthur Maderson.

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27: Juxtaposing Certain Colors Increases Intensity
In order to make bright colors stand out more, place them next to neutral colors on the canvas. For example, a regular red will appear richer and more intense when placed alongside a grey hue. Similarly, a dark tone (eg. dark blue) will intensify if surrounded on the canvas by a light one (eg. lemon yellow).

28: Using Glazes For Optical Color Mixing
Glazing is another method of producing optical color mixes. For instance, by applying a blue glaze over a yellow ground, the green produced is much livelier than one produced by mixing yellow and blue pigments. This is because light enters the transparent film and is refracted from below, producing a rich, glowing effect.

29: Using the Counter change Technique /Chiaroscuro
Counter change is the method of placing light shapes against dark, and vice versa. This optical color mixing technique not only makes the lighter shapes stand out, it creates extra “movement” by leading the viewer’s eye from light to dark and back again. One of the greatest exponents of counter change was the Dutch Realist artist Jan Vermeer.

30: How To Create Depth and Space
Another optical color mixing technique is the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors. The point is, the eye perceives cool colors as being further away than warm ones. Thus, for example, placing warm earthy colors in the foreground of a landscape painting, and progressively cooler colors towards the horizon, causes the viewer’s eye to perceive greater depth in the canvas.

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