Beginner’s guide to mixing colors – Technique

color mixing

Mixing colors seems easy, but for the inexperienced artist it can still be a challenge. I have understood this, after many years of teaching. I will therefore describe how to mix colors. These are just a few simple tips for the beginner so that you do not make the same mistakes that I have seen others make.

Mix enough color

I think the most common mistake is that the paint runs out before everything that is to be painted with it is finished. Mix much more color than you assume is needed. I usually say that doubling the estimated amount of color may be enough. If you e.g. should paint a large wash and the paint runs out before it is finished then the painting may be ruined, you do not have time to mix new paint before the paint on the paper has dried. If you were to mix so much color so that there is a lot of color left over, it is probably possible to use what is left for something else later in the painting. Get in the habit of always mixing more color than you think is needed.

Mix darker than needed

It’s easier to see small differences in hue in a moderately dark color mix than in a light one. Therefore, it is better to mix the color too dark initially and then add water to create the right value. A dark mixture is easy to make light with the help of water, while a light color mixture cannot be made dark without redoing the entire mixing process. Get in the habit of mixing your colors darker than needed and dilute them with water as you need.

Take the correct color first

When you are going to mix two colors to create a new one, it is best to first take the color that will be most of the mix. An example: Blue and yellow turn green, if you are going to mix a light green color that consists mostly of yellow, it is best to first take the yellow color in a mixing cup and add a little blue to it. If you are going to do the opposite, mix a slightly cooler blue color with the help of a little yellow, then take the blue color to a mixing cup and add a little yellow in it.

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Blue first if the result should be bluish but yellow first if you want to achieve the opposite.

Rinse the brush

Some of my students have such dirty watercolor pans that they simply can not paint something that requires an unmixed color: no lemon, no clear summer sky and no red Volvo, But a blueberry or a muddy field probably works well. This is what happens if you do not rinse off your brush properly before applying a new paint. It should be simple: take some yellow paint, rinse the brush thoroughly and then take blue paint to mix green. But it works poorly for many in practice, many just rinse their brush with a simple dip in the water, but it takes more than just a dip to get rid of all the paint residue.

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If you rinse the brush thoroughly between the paints, you will not soil them as much
Zoom in on the yellow color after mixing is complete

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A dip with the brush in water is not enough
Imagine how dirty the yellow color becomes after 100 similar mixtures.

Fine tune your color mix

Usually I think that a mixture that is approximately correct is enough, probably the color will be mixed on the paper wet on wet with other colors so using an exact color mixture is not so important. But sometimes it may be important to get a mixture that is more precise, in which case it is not enough to mix the colors to be included, but a more precise approach is preferable. I often paint with only three colors and they are sometimes three primary colors, say there is a red brick house in the painting, it is not so easy to mix a brick color with red, yellow and blue, but it works. All three are included in brick, red and yellow to make orange and then a little blue to make the color unclear (brown). Everyone knows what a brick house looks like, it is not possible to use a color that is too orange, or one that is too yellow. So sometimes you should not just settle for your first result of a mix but keep mixing until the color is right.

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An example of brick color mixed with yellow, red and blue. (5:35)

Take a little at a time of your second color

Sometimes my students have problems with especially the intense pigments. Ftalo green and Quinacridone Rose are two intense colors that are sometimes included in my exercises. If these are to be mixed with each other to create gray, a problem sometimes arises: the student makes the mixture too green and then too red then too green again and so on in a never-ending vicious circle. This happens because the student takes way too much color with each new attempt. It reminds me of my friend who wanted to cut his own hair with scissors: a little too short on the left side, then we trim a little on the right, whoops, it became too much then we take off a little on the left side… it ended up with him having no hair left at all. After you have taken the first color to a mixing cup, add only a LITTLE of the second color, it is probably too little to achieve the color you want, then take a LITTLE more of the second color and continue until you have achieved the desired hue.

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Finally, the mixture is neutral

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