Learning to Mix Colors
  • By Ellen,Fountain
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If you bought the six basic tube colors I recommended in my Basic Supplies tip, this topic will help you learn to mix these six colors effectively. I recommend starting with a small number of colors and using and mixing those for a while to get completely familiar with what they can do; you can always add more colors to your palette as you get more experienced. Below are the six colors (with their alternates) that I recommend as starter colors. (WN) stands for Winsor & Newton Artists' watercolors, (GRA) stands for Grumbacher Academy watercolors. The first color listed is my first choice and are better quality paints overall, but because my viewers have asked for less expensive alternatives, I am including the Grumbacher Academy colors. However, please be aware that Golden Yellow and Vermilion Hue are not as lightfast as the Winsor & Newton alternates.

When choosing paints, please consult either Michael Wilcox's Guide to The Best Watercolor Paints, or Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints or (best guide) go online to www.handprint.com and look up the particular manufacturer's paint you are considering to compare pigments used, transparency, staining etc.
You cannot go by the common name (Sap Green, for example). You need to look for the pigment formulation (PGxx) so that you can compare one paint to another accurately.

Update: November 2004
I am now recommending Daniel Smith watercolors as an alternate choice for the basic six colors shown at left.

The Daniel Smith substitutes (left to right, top to bottom) are: ultramarine blue, hansa yellow light, quinacridone red, phthalo blue (gs), hansa yellow medium, and organic vermillion.

Most of you are familiar with the color wheel. It consists of the primary colors—red, yellow and blue, and the secondary colors—green, orange and purple(or violet).

Reds, oranges and yellows are warm colors; Greens, blues and purples are cool colors.

Part of the difficulty in mixing watercolor paints arises from the fact that there isn't a "hue neutral" tube color for each of the primaries–red, yellow and blue(represented by the circles on the diagram above). Some are close, but most have a color bias, or leaning, toward some other color.

The six tube colors I suggested for beginners consist of a warm and cool red, a warm and cool blue and a warm and cool yellow. These are represented by the swatches on the color wheels above.

Color mixing isn't complicated if you stop and think first about what color you want to end up with. For example, if you want a "pure" vibrant purple, mix it from a red and blue that both share or "lean toward" purple–permanent alizarin or thalo crimson and french ultramarine or ultramarine (permanent blue). If you want a less pure, less intense purple, use the orange-leaning red (bright red or vermilion hue) and the ultramarine blue. If you want a very greyed purple (hardly purple at all!) use the bright red or vermilion hue with the winsor blue or thalo blue.

This same theory applies to all your other hues. The purest, most intense mixtures come from combining two primary colors that lean toward (are "biased" toward) the same secondary color.

The more colors you mix together, the grayer (duller) and less pure your mixtures will become. Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (like red and green, for example) will also neutralize each other when mixed, and make a grayish, brownish color. Try always to mix the color you want using no more than three colors. Start with the lightest of the two colors, and add the darker one to it, a little at a time, until you get the result you want. Remember that watercolor dries lighter, so what you see in your palette should be a deeper, more saturated mix to compensate for this.




Above: French ultramarine or ultramarine blue mixed with permanent alizarin crimson or thalo crimson. These two colors both lean toward violet, so will give you the 'purest' purple mixtures.

Below: Thalo blue or Winsor blue [green shade] and bright red or vermilion hue. Because the blue leans toward green and the red leans toward yellow, both of these pigments have some yellow in them, so the mix won't make violet, but more of a gray color. This is, in fact, one of my favorite mixtures for making black (a very saturated wash) or gray (more water, less paint). You can make the gray warmer or cooler by adjusting the blue/red ratio.

Above: French ultramarine or ultramarine blue mixed with Winsor lemon. These two colors will give you good greens, but because the blue leans toward purple (has a little red in it), the greens aren't 'pure'.

Below: The thalo blue or Winsor blue [green shade] mixed with the Golden Yellow or Transparent Yellow results in good rich greens, but again, not the purest mix, because the yellow leans toward orange.

The purest greens would be from Winsor Blue [gs] or Thalo blue and Winsor lemon because they both lean toward green.

Above: Permanent alizarin crimson or thalo crimson mixed with Winsor yellow. These two colors give you the least pure, intense oranges because they lean toward completely different colors. If a quieter, duller orange is what you want, use these two pigments. 



Below: Scarlet lake or vermilion hue and golden yellow or transparent yellow make good clean oranges because both of these pigments lean toward orange.




Mixing more than two pigments, or mixing two pigments that are biased toward completely different colors will always result in more "neutralized" (less intense or pure) mixtures. These less intense mixtures can be wonderful colors, and you need to know how to mix them to play them off against brighter, purer colors.

In the example at the right, you can see that using duller, more neutral reds and blues around the brighter colors in the center (bottom, right) helps the bright colors stand out more than they do in the top right example, where the blue and red are used in their more pure, state.


  Mixing color is a matter of proportion. How much of each color that goes into the mix determines the outcome. Always start your mix with the lightest of the pigments you are using, and add the others to it. Some pigments are much more "powerful" (that is, they have greater tinting strength), and it will only take a very small amount of them to change another color. In the sample at the left, I'm making a brown. The swatches on top approximate the proportion of color that would go into the mix. In the first sample, much less blue is used because it is thalo blue, and has much greater tinting strength than ultramarine blue.

warm-cool, intensity sampleFinally, colors will look different if you mix them on your paper rather than in your palette. Some artists like to only mix their colors on the paper, not completely blending them together. Others like the control of color that mixing in the palette gives. Experiment with both methods to find the way that suits you. Whichever way you go, don't OVERMIX your pigments. Let them retain a bit of their individuality...even in mixtures.

The little sample at the left uses color temperature (warm to cool) to move us from one side of the building to the other, and from the warm reflected light from the ground to the cooler reflected light from the sky. It also shows how using neutralized colors (in the building, shadows and ground) can set off purer, brighter colors (the red flowers and bright green bushes).

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