How to Retain Color Intensity While Mixing Colors

how to retain color intensity

While mixing colors, especially oil colors, it can be challenging to retain color intensity (or saturation) and not end up with muddy or dull colors. On this page, I share several tips to help you preserve the intensity of your colors.

Color intensity hinges on how saturated the medium is with pigments. Obviously the colors straight out of the tube are pretty intense, but you usually don't want to use them on your canvas—they look garish and tacky, and they don't maintain color harmony.

  • Make sparing use of complementary colors to dull colors.

    If you really need to cut back on saturation, then use complementary colors sparingly. For example, if you want to keep your ultramarine blue really intense, but it will look out of place on your canvas next to the other colors, then use orange to dull it.

    Start with a tiny drop to begin with, and slowly add more as needed. If you add too much, then add more blue, or simply start all over again.

  • Use analogous colors to intensify

    All the color wheels on the market will show you what the analogous colors are- look for the two colors right next to your target color.

    For example, orange is flanked by red and yellow. So, you can add red to the orange to darken it without dulling it. If you add blue (the complementary color) to it, the orange pigment gets “canceled out” and you end up with a dulled orange.

  • Beware of using white and ivory black

    Using white to lighten a color or a black to darken a color is a surefire way to kill color intensity. White makes color mixtures chalky and cooler in temperature. Black obscures the color chroma and the color appears dreary and dark.

    For example, to retain the color intensity of a yellow, you can use another yellow or orange close in value to it.

    If you must use white to lighten it up, just add tiny increments. If the color gets chalky, add yellow into it again to revive the temperature.

    For dark colors, take ultramarine blue as an example. How do you make it more intense? I would add another blue or violet of similar value. I can also add a dark red such as alizarin crimson, since this pigment is a bluish red and does not contain the orange that would neutralize ultramarine blue.

  • Expand your color palette

    It is always best to start with three primary colors plus white on your palette when you learn to paint in any medium. If you add more before you are proficient in mixing colors, you will end up with a lot of colors that do not harmonize.

    As you gain experience, however, you will need to expand your palette. Like the French impressionist painter Claude Monet, I (and many other artists), use 2 reds, 2 yellows, and 2 blues plus white. By having another primary color of the same chroma, it is easier to harness color intensity in your paintings.

    Don't make the mistake of thinking that having a bunch of colors on your palette will automatically translate to better paintings. It is usually a recipe for disaster, especially if you are inexperienced.

  • Paint alla prima, or scumble

    When I learned to paint, I was taught to see every color in terms of the tones. Color intensity is usually downplayed in this approach. One drawback from this is that often I would get the tonal relationship correct, but the colors were disappointing. They lacked excitement.

    When you paint alla prima (in one session), try to get the color notes right from the start. In painting oils, adding paints wet in wet to correct a color mistake takes a lot of skill. So, to keep your colors intense, get the value right and the chroma correct and then leave it alone once it's on the canvas. The only way to correct it is by using analogous colors.

    Scumbling is an oil painting technique that enables a clean color layering. You also can use glazing to recapture the color intensity.

  • Keep your brushes clean all the time

    This little habit can be crucial for avoiding muddy colors. Use clean brushes for each different color. If it's not possible to have a separate brush for each color, then clean your brushes thoroughly before working with a different color. Nothing makes you so mad as when you try to dab on an intense red and then see a streak of mud leaching into it from your wet brush!

  • Go back and add that intense color at a later time

    Who said that masterpieces have to be finished in one session? When the color intensity does not seem to work the first time, set it aside and return when everything is dried. These sorts of things are easier to fix when the paint is dry. It is often worth waiting for the right moment to add that sparkle into your painting instead of slogging on trying to fix it until your colors are totally muddy.

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