How to Mix Color: The Key Concept

Learning how to mix color is a matter of knowing the right steps; with practice, the process will become natural for you.

Having some knowledge of color theory is good, but in practice, when you pick up your paint brush, the theories do not help that much. Leaving abstract theories aside, I recommend that you read Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green: How to Mix the Color You Really Want- Every Time by Michael Wilcox.

I first learned about this book from my art mentor, but did not really grasp the concept until I started to paint in oil. And that experience really taught me a lot on how to mix a color.

Looking back, I could have made much better use of the zillion pastel colors I had at the time if I had known more about how to mix the color I wanted(I still had a lot of fun with all those juicy pastel colors though).

Here, then, are the steps to take on how to mix a color:


Identify The Three Properties of Colors: Hue, Value, and Intensity

You probably know there are three primary colors in nature that we can't mix from other colors; they are blue, red, and yellow. Taking all possible combinations of two primary colors, we get the secondary colors: orange, violet, and green. Placed on a color wheel, this gives you six colors evenly distributed around the circle.

With these six colors, you can mix another six colors, called “tertiary” colors, that fill in the spaces between all the primary colors and their neighboring secondary colors.

color wheel



Understanding the placement of the colors on the color wheel will help you to name any given color. The name of a color is called “hue”. In painting and drawing, artists name their colors as “red-violet,” “blue-green,” “yellow-green,” etc.

Do not confuse the commercial names of wall paint colors with “hue,” because they do not necessarily tell you much about the color and they are often misleading.

If you are not sure what your color is, try to place it on the color wheel and see if you can name it.

If your eyes get tired of staring at the same color, walk away and come back to it later.

Ready to mix your color? Not yet.

Once you have identified the hue, the next step is to determine the value of the color. Value means the relative darkness and lightness of the color.

gray scale for identifying values in colors



You have probably noticed the nine values given on the gray scale chart. Studies show that seven or so gradations in value and intensity are about the maximum that a human being can hold in memory. Often, in realistic paintings, you only need about five or six values.

I think that learning how to see values, is often more important than how to mix a color and see the color, especially in realistic paintings.

Why? Because it helps you model the form efficiently. After all, you are creating a three dimensional form on two dimensional surfaces.


Finding the Intensity of a Color

Next, you want to know what is the intensity of the color. Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a hue.

The term “dull” can be misleading. I think the word saturation is more accurate to describe the intensity of colors. Colors that come straight out from the tube are 'pure' and have more pigments in them than tainted colors.

You can lighten pure colors, or darken them, and you can dull them, but you can't make them brighter. Adding white to the color will only make it opaque and chalky; it does not make it intense.

Not all colors are equally intense when they come out of the tube. Some student grade colors remind me of neon signboard; not very pleasing to the eye.

It is very easy to dull or desaturate a color by adding its complementary color to it. You often hear artists speak of “graying down a color” and that is exactly what I mean here.

Depending on the relative amounts of each opposing color, you may end up having a beautiful “brown” color that a brown paint straight from the tube cannot equal. Or if you mix in just a tiny amount of complementary color, you could end up having a beautiful “grayed down” version of the original color—less intense but equally brilliant.

I have to admit that, even after many years of painting, I am still learning how to mix the colors. So be patient. As I said before, the process becomes more natural as you practice.

Mastering Color - click here for more info.
The Oil Paint Colour Wheel Book

Want to learn more about how to mix a color?

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