Artist and founder of Winged Canvas, Fei Lu, shares her best tips on colour mixing!
Mixing paint colours can be intimidating to new artists. You might not know how much of each colour to add or which ones you need. But, mixing paint can actually be loads of fun — almost like magic! Here are our top 10 tips that will help you master colour mixing in any medium — from oil paints, acrylics, gouache to watercolour. Interested in videos about colour? Visit our All About Colour playlist!
1 - Use LESS Colours!
Nearly every colour you need can be mixed with primary colours because, well, they’re primaries! If you look at the colour wheel, you’ll notice that from yellow, red, and blue, all other colours can be made. Don't fall for marketing gimmicks that sell you a set of 48 colours in small tubes! Chances are you won't use most of the colours (especially the greens) and you’ll run out of white and yellow in a blink. Instead, buy a BIG tube of white, small tube of black, and stock up on your primary colours.These can come in a handy set and are labelled primary red, primary yellow, primary blue. Learning how to mix colours from a limited set of primaries is the best way to free yourself from being a paint-by-numbers artist to a master of colour!
2 - Know Your Strong and Weak Colours
Generally, darker colours are stronger, and lighter colours are weaker. This means that colours like black and blue can become overpowering even if you only use a small amount, but colours like yellow and white need a lot to make an impact, and can get easily contaminated. When I put out my paints, I’ll usually keep the lighter colours away from the darker colours to avoid contamination, and take out more white than all other pigments. The quality of the paint will also affect this, since better quality paints have more pigment and less filler, so be aware when you’re mixing different brands of paint. Always START mixing starting with your weaker colour and then add your stronger colour because you'll likely need a lot less — which brings us to our next tip!
3 - Start With Light Colours
When mixing a colour, start with the lightest or weakest colour, then slowly add in the darker or stronger colours. For example, if you are mixing green, it may be 95% yellow and 5% blue (not 50/50), so begin with a large amount of yellow and slowly add in small amounts of blue until you reach your preferred hue. If you start with blue, you may need to use A LOT of yellow to bring it to your preferred green, since yellow is weaker. By starting with light colours, you’ll make sure you don’t make too much or too little paint!
4 - Opposite/Complementary Colour Mixing
Adding a colour that is opposite on the colour wheel (known as mixing complementary colours together) will DULL a colour. If you are using blue, but want it to become more neutral or even to become a shade of brown, add orange to it. You can do the same with red and green, or purple and yellow. This is very useful if you feel like some of your colours are too vibrant or unnatural.
5 - Warm Up or Cool Down Colours
We were always taught that adding white will tint a colour and adding black will turn it into a shade. However, this process will also shift the colour because adding black or white to a colour will COOL it down, giving it a bluish tint. You may notice that adding white to red may look more purple than pink. To warm it up, add a touch of bright yellow to whichever colour feels too cool after being mixed with white or black. You may notice that mixing white and black will make a very cool grey, whereas mixing white with burnt umber (a dark brown) will make a warm grey because the white cools it just enough.
6 - Don’t Over-Dilute Your Colours!
Avoid diluting acrylic paints or water soluble oils with too much water. The same goes for adding solvents to oil paint to thin it out. This may cause the pigment to clump or not stick to the canvas properly. Solvents and water are for cleaning brushes or tinting / toning the canvas and underpainting, not for thinning out your paints! Instead, use mediums to thin out the paint but preserve the elasticity. This would be matte / gloss medium for acrylics and linseed oil for oil paints. Watercolour and gouache is only the exception, since they are designed to be thinned out with water!
7 - Practice Mixing with Middle Grey
MIDDLE grey (also known as 50% grey) is only VISUALLY 50%, but it's actually more like 90% white and 10% black (maybe even less) since black is a much stronger colour. Middle grey is helpful for you to reference back to while you’re painting, since it shows you what your midtones should look like. I like to use a type of palette called Grey Matters that’s middle grey in tone because it helps me group my values better.
8 - Use A Grey Palette
Mixing colours on a 50% grey palette will help you judge their values better than mixing on white. This is because white is on one extreme of the value scale, and rarely appears naturally. Most paintings will only use it as an accent or for extreme highlights. Mixing colours without being aware of their values is one of the biggest mistakes that can alter your painting’s potential. The grey surface will help you see the true colour you’re working with and how it will tie into a completed painting.
An even better hack than having a 50% grey palette is to have a 5 or 7 step grayscale underneath! You can mix your paint on a piece of glass or acetate on top of a grayscale so that you can compare your colours to it. Glass palettes are great, but can be heavy, so I prefer to use a type of disposable paper palette called Grey Matters.
9 - Keep Your Palette Organized!
Mixing similar colours NEXT to each other on your palette is the best way to see how they will look next to each other on your painting. I recommend putting all of your colours on one side, with white and black at the ends to avoid contamination. The colours should be organized based on value and hue — think of a rainbow! I begin with white, yellow, red, blue, and lastly, black.
10 - Expand your Palette With a Warm and Cool Variation of Each Primary Colour
Although we’re sticking to primary colours for mixing, there are a variety of reds, blues, and yellows that you can use, so which ones should you pick? If you’re a more experienced painter, it’s best if you plan to use two to three types of each primary colour, one cooler, one warmer, and one neutral / earth tone, so that you can mix the perfect tones for your painting. For example, if you’re using blue, we recommend getting two types of blues: PHTHALO Blue (closer to green) and ULTRAMARINE Blue (closer to purple). This allows you to mix brighter purples (Ultramarine + Magenta) and brighter greens (Phthalo Blue + Yellow).
Recommended Paint Colours:
Simple Palette for Beginners 😃
Robust Palette for Advanced Painters 🤓
White (Titanium white is the most opaque)
Reds: Cadmium Red Hue (warm), Alizarin Crimson (cool & transparent), Pure Magenta (primary, for bright purples)
Yellows: Lemon Yellow (primary), Yellow Ochre (earth tone), Indian Yellow (transparent, for glazing)
Blues: Ultramarine Blue (closer to purple), Phthalo Blue (closer to green)
Browns: Burnt Umber (dark brown), Burnt Sienna (a red brown perfect for skin tones)
Black (any kind)
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If you’re a teacher looking for classroom content centered around colour, visit these quick and easy resources! Colour Wheel 101 Guide (Elements of Art) Handout Colour - Elements of Art Bundle If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art, principles of design, art history, and more!