It seems, from reading the occasional email that people send to me and looking over posts at internet art fora, that quite a number of less experienced painters have trouble learning the basics of color mixing. They often complain about mixing “mud” or feeling like the just don’t have any control over the mixing process.
That’s not too surprising, because color mixing is kind of complex. I have a whole article on the subject, but it’s pretty long and not really something a new painter is going to be able to digest easily. So here I’ll try something a little different. This article is about how to start learning how to mix paint. It’s for people just starting to paint and people who may have learned some other aspects of painting, but find mixing paint to be an exercise in frustration.
- Practice. Lots of artists have learned how to mix paint without any clue about color theory, through simple perseverance. Keep painting and over time you’ll get better at mixing.
- Simplify. Cut down on the number of paints on your palette. Try two or three. That won’t let you mix any color you want, but that’s a good thing. Until you can control three or four colors, it won’t help to squeeze out 20 colors that you don’t know what to do with. (And by the way, many of the greatest old master paintings were done with six or seven pigments. Total.) Only add colors to your palette after you’ve learned to control those that are already there.
- Simplify some more. As a beginner, you will learn more by spending five hours painting five small simple paintings than by spending five hours mucking around with one big complicated painting. Don’t try to make the kinds of paintings you want to be doing a year from now, make small paintings of just one or two things. No portraits.
- Throw away reference photos and work only from life. It’s hard enough learning to mix the right value, chroma, and hue without the distortions introduced by photos. Later on, once you really know what you’re doing, you may be able to paint convincingly from photos. I’m still pretty bad at that, myself.
- Learn to see color. Any color has three properties: value (lightness or darkness), chroma (intensity), and hue (where the color falls on the color wheel). Always think about colors in terms of those three properties. If you don’t know what color something is, you can’t mix a color that matches it. Value is most important, then chroma, then hue (that’s not an aesthetic opinion, it’s how your brain prioritizes color information). If you’re having trouble mixing the right color, stop chasing the hue. Get the value right, then the chroma. It’s OK for now if the hue is only approximately correct.
- Avoid pretty colors. Go for dull earth colors. Pretty, high-chroma colors are harder to control. You want to start with easy colors, then work you way up to the powerful ones. Especially avoid pthalo colors and other modern high-intensity organic pigments.
- Before you start a painting, you should know what the color scheme is going to be. It’s a great idea to do a very small, very loose color sketch beforehand. Only paint the big masses and don’t try to make a pretty color study. Don’t blend—just paint flat areas of color. Ted Seth Jacobs calls these “poster studies.” They make the final painting much easier, because once you’ve done the study, you know how to mix 90% of the colors you are going to use in the final painting.
- Mix slowly and deliberately. Much of the time spent painting is observation, thinking, and mixing. Application is a small portion of the time you spend painting.
- Figure out what color you want and have a plan for how to get it. If you have no idea how to mix a color, then stop working on your painting and figure out how to get an approximation of the desired color. Again, if you can’t get it exactly right, go for the right value.
- As soon as the mix goes wrong (turns to “mud,” becomes something you never expected, etc.) then scrape it off your palette. Think again, then start over. Don’t keep chasing the color.
- Learn what the paints on your palette do. If you don’t have a good idea what color you will get when you mix two of your paints together, you aren’t ready to make a painting. Practice mixtures until you understand your paints.
- Mix with a palette knife, not a brush. Keep your paint piles uncontaminated.
- Add small amounts of paint at a time.
- Most of the world is lower in chroma than the paints that come out of your paint tubes. Get used to adjusting the chroma downward unless you have a specific need for high chroma in a particular passage. Fortunately, when you mix two paints together, the result is usually lower in chroma.
- Don’t be afraid of strong value contrasts. Let your darkest dark be very dark and your lightest light be very light. A strong contrast of values allows strong modeling and convincing depiction of dimensionality.
I could go on and on, but I’m trying to keep this very simple. Perhaps later I’ll post some more suggestions.