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Color mixing for beginners

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.

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Posted in art technique, color, painting.

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10 Responses

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  1. Andrea says

    excel­lent post. good reading.

  2. Matthew says

    One of my first leaps for­ward hap­pened when I finally stopped using the cheap­est paints. Much sim­pler mix­ing when a pig­ment doesn’t unex­pect­edly shift.

  3. David says

    Matthew—I have often advo­cated buy­ing fewer tubes of very good paints. I’m glad you’ve had good results with that approach.

  4. David says


    One thing I might want to point out. Your com­ment, while per­fectly appro­pri­ate, looks a lot like the kinds of innocu­ous com­ments that link spam­mers leave on blogs. I had to go look at your link to see that you were legit­i­mately com­ment­ing on my post.

    That makes for an unfor­tu­nate com­men­tary on how para­noid we all have to be in this cur­rent age of spam.

  5. Andrea says

    Apolo­gies David, I see your point. I have not heard of ‘link spam­mers’ before and shall in future refrain from innocu­ous comments…!

  6. David says


    No rea­son to apol­o­gize; there was noth­ing wrong with your post and the sen­ti­ment is appreciated.

    Unfor­tu­nately, I get hun­dreds of posts that say things like, “Great post! That gives me a lot to think about.” These are designed to look generic yet legit­i­mate, but include a link to a site the spam­mer wants to pro­mote. Since search engines rate sites on the basis of how many sites link to them, if they can leave com­ments like that on a few thou­sand blogs, they accom­plish their goals.

  7. Andrea says

    Ah ha, now I under­stand ‘link spamming’!

    To add a more fleshed out com­ment to the topic in hand, when I reduced my palette down to just 3 colours, I found mix­ing colour wheels very use­ful to learn the prop­er­ties and poten­tial of the palette. I used to use just three colours: cad­mium yel­low, ultra­ma­rine blue and rose mad­der with tita­nium white for tint­ing, Art Spec­trum artists qual­ity. That was fine while I lived in Aus­tralia, but after migrat­ing to Japan I had to add a few more yel­lows and cobalt blue to cope with the Japan­ese foliage. But really the pri­maries are enough, it makes buy­ing paint more afford­able and eas­ier too.

  8. David says


    Just to add to the irony, one of the anti-spam pro­grams pro­tect­ing this blog (Akismet) put your com­ment into the mod­er­a­tion list—saying, in effect, “this looks like it might be spam.” I have no idea why it would do that, since the com­ment doesn’t look any­thing like spam to me.

    Thanks for the thought­ful com­ment, and please don’t give up on com­ment­ing because of issues with spam. That’s my problem—one that I per­haps should not have even brought up—not yours.

    In any event, if your color mix­ing strat­egy works for you, that’s great. While I don’t use a “three pri­mary” approach myself, it has many adher­ents. As you note, it can work well so long as you don’t need a wide range of spe­cific hues at high chro­mas. In gen­eral, any strat­egy that sim­pli­fies color mix­ing while allow­ing you to get the col­ors you need is a good thing.

  9. Rhonda says

    So glad that I stum­bled across your site! I have dab­bled with paint for sev­eral years; water-color, acrylic and oils, but am now get­ting seri­ous about work­ing in oils. Your arti­cle on color mix­ing for begin­ners made me aware that alas — after all these years I am just a begin­ner! A real eye-opener, which I needed, thanks! I have been paint­ing too large of can­vases with too many col­ors. Going back to the basics. Hope­fully I won’t have to stay there too long!
    What are your thoughts on grisailles?

  10. David says


    I’m glad you found the post use­ful. Good luck.

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