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Color and color mixing

This arti­cle pulls together a series of blog posts I did on color and color mix­ing. The topic is exten­sive, so I thought I’d try to put it on one place and make it as coher­ent as I could.


Many artists seem to spend some time learn­ing about color, then kind of get lost. It’s a tough sub­ject to get your brain around. You see some ver­sion of a color wheel, learn a bit about how col­ors on oppo­site sides of the wheel (com­ple­men­tary col­ors) are sup­posed to behave, and so on. Then you start to try to mix paints, and you real­ize that there is a lot of impor­tant stuff that con­ven­tional color the­ory doesn’t han­dle very well. It’s con­fus­ing, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not you. Col­ors shift all over the place when mixed together, in ways that the color wheel doesn’t pre­dict. Some col­ors seem to have two or more mix­ing com­ple­ments. Other col­ors, that should the­o­ret­i­cally be com­ple­men­tary, don’t mix to make a neu­tral. White and black cause col­ors to become chalky or dull, so how do you make col­ors darker or lighter? How the exactly does brown fit in? The out­side of the color wheel has some light col­ors and some dark colors—what’s with that? Sec­ondary col­ors don’t seem very sec­ondary. How exactly do you make a dark yel­low? Do the pri­maries, sec­on­daries, and com­ple­ments reflect some under­ly­ing prop­erty of color vision, or is that just an arbi­trary convention?

Inad­e­qua­cies of most color the­ory for artists

Color the­ory, as found in most art books and art classes, doesn’t actu­ally help a work­ing painter all that much. You may find that when­ever you try to mix a spe­cific color, you get “mud.” You might cope by just get­ting a lot of tubes of paint so that you rarely have to do much mix­ing. Seek­ing clar­ity, you might buy a book like ‘Blue and Yel­low Don’t Make Green,” which promises a new approach to color, but is based on con­cepts invented in the 1700’s. (And writ­ten in an irri­tat­ing, repet­i­tive, pre­ten­tious, repet­i­tive, finicky, repet­i­tive style. By a guy who doesn’t know. How to con­struct gram­mat­i­cal sen­tences. But I digress.) Or you find some­thing like the Mun­sell color sys­tem, which does a good job describ­ing color, but doesn’t show how to mix those col­ors after you iden­tify them.

Read­ing books and look­ing around on the inter­net gets you a lit­tle closer, but mostly, by trial and error, you just fig­ure out what works, using a small sub­set of avail­able pig­ments. You mem­o­rize some use­ful mix­ing recipes. A lot of the time, you muck around with paint until you get some­thing that looks about right. If you delve more deeply, you find that the sub­ject of color is incred­i­bly com­plex, because it requires rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the physics of light wth the messy, non-linear neu­roanatomy of the human retina, optic nerves, and visual cor­tex. Most of what’s writ­ten about color is not for painters, and most of what’s writ­ten for painters is by peo­ple who’ve learned to mix paint, but don’t actu­ally under­stand color that well. One excel­lent resource is the Hand­print web site, where the author, Bruce MacEvoy, has done incred­i­ble amounts of read­ing, research, and test­ing with water­color paints. But the stuff he has on color goes on and on, and on and on, so it’s hard to find the real prac­ti­cal stuff (it’s there, and it’s worth look­ing for, but oy!).

So, while I don’t pre­tend to have a really thor­ough under­stand­ing of color as it per­tains to paint­ing, I thought I’d try to boil down what I do think I have a clue about. It’s a lit­tle eas­ier for me, since when I was in grad­u­ate school I did a bunch of work with the psy­chol­ogy of visual per­cep­tion (I’m even pub­lished in the field). I will not, how­ever, sub­ject you to com­plex equa­tions, the details of oppo­nent process color vision the­ory, or tech­ni­cal color space spec­i­fi­ca­tions that are designed to meet the needs of the print, com­puter mon­i­tor, and motion pic­ture indus­tries (you’re wel­come). I’ll try to stick with what you need to know in order to describe and mix colors.

Yes, the color wheel does suck

To start out, we need to dump the stan­dard color wheel. It was a use­ful inno­va­tion back in Isaac Newton’s time, but we’ve moved on since then. The biggest prob­lem with it as a tool for painters is that it’s try­ing to do two dif­fer­ent things at the same time, and it does both of them poorly. First, it tries to pro­vide a model of human color vision, includ­ing how the eye processes com­ple­men­tary colors—whatever those are. But when you test how actual vision works, you find that the color wheel is a ter­ri­ble model of color vision and that much more accu­rate mod­els have existed for well over a cen­tury.
Sec­ond, it tries to pro­vide a guide to color mix­ing. It does that quite badly as well, because real color mix­tures don’t fit the stan­dard color wheel model in any coher­ent way.

It’s become appar­ent to me that we must divide the topic of color for painters into two: (1) a way to describe color as it is found in the nat­ural world and as the eye per­ceives it; and (2) a way to con­cep­tu­al­ize how to mix desired col­ors using par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tions of paints. There is no sys­tem that does both of those tasks, so let’s just dis­pense with the stan­dard color wheel and start over with two sep­a­rate (albeit related) topics.

Describ­ing color with Munsell

Although we often still see the stan­dard three-primary color wheel in books about paint­ing and color mix­ing, as a prac­ti­cal tool it went out of date in the late 19th cen­tury, when guys like Ogden Rood demon­strated that it pretty much stinks for describ­ing color accu­rately. There is noth­ing in the way humans per­ceive light to sup­port the idea of three unmix­able pri­mary col­ors (red, yel­low, blue), each of which is com­ple­men­tary to a spe­cific mix­able sec­ondary color (red and green, yel­low and vio­let, blue and orange).

In fact, it is more rea­son­able to say that there are no spe­cial pri­mary col­ors at all, whether the tra­di­tional artist’s pri­maries (red, yel­low, blue), the printer’s pri­maries (cyan, magenta, yel­low), or any­thing else. A num­ber of more accu­rate ways of describ­ing color have been devel­oped. Many of them are designed pri­mar­ily to sup­port the needs of the print indus­try, the dye indus­try, man­u­fac­tur­ers of video equip­ment, and other com­mer­cial ven­tures. They are need­lessly com­plex for our purposes.

The best sys­tem that is com­pre­hen­sive enough, but not too com­plex to be eas­ily under­stood, is the Mun­sell color sys­tem. It was first devel­oped in the early part of the 20th cen­tury and has been updated a few times since then, although the orig­i­nal struc­ture remains. Any such sys­tem rep­re­sents a series of com­pro­mises, so there are ways in which Mun­sell is imper­fect, but over­all it suits our pur­poses bet­ter than any other that I am aware of. Rather than a color wheel, Mun­sell is built around a three-dimensional color space. This space takes the shape of an irreg­u­lar cylin­der. Mun­sell uses three prop­er­ties of color: value, hue, and chroma. A good sum­mary of Mun­sell is found in this Wikipedia article.

Go read it now. I’ll wait.

Back? Excel­lent. From here on in I’ll assume that you have an under­stand­ing of how Mun­sell is struc­tured. For those of you who didn’t bother with that and just kept read­ing, come back here when you start to get confused.

What’s Mun­sell good for?

So how is Mun­sell more use­ful to a painter than the old three-primary color wheel? First, it dis­penses with the con­fus­ing idea of pri­maries and sec­on­daries while more accu­rately iden­ti­fy­ing use­ful com­ple­men­tary color rela­tion­ships. Sec­ond, as you become more famil­iar with Mun­sell, you can begin to think about col­ors in terms of how they relate to each other within the color space. If you are look­ing at a blue wall, for exam­ple, and you are think­ing in Mun­sell terms, you can fig­ure out where the color lies and how to accu­rately describe it. What is its hue? How chro­matic is it? What value is it? How do those para­me­ters com­pare to other col­ors you are try­ing to work with? How do the hue, chroma, and value of the wall relate to the hue, chroma, and value of the blob of paint you are try­ing to use to rep­re­sent it?

Some artists pre-mix a set of col­ors on their palette in Mun­sell value steps. If you have a set of Mun­sell chips, you have an absolute ref­er­ence for col­ors that you can use for com­par­i­son and mix­ing. That can be incred­i­bly valu­able. There isn’t much in Mun­sell that helps you fig­ure out what color you will get if you mix two paints together—that’s not what it’s for. What it does do is help you decide what color you are try­ing to get to. And for that, it’s really excellent.

Prac­ti­cal Color Mix­ing: Value


p>Value is the most impor­tant com­po­nent of color, because the human visual sys­tem pri­or­i­tizes value infor­ma­tion over other color infor­ma­tion. The most impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic of color to learn how to mix is value, so that’s what I’ll dis­cuss first. Later, I’ll talk about con­trol­ling hue and chroma. Of course, since they are so closely inter­re­lated, in each dis­cus­sion of one of the three com­po­nents I’ll also have to talk about the other two.

Get­ting the Value Right

If you’re hav­ing trou­ble mix­ing a color with exactly the right hue, chroma, and value, con­cen­trate on at least get­ting the value right. There are any num­ber of paint­ings out there with weird hues and no con­sis­tent use of chroma, but they work because the val­ues work. (That’s not to say that hue and chroma aren’t important—they are—but value is the most impor­tant of the three for a begin­ning or inter­me­di­ate painter to con­cen­trate on.)

Value should be con­sid­ered at two lev­els in real­ist paint­ing. First, you need to con­sider the value struc­ture of the paint­ing as a whole. Do you want most of the paint­ing to be light (a high key paint­ing), most of it to be dark (a low key paint­ing), or for there to be some kind of bal­ance across a wide value rang (a full key paint­ing). What is the range from dark­est dark to light­est light? It’s use­ful to estab­lish that range early, because every object will be ren­dered in rela­tion to that key.

Over­all Value Range

As you think about this, you need to be aware that the value range of paint has only a small por­tion of the value range of human vision. Con­sider a paint­ing of a sun­set. That sun is much, much brighter than your highest-value white (which you’ll need to tone down in order to get the right hue and chroma). In order to give an impres­sion of that bright­ness, you will need to make the rest of the scene quite a bit darker than you oth­er­wise might. You are choos­ing a value scheme that rep­re­sents the value rela­tion­ships most impor­tant to the com­po­si­tion. That means that you won’t be able to have much con­trast in the darks, because their value range is com­pressed in order to empha­size that very strong light.

On the dark side as well, the black­est black on your palette reflects more light than a really dark shadow does. There are times when you need to com­press the lights in order to show a full range of con­trasts in the shad­ows. (Of the paint­ing media, by the way, oil paint has the widest value range, par­tic­u­larly in terms of really dark darks. So it’s eas­ier to cre­ate believ­able three-dimensional form with oil paint, and that’s one rea­son why it’s so popular. )

There­fore, in mak­ing deci­sions about the key of a paint­ing, you need to accept that you are nec­es­sar­ily work­ing with a lim­ited value range, and you need to make intel­li­gent choices about how you use it. There is no such thing as “paint what you see” in this calculation.

Artists often manip­u­late the value range to achieve a spe­cific effect. Rem­brandt and Car­avag­gio, for exam­ple, both painted low key paint­ings. But more than that, they made the darks very, very dark, the mid­tones quite dark, and the lights very light. That cre­ates a mar­velous dra­matic effect, but there’s noth­ing real­is­tic about it. It is worth look­ing at a lot of paint­ings and think­ing about what choices the artists made regard­ing value range, because those are the same choices you’re going to have to make every time you paint.

Try­ing to go for a mid­dle road, in which the lights are fairly light, the mid­tones are fairly medium, and the darks are fairly dark, is not always the best choice, because it isn’t very inter­est­ing and because it’s often not the right way to rep­re­sent the emo­tional con­tent of the scene. Don’t think that hue and chroma are the pri­mary deter­mi­nants of the way your paint­ing feels, because often the real money is where the value is.

Light and Shadow

Within the over­all value scheme of your paint­ing, you’ll need to con­sider value as you work on each object or pas­sage. Often, it’s good to think in terms of two, three, or (max­i­mum) four val­ues in the mass areas each object depicted. On the Mun­sell value scale from 0 to 10, for exam­ple, you might paint the shadow side of a house at value 3 and the light side at value 5. A head might be rep­re­sented at value 5.5 in the upper lights, value 5 in the darker lights (some­times called the “halftones”), value 3.5 around the ter­mi­na­tor (the shadow edge), and value 4.5 in the reflected lights.

You could mix these tones on your palette before you start, lay them down in the appro­pri­ate areas, then blend as desired. You could then add high­lights at value 6.5 and dark accents at value 3. Doing it in such a method­i­cal way can be much eas­ier than fig­ur­ing it out as you go.

To get these val­ues right, it’s some­times eas­ier to think about rela­tion­ships than it is to think about match­ing the actual value of the object you’re try­ing to paint. So if the over­all key of your paint­ing sets the value of the light side of a cube at value 7, the thing to do is to observe and think about how much darker the shadow side of that cube is. What value in paint best reflects the value rela­tion­ship you are observ­ing in real life? Is it a 5? 4.5? It takes a lot of prac­tice to get these kinds of rela­tion­ships right across an object, and then to keep those rela­tion­ships right across many objects in a sin­gle paint­ing (many begin­ner paint­ings seem to be keyed dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent parts of the picture).

One use­ful exer­cise is to do a series of paint­ings in a sin­gle hue. If you do it in shades of grey, it is called a gris­saile (pro­nounced gree-zai). A 50/50 mix­ture of black and raw umber is a good base tone for a gris­saile that you can mix with dif­fer­ent amounts of white to get the desired value. Doing a series of gris­saile stud­ies can help develop your abil­ity to judge and paint value. For each stroke of paint you put down, think about whether it should be darker or lighter than the paint sur­round­ing it, and by how much. Over time, you’ll achieve a much greater sen­si­tiv­ity to value.

One of the typ­i­cal mis­takes that begin­ners make is to focus on hue and chroma at the expense of value. They might be try­ing to paint a fig­ure, for exam­ple, and mix up some “flesh tone” (or they might have a tube labeled “flesh”). They pro­ceed to paint the whole fig­ure that color, then timidly throw in a slightly darker tone for shad­ows and edges. The fig­ure looks flat and uncon­vinc­ing. If you are going to con­cen­trate on a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject, and you want it to look dimen­sional, you need a fairly wide value range within that sub­ject. If that means com­press­ing the lights or darks so that back­ground ele­ments have less con­trast, that’s OK. If you’re paint­ing a fig­ure, the shad­ows on that fig­ure should be a sig­nif­i­cantly darker than the lights. It is only with a wide dynamic range that you can cre­ate the illu­sion of three dimen­sional form.

I remem­ber when I was first tak­ing paint­ing classes, my teacher would look at my fig­ures, sit down with my palette, and make the darks a good two value steps darker than I had made them (and I thought they were pretty dark). It was a painful expe­ri­ence, but it showed me how to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful illu­sion of form.

White and Black

So how do you make paint darker or lighter? You can, of course, sim­ply add black to darken and white to lighten. If you’re only con­cerned with value, that will always work. But both of those col­ors will, under many cir­cum­stances, dis­tort hue and chroma.

White, of course, is a crit­i­cal mix­ing color; it is the dom­i­nant pig­ment in many paint­ings. As you add white, how­ever, the color tends to drop in chroma and will often shift hue. Hue shift­ing isn’t too hard to deal with; you can add a touch of a warm or cool color (usu­ally warm) to cor­rect the hue.

Dulled chroma is harder to fix (that’s one rea­son why white paint isn’t used in tra­di­tional water­color tech­nique). One strat­egy is to avoid tita­nium white when you don’t need a really bright opaque white. Both flake white and zinc white are less over­pow­er­ing and have less ten­dency to kill the chroma in mix­ing. Zinc, espe­cially, is good for this pur­pose (although recent stud­ies sug­gest that it is prone to crack­ing in oil paint, so use it very spar­ingly). Another strat­egy is to use glaz­ing, rather than mix­ing, to adjust hue and chroma.

But it is the case that some high-chroma col­ors are very hard to approx­i­mate with paint. So when you are decid­ing on a value scheme for your paint­ing, one impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion is whether you will need to show­case any very high chroma col­ors. If so, you may need to adjust the key of the paint­ing so that those intense col­ors are the right value with­out hav­ing to lighten or darken them much. So, for exam­ple, you might use a higher-chroma, slightly less bright light and it will read as very bright in con­trast to the rel­a­tively darker, duller col­ors elsewhere.

I think of black as being one of the less impor­tant col­ors on my palette. Some painters never use it, claim­ing that is is a dead­en­ing color, that there is no black in nature, and that exces­sive use of it makes your paint­ing look like it has a hole in it. That’s hog­wash. Take a look at paint­ings by guys like Leonardo da Vinci, Diego Velazquez, or Car­rav­a­gio. They relied heav­ily on black. Can you really say that their paint­ings would have been vastly bet­ter if they had only known that some mod­ern painters think black makes a paint­ing look dam­aged? “That Leonardo guy, if only he’d known to avoid black, he might have made a name for him­self!” Yeah, right.

And don’t think they didn’t know how to darken col­ors with­out black, because they cer­tainly did. They chose to use black because it was the color that worked best for what they were try­ing to accomplish.

That being said, it is true that mix­ing a color with black will reduce chroma, and that black is best used with care. Some­times, strong chroma reduc­tion is exactly the effect you are look­ing for, so that’s when to use black. Black also causes color shifts. Mix black with a bright yel­low (such as cad­mium yel­low light). Do you get dark yel­low? No, you get an olive green (which can be quite use­ful). Under many cir­cum­stances, black acts like a very, very dark blue.

Black is often best used the way it was usu­ally used in the 15th cen­tury, to darken (and reduce the chroma of) earth col­ors and other low-chroma col­ors. Black is also good when you need a really dark dark for the dark­est shad­ows. As I’ll dis­cuss later, black can also be use­ful when you are mix­ing a string of grays in order to reduce chroma by first mix­ing the right hue and value, then mix­ing in a neu­tral gray of the same value.

Con­trol­ling Value

So, if we need to be care­ful with white for light­en­ing and if black is of lim­ited use in mak­ing col­ors darker, how do we man­age value? Care­fully, because it’s one of the hard­est parts of color mix­ing. Take a look at a color wheel, par­tic­u­larly the col­ors on the out­side of the wheel (the high­est chroma pig­ments in each hue). You’ll notice that warm col­ors. like yel­low, are quite high in value. By con­trast, cool col­ors like pur­ple are rel­a­tively dark. So your value mix­ing strat­egy will need to depend, to some degree, on what part of the color wheel you’re work­ing with.

For exam­ple, how do you make a dark yel­low? Do you look on the other side of the color wheel, find that a vio­let is the com­ple­ment of yel­low, and mix that in? That doesn’t work very well, because many warm col­ors don’t have a true mix­ing com­ple­ment (they don’t mix to a neu­tral grey). So vio­let added to yel­low pro­duces a severe color shift away from the yel­low hue.

For­tu­nately, there are dark yel­lows already available—browns are basi­cally dark yel­lows. As artists have been doing for many cen­turies, you don’t try to mix a dark yel­low, you just use a dark yel­low earth color. If you want to depict a gra­da­tion from a light yel­low to a dark yel­low, you blend in a series of brown col­ors: cad­mium yel­low to yel­low ochre to raw sienna to burnt umber, for example.

Of course, if you don’t like earth col­ors, it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble to mix sim­i­lar ones. Some artists like to use a very lim­ited palette of only high-chroma col­ors. A palette of cyan, magenta, and yel­low is pop­u­lar, for exam­ple. With those and white, you can mix col­ors very sim­i­lar to yel­low ochre, raw sienna, and burnt umber. Per­son­ally, I find it much eas­ier to sim­ply use the earths.

How do you make a dark pur­ple? Easy. Pur­ple pig­ments are already dark, so all you have to do is adjust the chroma (if needed). If you need it even darker, you can mix it with dark trans­par­ent col­ors that are near to it on the color wheel (a trans­par­ent dark blue like Pruss­ian blue and a trans­par­ent dark red like pyrol ruby, for exam­ple). You could even add a touch of black.

How do you make a light pur­ple? You’re prob­a­bly going to have to use some white. If you need a light, high-chroma pur­ple, you may have some trou­ble, because the white is going to knock the chroma down. So you may need to start with the highest-chroma pur­ple you can find (such as diox­azine vio­let), so the final result remains rel­a­tively chro­matic. As noted ear­lier, you might also want to use zinc, or a zinc-flake mix. If you need a light, low-chroma pur­ple, on the other hand, then mix­ing with white, then mak­ing slight adjust­ments to hue by mix­ing in small amounts of other col­ors, will prob­a­bly work just fine.

Con­fus­ingly, it’s also true that, for many cooler col­ors like blues and vio­lets, mix­ing with a small amount of white will increase the chroma. For exam­ple, in oil paint, ultra­ma­rine blue with a bit of white added is more chro­matic than plain ultra­ma­rine. But adding a lot of white decreases the chroma.

Warmer col­ors tend to be at their max­i­mum chroma straight out of the tube. The eas­i­est over­all mix­ing sit­u­a­tion is when you are try­ing to reduce chroma at the same time you are adjust­ing value. If the color has a mix­ing com­ple­ment, then, typ­i­cally, that color will reduce value and chroma at the same time.

Mix the Value First

When mix­ing two col­ors, it’s often a good strat­egy to first get both of those col­ors to the intended final value. Then, when you mix them together, it’s much eas­ier to judge hue and chroma. If you have a clear idea of what col­ors you’ll be work­ing with in a paint­ing ses­sion (and you should), it can be use­ful to mix up a series of paint strings. One string is a sin­gle hue/chroma along a series of values.

So, for exam­ple, a use­ful flesh tone is a neu­tral mix­ture of cad­mium green and cad­mium red. You might cre­ate that neu­tral brown­ish color on your palette, then mix in dif­fer­ent amounts of white to make a series of gra­da­tions from very light brown to the base cad green/cad red mix­ture. You could then make darker tones along the same string by adding dif­fer­ent amounts of raw umber. Now you have a string of one hue and chroma, but dif­fer­ent values.

Another string might be based on yel­low ochre as a base tone, mixed with dif­fer­ent amounts of white to make lighter tones and dif­fer­ent amounts of raw sienna and burnt umber for darker tones. As you paint, if you need a hue that is in between the two strings, it’s easy to mix paint from each string at the same value to get the right hue.

Work­ing with a set of pre-mixed val­ues is called a set palette. Some artists take it to extremes, always mix­ing up a pre-set group of value strings before star­ing to paint. If you do this habit­u­ally, it helps to mix a lot of each paint value in advance and put them into tubes—that way, you don’t spend half of each paint­ing ses­sion mix­ing strings of paint. I don’t do that, but I do typ­i­cally mix two or three strings at the begin­ning of a paint­ing ses­sion and work from them.

Prac­ti­cal color mix­ing: chroma

After value, the human visual sys­tem empha­sizes chroma. Always get the chroma right before you worry about hue.

Iden­ti­fy­ing chroma

As with value and hue, the sim­plest way to iden­tify chroma is often in terms of rela­tion­ships. How intense is the color you’re look­ing at com­pared with the inten­sity of other col­ors around it?

Chroma can be hard to sep­a­rate out from value; light col­ors some­times look more intense than they are, and dark col­ors some­times look less intense. You get bet­ter with prac­tice. If you have Mun­sell color chips, then of course you have a great absolute ref­er­ence to work from.

Chroma clue­less­ness

Many artists—mostly ama­teurs, but also some professionals—seem to have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing chroma cor­rectly. They often paint at a higher chroma than what they see, and they often seem unaware that they are doing so.

Let me give you an exam­ple. I was brows­ing through art books in a book­store the other day and found one about the paint­ing tech­niques of the impres­sion­ists. It’s a very well writ­ten book, based on lots of research on the indi­vid­ual meth­ods of many 19th cen­tury artists. There are a num­ber of demon­stra­tions in which the author copies a sec­tion of an impres­sion­ist paint­ing, using the meth­ods of the orig­i­nal artist. In every sin­gle case, through­out the entire book, the author gets the chroma badly wrong and pretty much every­thing else right. In par­tic­u­lar, almost every color is one or two chroma steps higher than the cor­re­spond­ing color in the orig­i­nal. Impres­sion­ists were not known for mak­ing dull pic­tures, but the author felt the need to “improve” the orig­i­nals by bump­ing the chroma, even though she was clearly mak­ing a seri­ous attempt to use the same or sim­i­lar pig­ments and tech­niques. What’s more, I don’t think she knew she was doing it. I think she believed she was doing pre­cise copies, but failed to see chroma dif­fer­ences right in front of her face. That’s just a guess on my part; some of the pig­ments used in the typ­i­cal impres­sion­ist palette were fugi­tive, so she might have been delib­er­ately com­pen­sat­ing for their ten­dency to fade. But if that’s the case, I couldn’t find where she told us that, and she was cer­tainly increas­ing the chroma even in areas cor­re­spond­ing to those painted with light­fast pig­ments. So either the repro­duc­tions in the book are badly messed up (and no one caught it) or this artist has a remark­able insen­si­tiv­ity to chroma.

I see sim­i­lar errors on inter­net forums in which ama­teur artists post copies of old mas­ter works. The chroma is usu­ally too high—often much, much too high. That might have some­thing to do with how the work has been pho­tographed, dig­i­tized, and pre­sented on com­puter mon­i­tors, but in case after case, the posted copy appears con­sis­tently more chro­matic than the orig­i­nal, even when the artist has shown them side by side. The artists usu­ally seem unaware of this dif­fer­ence, and some­times have trou­ble see­ing it even when it is pointed out to them.

There is, of course, noth­ing wrong with delib­er­ately push­ing chroma for dra­matic or dec­o­ra­tive effect. I do it myself some­times. My con­cern is with artists who do this unthink­ingly, either because they just have an uncon­scious bias toward “brighter” color, or because they think that chro­matic col­ors are always bet­ter or prettier.

I think part of the prob­lem is that we have been con­di­tioned to think about pic­tures in terms of pho­tog­ra­phy. Many artists work from pho­tographs, and even those who do not have spent a lot of time look­ing at pho­tographs. Most color films and devel­op­ing meth­ods are delib­er­ately designed to push the chroma, and most con­sumer dig­i­tal cam­eras are designed to do so as well. That makes the scene more “col­or­ful,” and many peo­ple seem to think that a “good” snap­shot is one that has a lot of chroma, regard­less of how chro­matic the orig­i­nal scene was.

Over time, we’ve become accus­tomed to look­ing at pic­tures with lots of color inten­sity. That’s what we think pic­tures are sup­posed to look like. And, I sup­pose, many of those who buy art think that way as well, so there may be a com­mer­cial incen­tive to paint very “col­or­ful” pictures.

If you are look­ing to make a paint­ing that seems like it is full of color, the prob­lem is this: if you are look­ing at an array of high-chroma col­ors, the visual sys­tem habit­u­ates. We see chroma (and other aspects of color) in terms of rela­tion­ships at least as much as we see absolute val­ues. A whole bunch of intense col­ors looks lurid, but it doesn’t give the impres­sion of a really col­or­ful scene.

The bet­ter impres­sion­ist painters, for all of their empha­sis on a mod­ern palette of intense col­ors, under­stood this. They used chroma care­fully, cal­cu­lat­ing the effect of one color against another. They were able to get high chroma col­ors to really stand out by jux­ta­pos­ing them against much duller col­ors or dull opti­cal mix­tures, delib­er­ately cre­at­ing a strong visual contrast.

That’s some­thing the author of that book on impres­sion­ist tech­nique didn’t seem to under­stand, for all of her impres­sive tech­ni­cal knowl­edge of impres­sion­ist method­olo­gies. She’s looked at hun­dreds of impres­sion­ist paint­ings and copied dozens of them, yet she fails to see how those artists used chro­matic con­trast. Her copies, as a result, are much less inter­est­ing than the originals.

If you like color, then learn how to iden­tify the chroma you see around you. Learn how to mix and use sub­tle mix­tures of neu­tral and near-neutral col­ors. If you like intense col­ors, learn how to cre­ate the visual impres­sion of really high chroma by using con­trast, rather than just blast­ing away with unmixed col­ors right out of the tube and hop­ing the viewer likes “col­or­ful” art. Even today, with a view­ing pub­lic accus­tomed to arti­fi­cially enhanced color, there are plenty of really good artists who know how to use color more effec­tively, and they stand out from those who do not. So let’s put an end to chroma cluelessness.

I’ll close my lit­tle edi­to­r­ial rant here with this: Enough with those bright orange skin tones already! Even Cau­casians who spend way too much time in tan­ning booths have skin that’s much less intense than cad­mium red mixed with yel­low ochre, or any of the other ways to mix luridly awful skin tones. Thank you very much. We’ll now return to your regularly-scheduled paint mix­ing article.

Work­ing with low-chroma color

Almost all paints are high in chroma right out of the tube. Since most of the world is low in chroma, the major­ity of a real­is­tic paint­ing will con­sist of neu­trals and near-neutrals. So a real­ist painter is going to have to spend a lot of mix­ing time reduc­ing the chroma of paint.

How do you do that? At one level, it’s easy because, most of the time, when­ever you mix one blob of paint with another blob of paint, you end up with some­thing lower in chroma. By that, I mean that the result is less intense than the brighter of the two col­ors. Often, it’s less intense than either of them. So if you want to reduce the chroma of a paint color, pick another paint that’s lower in chroma and smoosh them together. The prob­lem, of course, is that if you also want to have con­trol over hue and value, you’re going to have to pick your mix­tures carefully.

Reduc­ing chroma with mix­ing complements

A com­mon method of chroma reduc­tion is to mix in a com­ple­men­tary or near-complementary paint. For exam­ple, if you want to reduce the chroma of a bright pthalo green, mix in a violet-red (i.e., a magenta). Com­ple­ments will usu­ally reduce both chroma and value.

You also some­times get hue shifts when mix­ing col­ors from the other side of the color mix­ing wheel—the mix­ture fol­lows a curved path around the wheel rather than a straight path toward the cen­ter. Because of the pecu­liar­i­ties of indi­vid­ual pig­ments, there is no way to pre­dict these hue shifts with­out just mix­ing two paints together and see­ing what hap­pens. You can pull the mix­ture back to the orig­i­nal hue, how­ever, by adding a third paint that is com­ple­men­tary to the color you’ve mixed.

Once you have the hue and chroma right, you’ll need to check to see if the value has now been brought too low. Of course, if you add white to increase the value, the chroma will be decreased. So the method of adding the com­ple­ment can result in frus­tra­tion as you try to chase the color of a mix­ture to the right com­bi­na­tion of value, hue, and chroma.

For low-chroma col­ors, I find this process much less frus­trat­ing when I start with fairly low-chroma paints, such as earth col­ors and a few oth­ers. That way, I do less chas­ing of color and less mix­ing over­all. It’s also eas­ier if you mix each color to the cor­rect value first, then mix them together for the desired hue and chroma.

Yel­lows and vio­lets, although they are on oppo­site sides of the color mix­ing wheel, don’t work well as com­ple­ments (the hues shift severely rather than mix­ing toward neu­trals). To dull down a yel­low, it is eas­i­est to mix in a duller yel­low or orange, such as raw umber or raw sienna. You can also mix in a neu­tral gray of the same value (see below). To get a dull vio­let, the eas­i­est course is often to ignore vio­let pig­ments and mix your own vio­let. Because mix­ing reduces chroma, the right com­bi­na­tion of red and blue will give you a vio­let of the desired degree of dull­ness. A good dark dull vio­let can be made with ultra­ma­rine blue and burnt sienna, for example.

Other than yel­low and vio­let, it is very help­ful to exper­i­ment with, and mem­o­rize, pairs of com­ple­men­tary col­ors. As a gen­eral rule, if you want to dull down an intense color, choose a dull com­ple­ment. Blues have mix­ing com­ple­ments in the range of warm yel­lows, oranges, and mid­dle reds. Mid­dle and cool greens have mix­ing com­ple­ments in the range from mid­dle reds to vio­lets. Warm greens have mix­ing com­ple­ments among the vio­lets. Some of my favorite mix­ing com­ple­ments include raw sienna/ultramarine blue, viridian/pyrol ruby, Pruss­ian blue/Venetian red, and ultra­ma­rine blue/raw umber. I expect that most artists develop a set of strongly pre­ferred mix­ing complements.

Reduc­ing chroma with opti­cal color mixing

If you put a bunch of small dabs of dif­fer­ent col­ored high chroma paints next to each other, then step back far enough, they will blend opti­cally and look like one color. The per­ceived color will resem­ble what you would get if you mixed all of those col­ors together—i.e., it will be lower in chroma than the col­ors that go into it. If you take this approach to extremes, you get pointil­lism, which I don’t per­son­ally find to be very attrac­tive or effective.

Used with more sub­tlety, how­ever, opti­cal mix­ing can be one of the best ways to make neu­trals, because by con­trol­ling the struc­ture of paint blobs, you can cre­ate effects that are much more visu­ally inter­est­ing than a flat region of neu­tral color. The eye sees the opti­cal blend, but is also aware of the color vari­a­tion. You can par­tially blend col­ors together, layer them on top of each other while allow­ing dif­fer­ent amounts of lower col­ors to show through, cre­ate inter­est­ing tex­tures, or use any of a num­ber of tech­niques for opti­cal color blending.

Reduc­ing chroma with white

Almost all col­ors lose chroma when mixed with white (as I’ve already noted, a few dark cool trans­par­ent pig­ments show an ini­tial increase in chroma when mixed with a lit­tle white, then drop chroma as they are light­ened fur­ther). Of course, they also get lighter, but dull light col­ors are often exactly what you want.

For exam­ple, imag­ine that you are paint­ing a piece of blue cloth. The part of the cloth that is high­est in chroma will be the “midtones”—the part of the cloth that is illu­mi­nated, but is near the form shadow bound­ary (the ter­mi­na­tor) and turn­ing away from the light. As the form turns toward the light it gets lighter in value and also less chromatic.

You can cre­ate the same effect with paint by mix­ing a blue color (cobalt blue, say) with more and more white as it turns toward the light. The paint becomes lighter and less chro­matic, just as the blue cloth does. You may need to adjust the mix­ture to make the chroma, value, and hue changes exactly model what you are see­ing in front of you, but just mix­ing with the appro­pri­ate amount of white gets you into the right ball park.

Some­times, you’ll find that white reduces chroma faster than you want it to. The mix­ture becomes “chalky.” I’ll dis­cuss how to deal with that prob­lem below, when I talk about high chroma color mixing.

A color that has been light­ened by mix­ing with white is called a tint. Tints are high in value and low in chroma. They are also called “pastels.”

Reduc­ing chroma with grey

Instead of using mix­ing com­ple­ments, it is pos­si­ble to reduce the chroma of a mix­ture with­out hav­ing much effect on value or hue. To do that, use a neu­tral gray of the same value. The chroma will go down with­out sig­nif­i­cantly affect­ing the other para­me­ters of color. Black mixed with white does not make a neu­tral gray—it’s much too cool. A 50/50 mix­ture of ivory black and raw umber, how­ever, is very close to neu­tral. Adjust the value of this mix­ture by adding what­ever amount of white is required. You may want to mix up a string of neu­tral grays in advance and use them to eas­ily adjust chroma.

So here’s a good way to work with low-chroma col­ors with­out dri­ving your­self nuts. First, start with low-chroma col­ors such as earths. They will still be too high in chroma for a lot of pur­poses, but they are a lot closer than, say, a cad­mium red light. Sec­ond, pre-mix strings of col­ors you’re likely to use. Each string is one hue, rang­ing in value from the low­est you will need to the high­est. Also mix a string of neu­tral grays in the same value range. Small chroma adjust­ments are fairly easy with nudges of small amounts of com­ple­men­tary col­ors. When you need to pull the chroma down sig­nif­i­cantly, first mix the right hue and value from com­bi­na­tions of paint from your strings and, if needed, nudges of other col­ors on your palette. Then adjust the chroma down­ward by adding some of your neu­tral gray at the same value as the mix­ture you’re work­ing with.

Reduc­ing chroma with glazing

If you paint one color thinly over another color, you get an opti­cal mix­ture. Blue glazed over yel­low pro­duces a green, for exam­ple. You can use this effect to reduce chroma, since an opti­cal mix­ture is darker and duller than the col­ors that make it up. Michelan­gelo, for exam­ple, some­times made a dark dull blue by glaz­ing ultra­ma­rine over black.

The browns and the brown-ish

It’s worth briefly dis­cussing brown col­ors. Brown doesn’t appear in the visual spec­trum or in the named col­ors on the out­side of a color mix­ing wheel. Col­ors labeled “brown” are yel­lows and oranges that are fairly dark and low in chroma.

Brown, there­fore, isn’t a color per se: it’s a zone within the over­all color space. There are plenty of earth col­ors that start out in the zone of brown, and a few non-earths as well. To make a bright yel­low or orange more brown­ish, it needs to be dulled down and dark­ened (mix­ing with white won’t do it; you get a pas­tel tint). If you mix a yel­low or orange with a gray of equal value, you will usu­ally get some­thing you could call a brown. If you mix with black, you will almost always get a brown.

Some yel­lows, when reduced in chroma with grey or black, shift their hue toward green. Just a touch of grey or black makes a green gold; more grey or black makes a green­ish umber-like color. Bright yellow-reds (oranges), if dulled down with grey or black, make more clearly brown col­ors, with­out those green tones. Bright reds, if dulled down with grey or black, make a maroon.

A color that has been dark­ened by mix­ing with black is called a shade. So a mix­ture of cad­mium red and black would be a shade of cad­mium red.

Work­ing with high-chroma color

For almost all col­ors, chroma is high­est with paint straight out of the tube. Gen­er­ally, if you want high really high chroma, the way to get it is to have a tube of paint with exactly the right hue and value, and just paint with that.

Some­times, you can make that work. At other times, you don’t have quite the right color, or the right color just doesn’t exist in pig­ment form. The high­est chroma mix­tures are blends of high-chroma paints of sim­i­lar hue. If your cerulean blue is just a bit too green­ish, don’t mix it with red, mix it with a high chroma mid­dle blue such as cobalt blue.

You want to draw a line through the color mix­ing wheel that stays as close to the out­side of the wheel as pos­si­ble. So if you like to work with a lot of high chroma col­ors, then it’s to your advan­tage to have many tubes of high-chroma paint. That way, when you want a par­tic­u­lar color, you will usu­ally have two col­ors that are sim­i­lar enough to that color that you can mix them with­out tak­ing too much of a hit to the chroma.

Warm col­ors are at their high­est chroma when they are fairly light (high in value). Cool col­ors are at their high­est chroma when they are a bit darker. At max­i­mum chroma, warm col­ors such as yel­low are more chro­matic than cool col­ors such as blue. But that’s OK, because warm col­ors have higher max­i­mum chroma in the real world as well. If you want cool col­ors to com­pete for the viewer’s atten­tion with warm col­ors, how­ever, you’ll need to keep that dif­fer­ence in mind.

Mun­sell complements

  • Yel­low < — > pur­ple blue
  • Yel­low red < — > blue
  • Green < — > red purple
  • Blue green < — > red
  • Blue < — > yel­low red

(These are visual com­ple­ments, not nec­es­sar­ily mix­ing complements.)

Because of the way the visual sys­tem works, a color is usu­ally per­ceived as more chro­matic when it is placed next to its visual com­ple­ment. The impres­sion­ists made fre­quent use of this prin­ci­ple. A bright magenta looks more intense when it is sur­rounded by a dull green. The com­ple­ments iden­ti­fied in the Mun­sell color sys­tem more accu­rately reflect human color vision than those in the anti­quated three pri­mary color wheel.

Mas­stone and undertone

We like to pre­tend that pig­ments, paints, and col­ors are all the same thing. In real­ity, pig­ments have many char­ac­ter­is­tics sep­a­rate from their “color.” Also, pig­ments behave dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent bind­ing media.

One of the most impor­tant aspects of pig­ment vari­a­tion is in mas­stone and under­tone. Mas­stone is a pigment’s color when it is applied thickly. Under­tone is a pigment’s color when it is applied in a thin layer. Lots of pig­ments dis­play a huge dif­fer­ence between mas­stone and under­tone, and that often has a lot to do with chroma. Most com­monly, mas­stone is duller than under­tone. The dif­fer­ence is most marked with rel­a­tively trans­par­ent pig­ments, but many opaque pig­ments show sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences as well.

For exam­ple, I painted a self-portrait in which the back­ground con­sists of yel­low ochre glazed thinly over white paint. Yel­low ochre is gen­er­ally described as a dull pig­ment, and in mas­stone that’s true. But the back­ground of the paint­ing is quite intense. The hue is also much more orange than that of yel­low ochre in mas­stone. We get so used to appli­ca­tion of paint in thick­nesses that make use of mas­stone that we often for­get how paints behave when applied in very thin layers.

Main­tain­ing chroma by glazing

One effec­tive way to main­tain chroma is by glaz­ing. If you apply paint very thinly over white, you can get a higher chroma than you could by mix­ing that paint to the same value using white. A trans­par­ent paint that is applied a lit­tle more thickly can be more chro­matic at low val­ues than you might be able to obtain with a mix­ture of the same hue.

Main­tain­ing chroma at high values

With many pig­ments, it’s hard to get high chroma at high val­ues. Because white light­ens the value of paint and also reduces chroma, mix­tures with a lot of white become pas­tel tints. If that’s not what you want, then you may con­sider the mix­ture to be “too chalky.” How do you avoid this chalky effect when you’re try­ing to make light col­ors that have rel­a­tively high chroma? One way is to start with very high chroma paint. The chroma reduc­ing effect of white is then bal­anced with a strong base chroma. It can also be a good idea to avoid tita­nium white, which tints very strongly and can have a greater effect on chroma than other whites. That’s one rea­son I usu­ally paint with lead white.

Prac­ti­cal Color Mix­ing: Hue

Iden­ti­fy­ing hue

Before you can mix the right hue, you need to fig­ure out what hue you want to mix. That’s often kind of hard, espe­cially with the dull, low-chroma col­ors that pre­dom­i­nate in most of the visual world. Look around you. What color is the wall? A yellow-green? Or is it more of a mid­dle yel­low? How about the cable lead­ing to your com­puter mon­i­tor? Is it black, or some very dark grey­ish color? If so, is it a warm dark grey or a cool dark grey? If warm, is it a yel­low or an orange? What about the shadow falling on the floor from your desk? You get the picture.

When I’m stand­ing around wait­ing for some­thing I find myself try­ing to iden­tify the color of var­i­ous things around me. And not just the color of the thing (the “local color”) but the color of the shadow side, the light side, and so on. I think about value and chroma as well as hue, but the hue is often the hard­est to fig­ure out.

As with any other attribute of color, it’s best to think in terms of com­par­i­son of one color with oth­ers around it. Once I think I know what the color is, I con­sider how I would mix it. That seems like a pretty geeky thing to do (and it is) but it’s a use­ful exer­cise. We think we know what color things are, but while it’s easy to say that the sky is blue, it’s a bit more of a chal­lenge to deter­mine that the part of the sky beyond those clouds is a green-blue, while the sky in between the clouds is slightly more purple.


So once you think you know what hue you want, how do you get it? Well, if the hue is pretty close to a paint that’s already on your palette, you might be able to just nudge it in one direc­tion or another. Say you want a vio­let blue and you have ultra­ma­rine on your palette. With­out hav­ing to think about color wheels or any­thing com­plex like that, you could sim­ply add just a bit of a more pur­ple color, such as diox­azine vio­let. That may well get you where you want to go, sim­ply and easily.

In doing this, the thing to real­ize is that any given paint can only go in two direc­tions from where the hue is right now—either clock­wise or coun­ter­clock­wise on the color cir­cle. Ultra­ma­rine blue can be made more vio­let or more green. That’s it. Cad­mium orange can be made more yel­low or more red.

If you’re just try­ing to nudge the hue around a lit­tle bit, all you have to decide is which direc­tion to go and select a color next door on the color wheel to move it in that direc­tion. Add only tiny amounts of the “nudg­ing” color at a time, as it is easy to overdo it. Most of my per­sonal frus­tra­tion with color mix­ing comes from over­step­ping this nudge process and then try­ing to get back closer to where I was. Some­times it’s eas­ier to just start over.

Using a mix­ing color wheel

The nudg­ing strat­egy is great for small adjust­ments, but it starts to fall apart when you need to make a hue that isn’t close to one of the paints you already have. At that point, it’s use­ful to go back to the con­cept of a color mix­ing wheel. As I’ve pointed out pre­vi­ously, a color mix­ing wheel does not pro­vide a pre­cise guide to what you will get with any two pig­ment mix­tures. Indi­vid­ual pig­ments are sim­ply too idio­syn­cratic in their mix­ing prop­er­ties to allow any kind of absolute pre­dic­tion of how they will behave when mixed. But a color mix­ing wheel will help you to get into the approx­i­mate ball­park, at which point you will be close enough to use the nudg­ing aproach described above.

Steven Quiller sells a use­ful color mix­ing wheel. Bruce MacEvoy at Hand­print has a some­what dif­fer­ent one that you can print out for free (it’s designed for water­color, but I have found it to be rea­son­ably use­ful for other media as well).

Say you need to mix a yel­low­ish green, but don’t have any­thing close to that on your palette. If you look at a color mix­ing wheel, the two col­ors on either side of green are blue and yel­low. As we all know, you can mix a green from blue and yel­low, and if you adjust the pro­por­tions cor­rectly, you can pretty eas­ily get a yel­low­ish green. If you have any set of paints that are selected to fall at rea­son­able inter­vals across the color wheel (cyan, magenta, and yel­low, for exam­ple), you can mix any desired hue using two or three paints.

A tra­di­tional color wheel is set up so that all of the col­ors on the out­side are as high in chroma as that hue goes (with­out regard to value). On the inside are less chro­matic col­ors, arranged so that the closer to the cen­ter they are, the lower the chroma. The basic mix­ing pro­ce­dure goes like this: (1) iden­tify a point within the color mix­ing wheel that rep­re­sents the desired hue and chroma; (2) look for one or more lines between two paints that pass through (or near) the color you are try­ing to match; and (3) con­sider whether a third paint (typ­i­cally one on the oppo­site side of the wheel from the desired color) might be needed to adjust the chroma downward.

If the paints have equal tint­ing strength, you can fig­ure out approx­i­mately how much of each paint you will use, based on where the desired color falls on the line between the two paints being mixed. If one paint is stronger, you’ll need to adjust accord­ingly to account for that. As a gen­eral rule, put out some of the weaker paint and add the stronger paint to it. Alter­nately, put out the paint you will use the largest amount of and add the other paint to it. Add in small incre­ments at a time.

With oil paint, it’s best to mix with a palette knife rather than a brush. Once you’re used to it, the knife is faster because you can clean it so quickly, and your paint piles don’t become con­t­a­m­i­nated with other pigments.

Coör­di­nat­ing hue and chroma

Notice that if you draw a straight line between any two col­ors on the out­side the wheel, every point on the line rep­re­sents a lower chroma than those two col­ors. So mix­ing tends to reduce chroma. As a gen­eral rule, any mix­ture is duller than the brighter of the two paints being mixed, and often duller than either one. There are a few excep­tions that I’ve already men­tioned, but chroma reduc­tion is the usual effect of paint mixing.

As I’ve men­tioned, in real­ist paint­ing you spend a lot of time reduc­ing the chroma of tube paints. If you’re try­ing to mix a flesh tone with bright cad­mium col­ors, for exam­ple, any reduc­tion in chroma is wel­come (you’ve prob­a­bly seen bad ama­teur por­traits with bright orange flesh tones).

But there are times when you are try­ing to mix a high-chroma color, and in that case the chroma reduc­tion from mix­ing can be frus­trat­ing. Because of this effect, it’s often a bad idea to just muck around with paint, hop­ing to get close to the color you’re look­ing for. Every paint you add to the mix cuts the chroma down, so after awhile you are just mix­ing paint into a sort of non­de­script gray­ish color—i.e., you’re mix­ing “mud.”

It’s is much bet­ter to decide what color you want, choose two or three paints that you will use to get that color, and try to stick with those. Minor nudg­ing with other paints is OK, but if the mix­ture goes rad­i­cally in a direc­tion you didn’t expect, don’t keep throw­ing addi­tional paints in, hop­ing you’ll even­tu­ally get to your desired color.

Once you have mud, just scrape it off your palette (or use it as the basis of some non­de­script color you need else­where) and start over. Take a step back and think again about what you’re try­ing to accom­plish and how you’re going to get there. As noted above, many pig­ments fail to fol­low a straight line on the color wheel when mixed. In par­tic­u­lar, some paint mix­tures fol­low a cir­cu­lar mix­ing line. That means that, while the wheel pre­dicts the cor­rect hue, the chroma is higher than expected (this is par­tic­u­larly com­mon with greens, which is why lots of paint­ings of trees look quite wrong). In that case, go ahead and mix the hue you want, then tone it down (prefer­ably by mix­ing with a neu­tral gray of the same value).

Coör­di­nat­ing hue and value

We’ve talked about get­ting to the right hue and chroma, but what about value? It would be eas­ier to make this color mix­ing thing work if there were only two para­me­ters to worry about, and many color mix­ing books kind of pre­tend that’s the case. Ear­lier, when I dis­cussed get­ting the value right when mix­ing, I sug­gested that the first thing you do when try­ing to make any par­tic­u­lar color was to first mix the col­ors you are work­ing with to the cor­rect value. You can then mix them together and get the hue and value you are look­ing for—because the paints are already at the cor­rect value, you don’t have to think about that fac­tor any more, greatly sim­pli­fy­ing the prob­lem you’re try­ing to solve.

Mix­ing value first usu­ally works, except when you can’t get the right chroma and value because the white paint is pulling the chroma down too far. Under most cir­cum­stances, how­ever, the “mix the value first” rule makes color mix­ing much eas­ier to control.

Warmth and coolth

The idea of warm and cool col­ors has many impli­ca­tions for com­po­si­tion that don’t belong in a dis­cus­sion of color mix­ing. Warm col­ors are gen­er­ally thought to include red, yel­low red, and yel­low, while cool col­ors are thought to include blue green, blue, and pur­ple blue. (I’m using Mun­sell hue ter­mi­nol­ogy here.) In between col­ors include green, green yel­low, pur­ple, and red pur­ple (some peo­ple would label green and pur­ple as warm and green yel­low and red pur­ple as cool).

There are some aspects of the warm/cool divi­sion that are use­ful to include in a dis­cus­sion of color mix­ing. If you reduce the chroma of a warm color, it appears less warm (raw umber is less warm than cad­mium orange); if you reduce the chroma of a cool color, it appears less cool.

The most chro­matic warm col­ors are much higher in chroma than the most chro­matic cool col­ors. Com­pare, for exam­ple, cad­mium yel­low light (a high chroma yel­low) and pthalo blue (a high chroma blue). The yel­low is much higher in chroma than the blue. Not only that, the yel­low is also much lighter in value than the blue. Warm pig­ments can be very light (high in value) at high chro­mas. Cool pig­ments are much darker at their high­est chroma. Adding a lot of white to a cool pig­ment, to bring the value up near to that of cad­mium yel­low, decreases the chroma still further.

You can’t have a high chroma, high value cool color—the physics of light and the struc­ture of the eye don’t allow it. These kinds of dif­fer­ences are why the Mun­sell color space is shaped like a bumpy, irreg­u­lar cylin­der. Because of this effect, high chroma warm col­ors have more over­all punch than high chroma cool colors.

Many art books tell you that warm col­ors advance and cool col­ors recede. That’s wrong, although it has a germ of truth. The eye looks for con­trast. In most paint­ings, chro­matic col­ors have more con­trast with their sur­round­ings. Higher value col­ors also have more con­trast. Because warm col­ors are more chro­matic and higher in value, they have more con­trast, so they jump for­ward. If you drop the chroma and value of warm pig­ments to match those of cool pig­ments, they become brown­ish and don’t have any extra punch at all.

The warm/cool con­trast can also be use­ful when you’re try­ing to fig­ure out what hue some­thing has. It can be eas­ier to ask whether a hue is warmer or cooler than a color near it than to try to fig­ure out its hue directly. Any hue can be shifted either clock­wise or counter-clockwise on the hue cir­cle. You can think of this as shift­ing warmer or shift­ing cooler. For exam­ple, a yel­low can shift toward green (cooler) or toward red (warmer). That is not to say that red is warmer than yel­low (dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent opin­ions on that issue), but that shift­ing toward red is shift­ing away from a cooler color (green is def­i­nitely cooler than red), so it’s use­ful to think of that as “warmer” in this con­text. Sim­i­larly, a pur­ple can be shifted toward red (warm) or toward blue (cool). As you are paint­ing, you can think in terms of these com­par­isons. Is the hue on the light side of an object warmer or cooler than the hue on the shadow side? That com­par­i­son is an eas­ier task than deter­min­ing the absolute hue of the light side.


Wow. That went pretty long.

As I noted ear­lier, color and color mix­ing is very com­plex. It takes a lot of time to get all of this. Just under­stand­ing the con­cepts is only half the battle—you also need to prac­tice color mix­ing, over and over, so that you can do it con­sis­tently. I’ve been work­ing at this for sev­eral years now, and I still mess myself up all the damn time. Usu­ally, the answer is not to keep mix­ing, but to scrape the paint away, fig­ure out what went wrong and what the right strat­egy is, and begin again.

38 Responses

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  1. K Monroe says

    Just a com­ment that the Stu­dio Prod­ucts neu­tral gray paints don’t exactly match Mun­sell neu­tral values.

    I first noticed this when com­par­ing painted swatches I made to the chips in the Mun­sell stu­dent book. Shortly after that, I noticed that Rob Howard agreed on the Stu­dio Prod­ucts forum.

    This is not to say any­thing neg­a­tive about the SP set in prac­tice; just if some­one com­pares it to Mun­sell chips they may notice a dif­fer­ence. May take has been to use the gray set and mix my val­ues against it.

  2. David says

    K Mon­roe,

    That’s a good point. The SP grays are lighter than equiv­a­lent Mun­sell val­ues, since they are designed to be glazed over. Since glazes darken what they cover, it helps to do the under­paint­ing lighter than the intended final effect.


  3. Scott Onre says

    Your web­site is truly one of the best! Are you a teacher? This is an excel­lent site, with the most use­ful expla­na­tions. I like it bet­ter than Rob Howard’s site.

    Your expla­na­tion of the dead layer was humor­ous and the first help in under­stand­ing. Do you have infor­ma­tion on what an “ebauche” is. I have looked at ARC arti­cles, but, noth­ing seems to gell.

    BTW, your art­work is good quality.


  4. David says


    Thanks for the nice com­ments. To the best of my under­stand­ing, an ebauche is pretty much an ini­tial low-chroma dead col­or­ing layer. Many of these terms overlap.

  5. Jet says

    Great break­down of color. Any spe­cific tips about work­ing with acrylic? I came into a huge amount of them and feel oblig­ated to use them up but they are much duller than oils.

  6. David says


    In terms of color mix­ing, the only tricky thing about acrylic is that it dries a bit lower in value than it is when wet. When eval­u­at­ing value rela­tion­ships, that can be a chal­lenge. It can help to wet the sur­face of the paint­ing, which slightly dark­ens darker col­ors and makes it a lit­tle eas­ier to judge.

  7. Carol says

    I sat this after­noon with a note­book and went through your arti­cle. For the first time I am begin­ning to under­stand — thank you so much! A truly great article.

  8. ross says

    Thankyou for writ­ing this excel­lent and help­ful arti­cle. I was won­der­ing whether you are aware of any light meters or color mea­sur­ing devices which exist which could be utilised by the artist? Would you con­sider using any tech­no­log­i­cal device to help with your assess­ments of value, hue and chroma?
    Do you think that a dig­i­tal cam­era set to black and white mode has any worth for check­ing val­ues in a paint­ing? I know that tra­di­tional black and white cam­era film dis­torts value: in par­tic­u­lar it is extra sen­si­tive to reds, ren­der­ing them far too dark. Do you now whether dig­i­tal cam­era tech­nol­ogy suf­fers from any sim­i­lar value-distorting prob­lems.
    Once again, thanks for the great arti­cle.

  9. David says


    You’re wel­come. I’m glad you found it helpful.

    I am no expert, but it’s my under­stand­ing that dig­i­tal cam­eras also dis­tort value in var­i­ous ways. Like film cam­eras, they do not have as wide a dynamic range as the human eye, for example.

    I think the best device for assess­ing value, hue, and chroma would be a set of Mun­sell chips, which can be used as a ref­er­ence point for just about any color that can be cre­ated with paint. If you can’t afford the big set (nei­ther can I) then get the stu­dent set (much less use­ful, but still worthwhile).

  10. Holly says

    Here’s my ques­tion — I work at Trader Joe’s (San Diego) and I’m in charge of the cereal aisle. I have this idea that I want to put it all in color order, make a rain­bow, since Hill­crest is gay cen­tral and I think it could look pretty wild — the aisle sits at a rak­ish angle. If I’m start­ing on the right with yel­low and I expand left­ward — orange, red, pur­ple, blue, green — where do my browns, beiges, blacks and whites fit in? Do tell. I myself have 10 years of art school, took color the­ory and still can’t sort this.

  11. David says


    I’m a big fan of Trader Joe’s.

    Your prob­lem is that there is no sin­gle way to order col­ors. You are think­ing of a visual spec­trum: red, orange, yel­low, green, blue, indigo, vio­let. That works, but only for high-chroma col­ors, so you are left with the low-chroma col­ors that don’t fit on the out­side of the stan­dard color wheel.

    Browns are dull dark yel­lows and oranges. Beiges are dull yel­lows. So you could put those on the lower lev­els. Whites are so high in value that they effec­tively have no hue or chroma. So they could go at the very top. Blacks, sim­i­larly, are so lo in value that they have no real hue or chroma. (Tech­ni­cally, I’m using a sub­trac­tive color model here. In an addi­tive color model, white is a com­bi­na­tion of all col­ors and black is the absence of light.)

    This is, of course, an arbi­trary way of putting col­ors together. There are other ways to do it; they would be equally arbitrary.

  12. Holly says

    Hey, thanks, I appre­ci­ate it. Unfor­tu­nately, the full-timers’ response was No Way, fol­lowed by gales of laugh­ter and a new nick­name — Rain­bow Brite. I don’t care, I still think it’s a good idea.

  13. Ramesh says

    Dave, I read your arti­cle sev­eral times and it helped in dis­sas­sem­bling the sub­ject of color-mixing. Infact, I pre­pared notes based on your arti­cle. Now it is time apply all these which is much harder than mak­ing notes :-)

    I still have one fun­da­men­tal doubt…. When I came across Mun­sell the­ory, I thought that I got a way to mea­sure the inten­sity of red among dif­fer­ent red tubes say(Pyrrole red, Cad­mium red and Quinacridone red). And GOLDEN paints has pub­lished Munsell-code for their col­ors, and I thought of using these codes to decide which com­po­nent col­ors to use in a mix­ture to arrive at a tar­get color(say black). Golden’s rec­om­men­da­tion for mak­ing Black is
    Phthalo_Green_BS(5.0 BG) + Naphthol_Red_Light(7.0R) = Black
    Given that Naphthol_Red_Medium is 5.1R, I thought Naphthol_Red_Medium(5.1R) should have been used instead of Naphthol_Red_Light(7.0R) because lat­ter is right oppo­site to 5.0BG.

    In your arti­cle, under the con­text of Munsell’s the­ory, you wrote “…(These are visual com­ple­ments, not nec­es­sar­ily mix­ing com­ple­ments. )…”, I think, these lines of yours goes along with Golden’s rec­om­men­da­tion for mak­ing black.

    Does this mean i should not take Mun­sell codes seri­ously while mix­ing col­ors? If this is the case, how or to what extent, can I use Mun­sell codes while mix­ing colors?

    Thanks Ramesh
    Here are links to golden’s doc­u­men­ta­tion
    http://​www​.gold​en​paints​.com/​a​r​t​i​s​t​/​m​i​x​g​u​i​d​e​.​php (sec. Mix­ing Com­ple­men­tary Colors )

  14. David says


    I applaud Golden or any other paint maker that includes Mun­sell codes for each color. But that won’t tell you which col­ors are complements.

    The only way to dis­cover true mix­ing com­ple­ments is to exper­i­ment. Some pig­ments have two or more mix­ing com­ple­ments, while oth­ers have none. Sim­ply know­ing the color (hue, value, chroma) pro­vides only an approx­i­ma­tion of how a given pig­ment will inter­act when mixed with another one. On ATSH recently, for exam­ple, I showed how ver­mil­ion and cad­mium red, which look very sim­i­lar, pro­duce dif­fer­ent results when mixed with black. There are innu­mer­able other exam­ples of mix­ing pairs that don’t pro­duce results that are pre­dictable from the color of the paint.

    That’s why I empha­size that Mun­sell is a superb guide to iden­ti­fy­ing color, but only OK as a guide to mix­ing. Unfor­tu­nately, there’s just no sub­sti­tute for try­ing it for yourself.

    The infor­ma­tion pro­vided at http://​www​.hand​print​.com by Bruce MacEvoy, although designed for water­color paint, is pretty work­able for oil paint as well. His value wheel and mix­ing wheel are the best I’ve found for deter­min­ing mix­ing com­ple­ments. Still, any such tool is only a start. That’s why I usu­ally rec­om­mend that most artists do best with a lim­ited palette of col­ors that they know very well, sup­ple­mented when nec­es­sary by other paints that might not be mix­able with their stan­dard colors.

    Bruce’s artist’s color wheel.

    And his artist’s value wheel.

    Not that I have any­thing bad to say about Golden, by the way (they seem like an excel­lent com­pany) but any paint maker likes it when you use expen­sive paints to mix the exact color of an inex­pen­sive paint (black).

  15. Andy says

    Wow Dave I loved this article…here is a link I found that shows another kind of cylin­dri­cal con­cept of color: the video is great too!


    Also relat­ing to your com­ments in the article’s third para­graph above I have always been frus­trated by the paint­ing instruc­tion books I find in book stores. They almost always seem to be filled with lots of pho­tos and text that doesn’t seem to relay much use­full infor­ma­tion at all. And these days all I seem to find in their place are Pho­to­shop tuto­ri­als. I feel like a Dinosaur!

  16. David says


    Thanks for the link. The Gam­blin color space seems to be some­what sim­i­lar to Mun­sell, except that they pre­tend that every hue has the same chroma range at every value step. That may be a use­ful sim­pli­fi­ca­tion for some pur­poses, although I find Mun­sell to be a bet­ter way to under­stand color myself. They do pro­vide what looks like Mun­sell codes for each of their paints, which is excel­lent. Gam­blin does, how­ever, seem to be a pro­po­nent of “color bias” the­ory, which can some­what dis­tort color rela­tion­ships in some cases. His ver­sion is a lit­tle bet­ter thought out than the one described in “Blue and Yel­low Don’t Make Green,” however.

    I have no prob­lem with Pho­to­shop, and have been known to read books about it. But I do wish there were bet­ter books on color for painters.

  17. Andy says

    Your right Dave!

    The Gam­blin color space seems to treat all col­ors as if though they have the same intensity…

    After read­ing your entry I went to the Mun­sell site. The Mun­sell sys­tem accounts for col­ors that have chroma extend­ing far out of the basic cylin­der. It even men­tions that some mod­ern floures­cent col­ors may extend 30 steps in chroma.

    Speak­ing of floures­cent col­ors; just wait untill our chroma clue­less bud­dies start exper­i­ment­ing with those! HAHA!

    I hope this isn’t too far off topic but it’s always struck me as odd that as artists we’ve always thought of color in terms of a wheel or cylin­der but in the realm of sci­ence vis­i­ble color is always viewed as a straight line. For exam­ple on the left pur­ple fades into the range of ultra-violet and on the right red fades into infra-red!

  18. tombobiche says

    Some col­or­ing is just rel­a­tive to each other and the more the con­trast the bet­ter the effect; but every color rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing or sub­or­di­nat­ing the other; I noticed that John Barry Ray­bould likes to key his paint­ings high chroma as is the impres­sion­ist manner.

  19. David says

    @tombobiche -


    Most impres­sion­ist paint­ings are not keyed as high in chroma as you might think. They used many tricks to make you focus on the color with­out hav­ing to blast the intensity.

  20. tombobiche says

    I know most of the impres­sion­ists used Ivory black which Ive had some prob­lems with lately. And those paints dull as they were were boun­ti­ful in France at that time. I’m always fas­ci­nated the way Vin­cent uses red.

  21. tombobiche says

    Those color spots of Hawthorne seem good, to see the plane of light, I have so many dif­fer­ent palettes but most of them mix well within them­selves pigment-wise so that seems to be most con­ven­tient to me with very sim­ple mix­ing instead of full blown mod­u­la­tions and a palette that has no lim­its on range, but I switch palettes accord­ing to how best the pig­ments will refelct the light and I use about six that all give a bang for the buck, so to arrive at the nat­ural or har­mo­nious color with min­i­mal effort. I believe the col­ors should be very bright and happy within them­selves but that they should simul­ta­ne­ously appear to be remarkedly antique, and thats an easy way, and I still never do a color sketch with­out look­ing in my PC, even after look­ing at my color com­puter wheel by Grum­bacher and think­ing about the momochro­matic, anal­gous, com­ple­men­tary, split com­ple­men­tary, tem­pra­ture and sat­u­ra­tion, but some­thing like mono­chromity is a very accept­able para­me­ter in my opinion.

  22. David says

    @tombobiche -

    It may be worth not­ing that the ivory black they used was actual ivory black. What is called “ivory black” now is basi­cally bone black. I have not used the real stuff, but I do know that the prop­er­ties are a bit different.

  23. tombobiche says

    And I I guess every­one has seen all the dif­fer­ent kinds of blacks that even Goya and oth­ers kept on their palettes, I guess they used it in areas of the paint­ing, but no doubt even some of the ori­gional pig­ments mixed far bet­ter with their made blacks than ours do and show no signs of sul­ly­ing the color of the entire mix even with brighter yel­lows. I’ve made pretty good blacks from cal­cined bacon or leather and even peach stones quenched in vine­gar. Monet seems to have had some pretty com­plex mix­tures with 15 pig­ments going at once with black, like white + ver­mil­lion + chrome oxide green + yel­low and red earths + french ultra­ma­rine + chrome yel­low + black.

  24. tombobiche says

    Im inter­ested in find­ing resources for mak­ing real col­ored paints from avail­able pig­ments; I have sev­eral ochres I’ve mulled and am sure they can be doc­tored up to look like the real thing. I guess the real trick for me has been to use whats avail­able in the art stores most com­monly and then use the same mix­tures applied by the art com­pa­nies to arrive at the hue of what would oth­er­wise be more price­less col­ors like gen­uine ultra­ma­rine and even some of the rarer col­ors. Then of course some painters use even stranger mix­tures like sap green, dutch pink and lake + black to make all their base col­ors which I guess is their own pref­er­ence beyond the his­toric col­ors of a mas­ter they choose; but I fig­ure if it mixes good and looks good why not, even though the sullen look of a black mixed paint­ing has its place, so often the insis­tence to use it because its known as mas­terly can wreck a paint­ing; but for sure I guess blue black or vine black would be a safe way to go.

  25. Mary Sheehan Winn says

    No one’s been over here for a year?

    I found your link through an email ref­er­ence and I find this expla­na­tion very rel­e­vant! Thank YOU. I’m going to read it and read it and read it some more and I’m going to link it to my blog where many will, if you will, ‘see the light’.

  26. Lisa says

    Thank you for shar­ing so much great info here. I’ll be read­ing again and again!

  27. Patti C says

    I just dis­cov­ered your site. I’ve not painted much in sev­eral years due to an ill­ness but just got a bunch out of stor­age and hope to pick it up again.

    I am amused that you pre­fer to use the earth col­ors than to mix. I find it absurd to mix earth col­ors. The nat­ural earth col­ors are cheap, very light fast, and have a lovely depth from the nat­ural clays that mixes can’t match.

    I do not care much for harsh cad­mium yel­lows and reds and am inter­ested in mix­ing them to sim­u­late ochres and sien­nas. Most of the earth col­ors will thin down to trans­parency nicely also.

  28. Patti C says

    Woops! I meant to say that I am NOT inter­ested in mix­ing cad­mi­ums to sim­u­late ochres and siennas!

  29. kini says

    I don’t know why paint brands still rec­om­mend 3 color or even 6 (split pri­mary) palettes now that we have these extremely pow­er­ful phthalo. Phthalo and quinacridone are great, but unless you add in more dulled earth col­ors, there is no way you are able to con­trol the mix­ture. The strat­egy of try­ing to add a mixed vio­let or try­ing to con­trol the hue shifts of yel­low through pure com­plet­men­tary strate­gies is nuts, you have 0 con­trol over your mix­ture that way.

    • David says

      I am not a big fan of pthalo col­ors myself. They are just too strong.

  30. Mixed Media Girl says

    THANK YOU! For SO many years, I was think­ing I was the “Stu­pid” one, not under­stand­ing the color wheel. It makes sense that orig­i­nal color wheel was based on tech­nol­ogy and paint types at the time. And now we have so many dif­fer­ent tools and tech­nolo­gies and a new way of think­ing is needed!

  31. susan says

    Great Arti­cle thanks David Have you seen Tim’s Ver­meer? It must have been very heav­ily edited as it omit­ted all paint mixing!

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