How to Mix the Colors You Want


Are you wondering how to mix the colors you want?

It’s very frustrating for the artist to look at a painting when back in the studio only to realize all the colors are all too dark, muddy, or chalky.  Your first instinct is to throw the canvas in the trash. You then begin to doubt your artistic ability. Now is the time to stop and reassess those negative thoughts because it’s not you!  Here are some reasons why this is happening, along with some remedies.

What is Happening?

When painting outdoors, common problems painters have is when they place their canvas and palette in direct sunlight.  Brilliant light distorts colors and values. In addition, eyes acclimate to the light making color distortions worse. Then, when you view paintings indoors without sunlight, colors and values appear darker still. Check out the short video clip and see how much brighter the canvas is when placed in direct sunlight. Amazing!

Here is an easy fix.  All you need to do is shift the easel at a 45-degree angle away from the sun. This places both your palette and canvas out of the light.  Another option is to attach an umbrella to the easel.  This places both your canvas and palette in the shade while you paint.  Personally, I find umbrellas not always a practical solution because the easel goes flying when the wind picks up. An umbrella can act like a sail on a boat.

Landscape Colors Change

On average, the angle of the sun noticeably changes every 15 minutes.  Colors and cast shadows move according to the direction and orbital location of the sun.  This changes both color and shapes in the landscape and is challenging for all painters since painting is based on color and shape relationships.  My best advice is to mentally release the urgency to paint fast and know you are doing the best you can.  Focus more on mixing colors, paint at your own speed and enjoy the moment.

Eventually, efficiency with color mixing gets faster. This comes with painting practice. In the meantime, you might want to carry a small camera with you for taking periodic shots throughout the painting session.  Photographs will help jog and develop memories. But use caution. Photographs can easily turn into a crutch rather than a tool for painters. Camera images tend to distort color and values. This is due to cameras averaging out vital information artists need to mix good color. It is always better to paint from life. Be sure to check out my Blog titled, Tips for Painting from Photographs.

Why Do I Get Muddy Colors?

There are several reasons why there are muddy colors in paint mixtures. Adding a third primary color to a dominating color mixture starts to turn colors gray. In theory, most all outdoor colors have some degree of all three primaries in the color mix. This is due to particles of humidity reflecting the color of the sky.  These particles act as a filter between you and your subject. This is why cooler colors are more prevalent in subjects when seen at greater distances.

The strength of grays in a mix depends on the amount of black, dark earth colors, or the third primary added to the mix. When painters add heavy doses of these additives, the result is a muddy pile of paint that has lost a dominant color.  Mixing colors take time, especially when one is fairly new to painting. Like everything else, the more you practice mixing colors, the more efficient you become.  Nothing trumps practice when it comes to painting.

Another reason for getting muddy colors is when painters brush one color on top of another.  In this case, every brushstroke taken will dirty your top layer of paint at least by half.  The best way to handle this situation is first to take off the unwanted color with a palette knife or paper towel and then apply the desired mix.  

Dirty palettes with piles of paint, dirty paper towels filled with paint, and dirty brush cleaning fluids are other factors that contribute to dirty-looking colors. Grandma always said, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Mixing colors of paint is no exception.

Why Do I Get Chalky Colors?

Adding too much white in your mixtures gives colors that chalky appearance. Remember, white and black is not a color. Instead, they are lightening and darkening agents used in color mixing. In essence, they will remove a dominating color if not applied with care. Painters needing lighter values for their color often have no choice but to add white to the mix. In this case, I recommend adding as much of the dominating color back into the lightened mix as you can without changing the value needed.

What Colors Do I Mix?

Nature produces an insurmountable amount of different colors than we can ever comprehend within the narrowest of views.  It also displays more shapes of color than a painter can ever paint. This makes it impossible to replicate a scene on such a small canvas. For these reasons, a painter must make choices. Rationalizing painting in this manner makes it easy to understand why painters must choose, simplify, organize, and recompose their own images they think will evoke desired impressions and emotions within their audience.

Every artist sees and feels differently about the colors they see and their color preferences. Often, without conscious thought, individual color selections begin to build a natural harmonic color scheme. Colors applied on their canvas create a color environment that is uniquely different from other paintings. This, then, makes it irrational to give recipes for color mixing.  Instead, applying the properties of color when mixing paint for a certain area makes much more sense.

How Can I Improve Color Mixtures Without Knowing the Tube Colors Used?

The keys to mix better colors lie in the properties and placement of the color on the canvas. Besides hue, the most powerful properties for developing volume and distance are temperature, saturation, and value.  If you want to improve color mixtures, you must not think in terms of color names. Instead, it is far more important to choose a hue based on its placement and then adapt temperature, saturation, and value that fit with colors placed around it.

Placement refers more to the color theories of aerial perspective. I touch on these theories in the referenced color video noted at the end of this blog. Combining the properties of color and the theories of aerial perspective should help you mix better colors.

What is Color Temperature?

Temperature is the warmth or coolness of a color.  Color temperatures fluctuate depending on location and environment.  In general, colors having warm temperatures appear to have more yellows, oranges, and or reds in the mix.  Let’s take the color blue to use as an example.  If I add warmer colors to the blue such as a touch of yellow, I get blue-green.  If I add violet to the same blue, I get a blue-violet.  Although all colors fall within the cool color range on a color wheel, the blue-green appears warmer than the blue-violet when placed next to each other.  When placing the blue-green next to orange, the blue-green appears cool. You can easily see how color temperatures are relative to their locations and the colors found around them.

I often test my mixtures by dabbing a small spot of color in an area on the canvas to make sure it is appropriate for the area.  I do not apply the color on the canvas until it looks right with the surrounding colors.

What is Color Saturation?

Saturation relates to the brightness or intensity of color.  When adding white and or a portion of a third primary, the dominating color begins to lose saturation. Trust your eye and surrounding colors to tell you when a saturated color is not right for the painting.

Saturated colors that look too bright will appear out of place on the canvas.  Now is the time to add a small amount of white and or a third primary to tone down the intense color. It is also important to note the reverse can happen. A grayed-down color will look out of place if highly saturated colors surround it. This is the time to use less or none of a third primary, depending on the color environment.

What is Color Value?

Value is the lights and darks of color. The color value is the most useful tool to use when developing volume and depth with painted subjects.  Picasso was once quoted as saying, “Value does all the work while color gets all the credit.”  To better understand how color value works when wanting to model a form for depth, although never accurate, is to take a black and white photograph of the subject. This displays how values of color can model the form.

Value Scale
This is an example of a value scale with 7 value steps ranging from white to black with several grays in between.

Modeling develops a form with color and value to capture the illusion of objects being in the third dimension on a two-dimensional canvas. When subjects have little to no variety of values, they end up looking like flat-colored shapes. Some artists prefer to work in this manner. Matisse is a good example of an artist concentrating on flat shapes of color rather than building colored shapes showing depth. For this and other uses of value, check out my composition and design videos on my Youtube channel. 

In Summary

Tube-colored formulas used for general color mixing solutions are not practical.  One mixture may be perfect for one painting and horribly wrong for another. 

Color mixing is rational and analytical.  It is far more important to mix color according to its purpose, placement, and color environment. These elements help determine the dominating hue, temperature, saturation, and value of the color. Thinking about the properties of color rather than just thinking about the color alone when mixing paint will give you better color and the colors you want. Be sure to check out the color video by Anita Hampton titled, What’s Color Got to Do With It, Part II for demonstrations on color mixing and color mixing theory.

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