Have you ever felt overwhelmed with the many options of colors you can buy in the store? Have you ever wondered why there are 5 different choices of red and 4 different types of blue? In this article I will break down color for you so you will be familiar with the few colors you need to make almost any color under the sun. In my years of working with students, I find that many don’t spend time studying color theory, and they often get frustrated when their colors turn to mud, or they waste alot of paint trying to achieve that perfect color. Below you will find some crucial color mixing tips, and a list of what paint colors you need to buy for the results.
First, when you get the mud color in your paintings, it means that you likely have mixed too many colors into one, to the point that the saturation of the color is reduced to a neutral. The way that you achieve neutral browns (purposely) is to mix the opposites on the color wheel together—for example, blue and orange. So if you have mud, it’s likely that you mixed too many colors that are opposite, or almost opposite, on the color wheel, and you have to start that color mix again! Here are some general rules in color mixing so you can avoid the mud color.
Color theory is a huge topic of study, and it’s hard to go into all the details in one article online. Therefore, I listed out 6 vital tips so that you can improve your color mixing skills today! Here they are:
To Lighten A Color, Add a Lighter Color Such as Yellow, or White
To Darken A Color, Add a Darker Color Such as Purple, or Black
To Avoid Unintentional Browns, Don’t Mix Colors Opposite on the Color Wheel
Try to Mix Warm Colors with Warm, And Cool Colors With Cool to Avoid Mud
If You Want a Light Color, Add SMALL Amounts of the Darker Color So it Doesn’t Darken Too Fast
If You Have a Big Pile of A Color You Want to Lighten, Remove a Small Amount of That Color and Add White Directly to It
Try to Reduce Your Palette To Only 3 Colors (Not Including Black and White)
Now that you understand some best practices for mixing color, let’s review what colors you should have in your studio. You don’t need to buy every color in the store. If you look at the paint tube, it will tell you the pigments used to make that color. If it’s just one color, then that’s a good one to buy because you can’t mix that color. If it’s more than one color, then in most cases you can make the color yourself. However, it is useful to have the list of colors below so you can more easily and quickly mix the color you desire.
If you want more information about color, Golden Acrylics, Liquitex, Windsor Newton, and many others have detailed information about their paint on their websites. According to Windsor Newton, “Single pigment colours are often the preferred choice for artists so that mixtures remain clean. Sometimes mixtures are necessary to achieve a colour if it is no longer produced or is too toxic to be safe by modern standards.” If you want, poke around the websites of the various paint brands you have to learn more.
If you want to avoid overwhelm, I recommend purchasing the below colors so that you can mix most, if not all the colors you desire. The following colors are the most important because they are comprised of the primary and secondary colors. You can’t mix a primary color because it’s a single pigment, and I always keep secondaries on hand for accurate color mixing. You also need black and Titanium White. Titanium White is an opaque color (not see-through), so it’s a standard for color mixing. Zinc White, on the other hand, is a semi-transparent white, and you will have to use ALOT of the paint to lighten your colors. So here’s the list!
Cadmium Lemon or Hansa Yellow Light
Phthalo Blue (get green shade if there’s an option)
Viridian or Phthalo Green (get blue shade if there’s an option)
Cadmium or Vat Orange
Bone or Ivory Black
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Red Medium
Permanent Green Light
There you have it! Try out these colors and put some of the above tips into practice in your studio, and I know you will experience more ease with color mixing.
If you want to learn more about color theory, mixing colors, and making them work in your abstract paintings, stay tuned, my online course is coming soon!
Andrea Cermanski is an artist and teacher from Santa Fe, New Mexico who teaches in-person painting workshops and retreats.