5 Colour Mixing Tips (I Wish I’d Learnt Earlier Than I Did)

Colour Theory Mixture

Exploring Colour MixingA little colour-mixing exploration is dangerous as it entices you into a journey that never ends. Don’t let the vast possibilities and huge range of colours available deter you however, because while there’s so much to discover, it’s a journey with many, many joyful discoveries along the way.

Memorize the few fundamentals, embrace the challenge and get mixing. At worst you?ll produce a murky, muted muddy colour (but even then it’s not wasted paint because you can use it with white and black for a tonal study or simply use it to eliminate the white of a new canvas).

Colour Mixing Tip No 1: Add Dark to Light (not light to dark)
It takes less of a dark colour to change a light colour than it does of light colour to change a dark.

For example, to mix a light blue, if you take some white and then add a little blue to this until it’s the right tone, you’ll use less paint than than trying to lighten a blue by adding white to it. Or to mix a green, add a little blue (the dark) to a yellow (the lighter colour) rather than adding yellow into a pile of blue and then having to add more and more yellow to get a light green and ending up with a huge pile of mixed paint.

Colour Mixing Tip No 2: Add Opaque to Transparent
The same applies to mixing a transparent and an opaque colour. Add a little of the opaque colour to the transparent one, because the opaque colour has a far greater strength or influence than a transparent colour.

Colour Theory MixtureColour Mixing Tip No 3: Check How Many Pigments (Colours)
For the brightest, most intense results, check how many pigments are in the two colours you are mixing. (The label should tell you, or the manufacturer’s colour chart on their website.) Ideally, you want to mix colours each containing one pigment only, so you?re mixing only two pigments; the more in the mix, the faster you get towards tertiary colours (greys/browns).

Colour Mixing Tip No 4: Beautiful Browns and Greys
To mix browns and greys that harmonize with the rest of your painting, mix complementary colours (red/green; yellow/purple; blue/orange) from the palette you?ve used, rather than colours you haven?t used in that particular painting. Vary the proportions of each colour to create a range of browns/greys.

Colour Mixing Tip No 5: Don?t Overmix
Forget mixing thoroughly and properly, but stop a little bit beforehand (but sufficiently so you don’t have large blobs of an unmixed colour). You get a far more interesting result when you put the mixed colour down on paper or canvas because it’ll vary slightly.

Colour Tips for Artists infographic

Monday Motivator: Value vs Tonality in a Painting

Art motivational quote

“While it is true that values and tonality are linked (a painting whose values are incorrect will not have a true sense of tonality), value can be demonstrated in a black and white photo, for example. Tonality cannot be demonstrated by any photo; it is the very color quality of light, shimmering, twinkling, changing — think veils — that envelops and surrounds everything.”

— Jerry Fresia The Importance Of Atmosphere In Plein-Air Painting

Tonality is one of those “the more you learn, the more you see it” things that make painting so rewarding and so frustrating. It takes patience to get to the lightbulb moment when it all falls into place, when rather than merely knowing it exists you’re indeed seeing it. (It can feel a bit like being with a group of birdwatchers all enthusing about a bird you can’t see no matter how hard you try and how much someone else points you towards it.)

Around sunrise and sunset, you can get what photographers call the “golden hour” when everything is covered by a warm, red-gold light. This is probably the easiest time to see tonality, light having a colour, because it’s so strong. Especially in the greens in the landscape, which shift towards yellow-green rather than blue-green.

For me the lightbulb moment seeing a purple shadow on a boabab tree near sundown. On the frosty February morning when I took the photo below that memory came back to me because of the blues in the colours where the grass tufts cast shadow. Part of the colour difference is of course because the weak winter sun had been up long enough to melt some of the frost but not where the grass tufts had cast shadow. I stood here for quite some time contemplating yellow, blue, and green. I should have sketched, but my fingers were too cold.

Colour of Light and Shadows

7 Reasons to Paint in Monochrome

Monochrome Figure Painting

If painting in monochrome seems a strange thing to do given all the paint colours available to us, think for a moment about how beautiful and powerful black-and-white or sepia photographs can be. Likewise paintings done with black ink only. We don’t feel a lack of colour when we look at these, yet when thinking about painting with only one colour our instinct is often to feel that we’re missing out somehow.

Monochrome Figure Painting
Colour: burnt sienna mixed with Prussian blue to create a deep, rich brown.

Here are my seven reasons to painting in monochrome (do add your own thoughts in the comments section below):

  1. Only one colour to deal with, so you really get to know its characteristics and what it does (opacity, transparency, tinting strength).
  2. Helps you focus on tone without the distraction of colour. Reminds you that less is often more: tone is often the solution to a problematic painting rather than colour.
  3. Encourages patience and persistence (because you can’t distract the viewer with colour and have to fix things).
  4. No wasted paint from colour-mixing mistakes.
  5. You’ve only one brush to wash (unless you’ve used various sizes).
  6. You can add the art term “Grisaille” into your vocabulary.
  7. Gives you the chance to pretend you’re Rembrandt, working in dark moody browns.


  • Monochrome doesn’t mean it has to be a tube colour, you can mix a colour.
  • Consider using a coloured ground (in a light tone) rather than working on white.
  • Transparent pigments are more versatile than opaque for this.
  • Using the white of the canvas/paper gives a different result than adding white paint.
  • Zinc white is more transparent than titanium white (which is a very opaque pigment).

Discovering how much can be achieved with only one colour is a step on the journey to discovering the joys of working with a limited palette. Using fewer colours but ones that you know intimately will produce better paintings than using lots of colours. It adds a cohesion as the colours work with one another across the whole composition.

Giving Colours Names is the Artist’s Equivalent of Wine Tasting

One of the myriad of ways we can advance artistically is to increase our awareness of the colours in the world around us, to pick out individual aspects and, more importantly, to have a way of remembering them. The task is a little bit like that faced by wine tasters who have to be able to identify or critique a particular wine from the little indications they encounter in taste. They develop a special vocabulary that matches up particular flavours to names they not only can recall, but can use when talking to others.

Colour Chart Watercolour
An old colour chart of all the watercolour colours we had at the time.

The first step to gaining a vocabulary of colours is to get hold of as many Colour Charts as possible. Preferably those hand painted with the manufacturer’s actual colours rather than something printed, or worse, viewed on your computer (when last did you calibrate your screen, if ever?). Look at them regularly, and pay particular attention to where companies have used the same name for slightly different colours. The pigment information will enable you to compare like with like. You’ll need to decide for yourself which particular colour you are going to associate with what name.

Colour Chart Acrylics
A chart of Marion’s, done in the early 1990s for acrylic colours.

The next step is to use these colour names when you are looking at the world. Look at a bush and decide which colour greens. Look at the sea and the sky, and decide the particular colour blue, or grey, or green, you are seeing. The aim is to get to the stage where looking generates the names of specific paint colours in your mine e.g. “cerulean blue with a dark Prussian blue band on the horizon” rather than simply “blue sea”. (You can treat it like a game, and carry a suitable colour chart with you to check your accuracy. Holding your forefingers and thumbs together to create a tiny viewfinder will help you identify a colour in a small area.)

Finally, when you out sketching, rather than rely on colour matching with your watercolours, make a note of the particular colour you are seeing. Record how the changing light of the day causes the colours to vary; you can use this information to correct the time effects of plein air painting, or incorporate it into your choice of analogous colours when painting in with limited palette.
As you progress, you’ll find that you can differentiate between more and more shades of colour, developing a Nuanced Eye.

Know the name of the colour. Your name for that colour.

Monday Motivator: Turner’s Colour Effects

Art motivational quoteJMW Turner’s “radiant effects, obtained with mere paint, remain unique even after Impressionism. … replaced the old technique of light and dark contrast with the finest gradations of colours, all–or nearly all–very light in value.

“While rejecting traditional chiaroscuro, Turner also rejected representation of solid bodies compactly arranged… he created resplendent effects of colour permeating atmosphere and deep space.

His sketchbooks reveal a background of experimentation with bands and blocks of colours placed side by side in various combination.”
Source: Vision and Invention by Calvin Harlan p85

I’ve often thought of the colours in the view from my studio across the Minch as being part of a colourfield painting by Rothko or a seascape done in greys with a narrow tonal range by Whistler, but there’s also plenty of stormy weather and dramatic atmosphere to relate to Turner. Creating a sense of distant islands, with the sun forcing its way through fast-moving clouds above a wind-whipped sea, that’s what’s on my mind today.

The Five Ways I Mix Greens

Detail: Tiny Sheep in a PaintingOne of the first things we learn about colour theory when starting to paint is that mixing a yellow and a blue produces a green. Followed quickly by the discovery the result depends not only on the proportions of the yellow:blue mix, but also which specific yellow and blue pigments are involved. Thus begins the quest for the perfect green, which I think ends only if you decide not to paint verdant landscapes.

1. The Easy Mix: Adding a Blue or Yellow to a Green
Adjust an existing green by adding another blue or yellow to it. (It’s not cheating!) Take some of the blue you’re using for the sky or sea or yellow from the sun to shift a tube green to better fit that particular landscape painting.
Tip: For a sense of early morning and late afternoon light, make your greens more golden yellow.

2. The Physical Mix: Blue and Yellow
Mix a blue with a yellow and you’ve a green. Vary the proportions and you’ve variations of that green. Mix the same blue with another yellow, and you’ve another green and yet more variations. Repeat through all the blue and yellow pigments we as painters have available to us, and you’ve all sorts of greens that become tricky to keep track of without creating a colour chart. Stick initially with a few blues/yellows until you know exactly what they’re going to do in a mix, then more onto other pigments; let the knowledge become instinctive through practice.
Tip: A little blue with shift the colour of a yellow more than the equivalent yellow in a blue.

3. The Optical Mix: Glazing

Glazing with blue over yellow or yellow over blue will also create green. An optical mix, where the layers of colour mix as we look at them, rather than a physical mix. The result can be richer, with more depth, than a single layer of a mixed colour.
Tip: Glaze over a mixed green if it turns out not to be exactly as you want it rather than trying to remove it.

4. The Secret Mix: Black and Yellow
Instead of a blue, use a black with yellow to mix earthy dark green. It seems unlikely, but you’ll be surprised at the result! My favourite is perylene black (Pbk31) which is often called perylene green because it has a strong green undertone to it. Remember, as with blues and yellows, different blacks and yellows produce different results, so experiment and make notes of what’s in the mixtures.
Tip: A little titanium white can help make the green more evident in a black:yellow mixture.

5. The Neutralizing Mix: Add Anything and Everything to a Green
If you add a red (the complementary colour to green) or a purple to a green you get useful grey- and brown-greens, which have all sorts of uses especially in landscape paintings. If you’re not feeling adventurous, first try using orange instead of yellow with blue.
Tip: Try it for greens in shadow areas.

Know What You’re Using

If you want to be able to repeat what you’re doing, check the paint tube label to see what pigment(s) is in a colour. Especially if you’re using different brands where the same colour names may not contain the same pigments. Check whether it’s a single-pigment green or a mixed green. It’s important because the more colours you have in a mixture, the sooner you end up with your brush in mud (brownish rather than vibrant mixtures).

Transparent Watercolour Doesn’t Mean Colourless Paint

Transparent Paint Colour
Watercolour paint is transparent, what’s underneath shows through; how much depends on the pigment and how thickly or thinly it’s used.

On Saturday someone asked me what gouache was. As I was explaining it’s like watercolour but opaque paint not transparent, they got stuck on “how can paint be transparent when it’s a colour?” It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the misunderstanding that transparent means colourless (like reading glasses) rather than having colour but still allowing what’s beneath or behind it to show through (like sunglasses).

Watercolour is a transparent in that layers of watercolour paint allow what’s beneath it to show through. How much shows varies, depending on the properties of a pigment and how thickly/thinly you’re using it. The more water you’ve added to the paint, the thinner the colour will be and thus the greater the transparency.

Traditional gouache is used with water, like watercolour, but is inherently opaque and matt, covering over what’s been painted underneath. The result has quite a different feel to it: flatter, more solid colours. The exception is what is sold as white watercolour paint, which has opaque properties; it’s often called Chinese white, sometimes titanium white.

It’s the transparent nature of watercolour that enables you to build up rich colours with a sense of depth, layer by layer. To darken tones by applying another layer of the same colour. To ‘mix’ colours on the paper rather than on your palette, such as creating a green by painting blue over yellow or a purple with red over blue. (To put it into artspeak: optical mixing rather than physical mixing.)

The opaque nature of traditional gouache enables you to add detail to a watercolour late in its development, for instance grass in the foreground, or for overworking areas that have gone wrong. Do have a go at a complete painting with gouache alone at least once as it’s a different beast to watercolour. Or “fake it” by adding some white to all your watercolour colours; the colours will be less saturated but it’ll give you a feel for it.

Never Use White in a Painting?

Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?

If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?

Sunset over the Minch monoprints by Marion Boddy-Evans
Sunset over the Minch monoprints

I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).

A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.