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Mixing Colors

Help For The New Artist and
People Afraid of Color Mixing


Mixing colors is always a challenge especially if you are a new artist, so understanding the basics is essential in helping you progress into more advanced mixing.

Just to make it more complicated, paint color varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it helps if you make a paint color chart of the paints you use on your palette.

Once you have the chart, you can make color samples of different mixtures of your artist paints and use them as a reference for mixing the same color later on. It is critical that you identify which colors where used and the proportions.

At the bottom, I have included links to some of my favorite Recommended Reference Books for mixing colors.

Table of Contents
(highlighted ones are clickable links)

I am including this Table of Contents so that you can go directly to the specific topic you want to read about. If you prefer, you can just read this page in order by scrolling down through each topic.

Primary Colors

Colors are broken down into several categories. The very first ones you want to start with, are the Primary Colors.primary colors There are three of them:
  • RED,
  • BLUE, and
They are called Primary colors, because they cannot be made from any combination of colors or pigments.

Mixing any two of the primary colors together will give you Secondary Colors.

As I mentioned in the introduction, brands differ even though they appear to be similar. You can find a great deal of pigment information on the tubes, but if you are like me, you should probably bring a magnifying glass with you shopping for paints, so you can read the information.

Better yet, go on the internet and lookup the color and find the pigment make up.

Dick Blick shows pigment information for the products it sells. For example, Golden Open Acrylic Napthol Red Medium is made up of PR5-Naphthol Red, and is described as a "bright deep red with bluish undertones" but "it fades in tints".

When I looked at Holbein acrylics, they had a Naphthol Red which was called "Chapel Rose." Its pigment was PR146-Naphthol Red but was described as having "fair permanence and always fades in tints." This also had bluish undertones.

On the other sides of the reds are the cadmiums which tend to have more yellow in them giving them a more orange undertone.

In summary than, you have to check the colors you have on your artist paint palette as your primaries. Find out their pigment makeup.

Then, you need to mix any two of the primary colors you have available and see what you get. If you have several of each color, try different combinations to see what you get as secondary colors. Paints with more blue in them will give you cooler secondary colors. Those with more red or yellow in them, will give you warmer colors.

Here are some color samples I made. It is difficult to see the difference on some of then on the computer, but It will help give you an idea. Hover over the sample to see the colors that were used.


Secondary Colors

Secondary Colors The Secondary Colors are:
  • GREEN.
  • ORANGE and

They are the result of mixing two Primary Colors together in equal parts.

You can find these colors in different brands under different names. In Golden Acrylics, they would be called Permanent Green Light, Vat Orange, Dioxazine Purple.

Other brands may have the same or different names so you really have to experimenting with the colors you get or have to see if they produce the color you want to achieve.

You can get different secondary colors depending on whether you are using a "warm" or "cool" set of primary colors.


These are examples of colors resulting from a "cool" palette.

Notice that the underlying color in all of them is "blue" which cools down all the colors.


These are examples of colors from a "warm" palette.

Notice that the underlying color here is yellow which is altering the colors to make them warmer.

Tertiary Colors

What are Tertiary Colors?

These are the colors on the color wheel that fall between the Primary Color and the Secondary Color.

In this picture, you can see that the blue-green and the yellow-green would be the Tertiary colors.

In naming the Tertiary colors, the primary color is always the first part of the name.

I decided to look up the definition of tertiary colors and came across a one in the "Merriam-Webster" online dictionary that adds an expands the definition. I discovered that tertiary colors can be a combination of:

  • equal parts of one primary and an adjacent secondary color on the color wheel, or
  • the combination of any two secondary colors.

This is based on a definition circa 1864, so it is one the old Masters used several centuries ago when mixing their colors.

This certainly expand the range of colors that can be mixed as tertiary colors.

Variety of Browns

One interesting thing about tertiary colors is that when you mix a Tertiary Color with the Primary Color that is not a part of it all ready, you will get a variety of brown.

If you mix blue-green, with red, you get a brown.

The browns will look different depending on the ratio of each combination.

If you use more blue-green than red, the brown is very dark, almost black, as you see in the top of this picture.

More red makes a cocoa brown.

If you mix red-orange, with blue, you get another brown. I this case, I used a deep cobalt blue with the red-orange.

Try it and see what colors you get with what you have on your pallet.

I always say this, because we all have such a variety of colors and brands, that what I might achieve with my pallet may not be what you get with yours.

Analogous Colors

What are Analogous Colors?

These are three colors that are directly adjacent to each other on the color wheel. They relate to each other because they each contain one common color.

They are frequently used for a special feel in a painting and work very well together, but often give the feeling like something is missing.

To complete the feeling of balance in the painting, the complement of the dominant color can be used as just a small accent if desired.

If you don't want to use the complement, you can enrich the colors and add variety by

* Using white to lighten any of the colors, or

* By using the complements of each color to darken or gray them down.

This will add variety to the painting and still maintain the effect of restricting yourself to the analogous colors.

blue to green

This is an example of green, blue-green, and blue being used together. They are next to each other on the color wheel with blue as the common primary color. It is blue because green is made from blue and yellow and blue-green is from the resulting green plus more blue.

To me, it gives the feeling of the sea.

This is the mixture of yellow, yellow-green and green. The common primary color is yellow.

The dominant color, however, is yellow-green since it has some of both colors in it, so your choice of a complementary color would be red-violet

This third example is of blue-violet, violet, and red-violet. In this case, the common color is a secondary color, violet. It is also the dominant color so the complement of choice would be yellow.

This last example is of red-orange, orange, and yellow-orange.

What do you think the common color is?

What is the dominant color?

What would be the complement?

For the answer, hover over the picture.

Harmonious Colors

What are Harmonious Colors?

Four or five colors that are close to each other on the color wheel are harmonious. On this color wheel we have chosen four colors that are harmonious: blue, blue-green, green and yellow-green. They all have blue as a common primary color in them.

We could add blue violet into the mix and still be harmonious and maintaining blue as the common color with a touch of red from the blue-violet.

We could choose to add the yellow instead, and they would have the two primary colors blue and some added yellow.

In this example, we are starting with three analogous colors; blue, blue-green and blue-violet. Blue is the common primary color making it analogous.

We can add one or two more colors immediately adjacent to them which will give us a set of harmonious colors.

They are made up in part, by some of the same colors and work very well together in a painting because they reflect the same light waves.

Another example would be green, yellow-green, yellow, yellow-orange, and orange. They all contain some yellow.

If you add the sixth color, red-orange, it would no longer be harmonious. The red in the red-orange is the complement to green and would reflect the opposite light thus taking it out of harmony.

In my Happy Holidays card this years, I started out with harmonious colors and then purposely brought in the purple complement, yellow, to add even more interest to the painting. Since there was so much purple, it worked out well.

Judy Filarecki

I'm sure you have seen paintings made up of only Harmonious Colors. They can be quite beautiful.

Take some time now to use only Harmonious Colors to see how nicely they work together and give painting a completely different feel.

Complementary Colors

What are complementary colors?

Complementary colors

If you look at the color wheel again, any color that is directly across from another color, is the complementary color.


Red and Green are complementary.

A 3:1 ratio cadimium red to Phthalo green
plus white will give you a gray. Changing the ratio and eliminating the white will give you either a dark green or a dark red.

Blue and Orange are complementary.

A 3:1 ratio Ultra Marine blue to Cadmium orange
plus white will give you a gray. Changing the ratio and eliminating the white will give you a dark blue or a dark orange approaching a sienna.

Purple and yellow (violet) are complementary.

A 3:1 ratio of deep violet to cadmium yellow plus white will give you a gray. Changing the ratio and eliminating the white will give you a dark violet or a dark yellow approaching ochre

If you put only a little purple into a lot of yellow, you get Ochre, because you are essentially graying down the yellow.

The interesting thing about Complementary colors is that, they complement each other even though they are at the opposite sides of the color wheel.

In these three cases, the ratio was 3:1 to get a neutral gray. Generally, the 3:1 ratio or very close to it will be right for most mixtures, as long as they are truly complementary. You'll just have to experiment with the colors you have on your pallet.

Hue, Value, Intensity: Naming Colors

Now that you have an understanding of the outer ring of the color wheel, it is time to go into more specifics.

Color WheelEvery color is made up of three components or attributes: Hue, Value and Intensity. Once you can identify these components, you can mix the appropriate colors to create that color on your palette. First let's define what these terms mean.


The name of a color starts by identifying which of the twelve colors on the color wheel corresponds most closely to it, irregardless of how light or dark, or bright or dull it is.

gray scale finder


This is determined by how dark or light the color is. You can establish this by comparing it to a gray scale. There is one on the front side of a standard color wheel. There are other sources of gray scale to use, also, or you can create your own from the computer.

The key is to use the same scale for each color so you don't get mixed readings. Some scales have #1 as white, while others have #1 as black.

Some other words you might find describing Value include:

  • TINT which is the color plus white, or
  • SHADE which is the color plus black


Intensity takes a look at how bright or dull a color is. The brightest intensity would be the pure color from the color wheel while the dullest would be where you can't even discern what the color is other then it looks like gray. Other words used to describr intensity are:


So now you have established the hue, value and intensity of a color you want to use. What do you do next?

  • Select the color you identified from the color wheel.
  • Add white to bring it to the value that you established.
  • Dull it down with its complementary color to bring it to the intensity you are looking for.

Just remember, though, sometimes you won't add any white but only a complement or visa versa, because of the value and intensity you establish for the color you are making.

Now it is time for you to test out the theory explained here. It is only through actually doing it, that you will become more at ease with mixing colors.

Alter the Hue of the Secondary Color

By varying the amount of each primary color you use, you can alter the Hue of the secondary color.

changing the hue
On this color wheel, which I strongly suggest you get, you can see that if you use equal parts of blue and yellow, you get "pure" green.

If you put more blue than yellow in, you get a blue green.

If you put more yellow in than blue, you get yellow green. Sap green is an example of a yellow green.

Here is an example of mixing a little blue into red and some white to make permanent rose. This would change the hue to more of a red-violet on the red side and changes the value by adding white.

Make your Colors Darker or Lighter

If you look on the other side of the wheel, you will see how black or white added to the colors darken or lighten them. This is known as Changing it's Value.

Using black or white with the Primary or Secondary Colors gives you unlimited colors to choose from.

I personally do not like using black if I don't have too, because I feel that it deadens the color. What I prefer to use are complimentary colors.

So now you want to know How to make black paint that won't deaden your colors?

The answer is: Use ultramarine blue and burnt umber.

Usually it is about equal parts, but your can adjust to your liking.

Here is an example of mixing a little red into green to give you a darker shade of green. If I had added a small amount of green to the red, it would have darkened the red

Changing the Intensity of the Colors

When mixed in unequal parts, you can take advantage of them for creating a variety of darker intensities of the dominant color without using black.

The perfect example is when you have put down green for foliage. If you add some red to the green, it will darken the green and give the appearance of shadowed areas.
painting with acrylics
In my DVD, "Painting with Acrylics: Sombrero Peak", you can see how I added permanent rose to permanent sap green to get a darker green for the shadowing and background of the foreground foliage.

The key to using complementary colors is that different ratios have different effects.

The best thing for you to do is experiment with the colors you have on your pallet to see what colors you get.

You can also change the value by adding white to the color like we did when producing the grays.

This would be a good time to try mixing complementary colors to see how each react, and how you can alter their reaction by changing the ratio of the two colors.

Don't limit yourself to just the primary and secondary colors. Look at the color wheel. Blue-violet and yellow-orange, for example, are complementary. Just remember, any two colors opposite each other are complementary.

Recommended Reference Books

Judy Filarecki
Fine Art America

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