How to mix colours

How colourful.

A5 watercolour: Contrast of colour and tones. Notice how colourful the dark tones are.

Why discuss how to mix colours?

It is very important. The quality of your watercolour paintings depends on how you mix your colours.

 And it may surprise you,

but most people don’t know how to mix their colours!

I can hear you say to yourself, “Surely they learnt the basics while at school. That:

  • Yellow and blue makes green,
  • Yellow and red makes orange,
  • Red and blue makes violet!”

No, they don’t even know that when then come to art classes and have to make a colour wheel!   Besides that they often ask “How do you make brown and black?

  • Brown mixture: An equal mixture of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) make brown.
  • Black mixture: Theoretically an equal mixture of the secondary colours (orange, green and violet) make black. Note there is less yellow in this mixture. Strong intense pigments make the darkest freshest blacks, eg: translucent reds and Winsor thalo blue and green. 
Note: how colourful blacks are. More beautiful than pure black out of a tube (see illustrated watercolour painting above)

 Neither have they ever noticed the difference between cool colours and warm colours.

  • That blues and greens are cooler than reds and yellows.
  • That one red is cooler than another red, eg: alizarin red is cooler (slightly bluer) in hue than Cadmium red.
  • That there is a difference in blues too, eg: Winsor (thalo) blue is cooler than French ultramarine blue.
How to see the difference.

The difference between cool and warm pigments of the same primary or secondary colour.

First secret:  Making beautiful natural greens

Often you see people using their watercolours like they were colouring in with crayons. That is: using their colours straight from their paint box pans.

For example Winsor thalo intense green:

It looks very garish mixed only with water, especially over large areas. Greens look better when mixed with more neutral colours, for example:

  • Violet and green (makes teal green)
  • Orange and green (makes olive green)
  • Burnt sienna and sap green.
  • Raw sienna and Hooker’s green.
  • Burnt umber and thalo green or viridian green.

Note: And some artists don’t believe in mixing browns with green. But I do whatever it takes to get the effect I require as long as the quality of the painting isn’t compromised.

How to make green.

Example of green mixtures.

For more interesting greens:

  • A yellow with cerulean blue or indigo blue.
  • Indigo blue with viridian or sap green.
  • Blue-violet and chrome oxide green.
  • Sap green and French ultramarine.

Note: These last colour combinations, have the best results when the additional colours are lightly brushed in. That is: not pre-mixed in your palette plate.

 Second secret:  Keeping your colours clean and fresh.

On the other hand you get people trying mixing their colours on their painting, because they were not happy with the colour they have already there. Once started, they keep adding more colours, in the hope they can fix the problem. This is a recipe for disaster. The more colours added, turns your painting into murky `mud’. Why, because now all three primaries are involved in some form or other.

How do you prevent this?

  • First: Don’t mix your colours in the paint box pans. It’s wiser to pre-mix your colours in your palette plate reservoir wells, where you can judge intensity strength and hue against the whiteness of the palette.
  • It is wise to reduce the amount of pigments involved in your mixtures. Where possible keep it to two pigments only. Or involve only analogous colours (those sitting on one side of your colour wheel)
  • If you want to add another colour to a former wet wash, don’t fuss and stir in other colours. Rather drop-in (tip-in) another colour and watch while it spreads naturally.
  • To prevent soiling of colours, keep light colours away from dark colours in your paint box.
  • And to keep washes fresh, rinse you brush well before choosing another colour in your paint box.
  • It is easier to get your paint out of the pans quickly and cleanly, if you finely spray your paint box pans with water before you start to paint.

Third secret:  Colours affect people emotionally:

  • Paintings that consist mostly of cool colours (like blue & green) makes people feel cold. Cool coloured paintings have no impact emotionally.
  • To make your watercolour paintings exciting and more sell-able, play warm colours against cool colours. The pest results are when there are more warm colours than cool colours.
  • If all your colours are bright in your painting, they compete with one another, like they are all shouting at once. Tip: the contrast of neutrals to natural grays enhances your bright colours.

Fourth secret:  Natural greys:

Natural greys made of complementary coloured mixtures (colours opposite on the colour wheel). Natural greys are far more beautiful than pure blacks and grey pigments straight from the paint box or tubes. Black added to your mixtures will make your watercolours look dull and dead because black is non-reflective colour.

Typical natural grey mixtures:

  • Mixtures of green and red or magenta.
  • Mixtures of blue and burnt umber.

 Note: Watercolour mixtures differ from oil paints. You won’t get the same mixture blending results as you get in oil paints. Watercolour washes are more mottled and interesting.

It’s over to you what you make of this information:

Have fun experimenting with these colour combinations. You don’t know what effects they can really make until you mix your own stock of pigments.

  • For example, make swatches like my ‘green mixture’ illustration and label them to remember what pigments you used, for future use.
  • Your results will depend on how much water was involved in tinting the intensity of the colours.
  • Also you won’t get such beautiful washes of colour and special effects, if you aren’t using Artist’s Quality watercolour pigments. Cheap watercolour pigments haven’t the same constitution eminence.
  • The tine of colour and shade of black or grey depends on which primary pigment is more dominant.
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