Mixing the color is one of the most important steps in oil painting, it’s very hard to paint only with the “pure” colors because they fight each other in the painting and this competition spoils the artwork. Moreover, if you use only pure colors you’ll have limited range of colors.
Before knowing how to mix the color I used to proceed at random and in most cases I ended up mixing the wrong ones. The few times I obtained the color I wanted and I needed a bigger quantity I wasn’t able recreate it (I can assure you that it’s very frustrating). If this happens to you very frequently or if you have no idea of the right way to mix the colors you are in the right place. Mixing the colors is easy if you know how. Through this tutorial you are going to learn how artists mix the colors moreover, you are going to discover that to obtain the tint you want you need only 2-3 colors plus black and white .
But first let me do a little theory…..
The three dimensions of color
Color is the most powerful weapon of the artist.
Understanding the general characteristics of the color is very important for every painter. Knowing the color allow you to do a better use of it. Color influences mood, enhances the tridimensionality, gives the illusion of depth and can also give the sensation of coldness or warmth.
Let’s start from the basis.
Every color has three characteristics:
You can obtain almost every color by modifying them.
What is the hue?
The hue of the color indicates its name and its position on the color wheel, but doesn’t give information about it. This may seem a bit confusing, so let’s see an example.
If you have to give a name to the colors of the squares you’ll say that the first one is yellow, the second one lightyellow and the third one darkyellow. However, the hue doesn’t care of the brightness or the saturation of a color: from the point of view of the hue adjectives like “light”, “pale”, “dark” etc. don’t exist. The hue of these three squares is the same: yellow.
In the following image the situation is different:
Again, let’s give a name to the color of the squares: the first one is yellow, the second one is blue and the third one is red. In this case the hue is different.
The hue of a color indicates its name. When you talk about a hue of a color you don’t take in account neither its brightness nor its grade of saturation (Value and intensity deal with them). For example if the color is a person the hue indicates the name (like Anna, John, Lucas, etc.) but doesn’t give us a description of his/her characteristics (we can’t know if Anna is tall and John is thin just from their name).
The color wheel
I bet you have already seen a color wheel, for example in the art class or on the web. The fame of this instrument is proportional to its utility. It’s very useful for artist and personally I always keep an eye on it when I paint.
Why is the color wheel so important?
The color wheel is a scheme where the colors are disposed on a circle. The order of the colors isn’t casual and it allows you to see the relationships between them. You can use the color wheel to determine which color can be mixed to obtain the one you want.
Primary, secondary and tertiary colors:
RED, YELLOW and BLUE are the primary colors. They can’t be obtained by mixing together other colors, but almost any color can be obtained by mixing them.
VIOLET, ORANGE and GREEN are the secondary colors. You can obtain these colors by mixing two primary colors.
Colors like yellow-orange, blue-green, red-violet, etc. are tertiary colors. In order to obtain them you have to mix two secondary colors.
Analogous and complementary colors:
As you can see on the color wheel some colors are in harmony, whereas others colors are opposed each other:
Colors that are nearly on the color wheel look good together. They are called analogous colors. For example red and red-violet are analogous:
colors that are opposed on the color wheel have the best contrast: if you put them right next to each other they will look stronger. The color that has the best contrast is called complementary. The complementary of a primary color is always a secondary color. If you mix a color and its complementary you obtain gray. Here is an example of two complementary colors:
Warm and cool colors:
Also in this case I bet you have already heard someone talking about warm and cool colors. The right use of colors can improve the illusion of depth, tridimensionality, give us the sensation of hot and cold and influence our mood.
The color wheel is, with some exception, split in warm and cool colors:
In everyday life we associate colors like red, orange and yellow to incandescent or hot objects, fire and sun (warm colors). Colors like blue reminds us to cold objects. Because of these associations when we are surrounded by warm colors we tend to feel cool, whereas if we are surrounded by warm colors we then to feel warm.
Moreover object painted with a warm color give us the illusion to look closer or bigger, vice versa we see painted with cool colors are smaller or further.
To make a color warmer we can add yellow to it. If we want a color to look colder we can mix a bit of blue with it.
PS. Red-Violet and yellow-green aren’t neither warm nor cold. We can say that they are “neutral”. The juxtaposition with other colors influence their warmth and coldness.
Where are black, white and gray?
As you have probably noticed the color wheel doesn’t include them because….
… They are NOT colors
It may seem odd, but black, white, and gray haven’t two of the three characteristic of the colors. They lack of value and intensity so they are just hues. We tend to call them colors for convenience.
Does this mean that they are useless? No, of course. As you are going to see in the next chapters black, white and gray play a big role in value and intensity.
The value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.
A darker variant of a color is called SHADE. Shades can be obtained by mixing the pure color with a bit of black, the more black you add the darker your shade will be.
A lighter variant of a color is called TINT. If you want to obtain a tint you have to mix the color with white.
In both cases the hue doesn’t change but it becomes less “visible” or “intense” (in the following chapter you will discover that white and black also influence the intensity of a color). If you don’t want the intensity of a color to decrease you shouldn’t mix it with black and white.
By manipulating the value of colors you can improve the contrast of your painting. The bigger the difference between the values of two colors is, the stronger the contrast will be:
Between the two squares the one on the right has got the greater contrast because between the value of the red and the value of the blue the difference is bigger. Notice that the hue of the colors doesn’t change.
When you paint you should decide the range of value you want to use. To do this you have to look for the darkest and the lightest area of your subject. Once you have found them you decide how much dark or light you want them to be and then you just have to adapt the value of all the other areas to this range.
Not in all situations you want your subject to have the greatest contrast. Color affects the mood, so if you want your subject to transmit a negative feeling like sadness you’ll opt for a darker range of values.
The intensity of a color indicates its strength, saturation or purity. When the color comes out of the tube it has its maximum intensity. If you mix it with white, black, gray or its complementary the intensity decreases.
The following image shows variation on intensity. The color on the left is the less intense -it’s almost gray-, whereas the color on the right has the maximum intensity. In this case neither the value, nor the hue change.
When you paint you should avoid to use only very intense colors: they will compete and spoil the harmony of the painting. Intense colors tend to attract the attention so if you want the person who sees your painting to focus on a subject you should paint it with an intense color, and use more smoothed colors for the rest.
To sum up
Now you know the three components of color: hue, value and intensity. The previous paragraphs contain a lot of information so before going on I’d like to sum up the main aspects:
It refers to the name of a color
The color wheel:
It’s composed by primary, secondary and tertiary colors
It’s divided in warm and cool colors
Warm colors: nearer. A color is “warmed” by adding yellow
cool colors: further. A color is “cooled” by adding blue
It shows the relations between colors (analogous and complementary colors)
analogous colors-> Harmony
Complementary colors-> best contrast
Black, white and gray are hues
It refers to the lightness or the darkness of a color
A shade is a darker variant of a color. It can be obtained by mixing it with black
A tint is a lighter variant of a color. It can be obtained by mixing it with white
Changes in value influence the intensity of a color but not its hue.
The greater the difference in value is, the bigger the contrast is.
It refers to the saturation of a color
Mixing a color with white, black, gray or its complementary decreases its intensity
How to mix the colors
Only two or three colors plus black and white are needed to obtain the color you want. Indeed, mixing color is not a casual process: if you mix colors at random and follow your instinct instead of proceeding in a structurated and rational way you will probably end up with a sludge green.
If you are trying to paint a subject from the reality and you want it to look as real as possible just try to use the colors which are the closest to the ones of your subject.
if your aim is not to paint your subject from a real model or if you want to modify it or to give your interpretation you should think about all the feeling the choice of some colors instead of others could transmit:
If the situation is happy you should use light and lively colors. Whereas if you want your painting to transmit a sad feeling you should opt for dark and pale colors. Keep in mind that every color has a different meaning (for example red represents anger).
Take in account also the warmth or coolness of the colors. Do you want your painting to transmit coldness or warmth?
Decide the range of value you want to use. The wider your range is, the greater the contrast is.
Take in account the relationships between colors: analogous colors=harmony, complementary colors=contrast
Before mixing the colors you should visualize the color you want and think about its characteristics: hue, value and intensity. Once you have identified the hue think about the colors that can be mixed to obtain it. If you have no idea of its components or you are not sure the color wheel can help you.
Then decide the range of value of your painting. Keep in mind that range of value of the nature is wider compared to the range offered by the oil colors. Once you have defined the range of values try to identify where the value of your subject is placed. Remember: use black to darken a color and white to lighten it.
Last but not least look at the intensity of the subject’s colors. To decrease the intensity of a color mix it with gray or its complementary.
Don’t worry if the color you have obtained isn’t exactly the one of your subject: colors affect each other. When the color is on your palette it may seem a bit darker or lighter, but on the canvas it may look different.
As a bonus I like to give you 3 tips that can help your painting skills:
Practice and try a lot. The more you put into practice the concepts you have found here the easier you will apply them. Observe the surrounding colors, try to identify their characteristics and the colors you have to mix to obtain them. You can do this exercise everywhere.
Things that are far tend to look more pale and more light because of the effect of the air (areal perspective). To give the illusion of the distance try to use colors with a low intensity when you paint them.Don’t mix your color with black neither to make shadows nor to paint the darker areas of your subject.
Try to avoid mixing the color with white to paint the areas under direct light.You should use them only to influence the value and the intensity of the colors. To paint the darker areas mix the color of your subject with an analogous that looks darker (for example mix red with red-violet to paint the darker are of your subject). Mix it with its lighter analogous to paint the lighter areas.
Mixing the colors the right way helps you spare time, paint and money. if you know the characteristics and secrets of color your paintings will evoke feelings in the people who watch them and this is what makes the difference between a painted canvas and an artwork.
As I have already said, this post contains much information. It’s easy to forget them (personal experience) so I suggest you to read it a few times, this will help you remember the concepts. Feel free to come back every time you need to refresh your memory.
If you have any question just leave a comment and I’ll answer as soon as possible.
Oil painting fanatic. I've started to paint with oils a few years ago and I almost instantly fell in love with this kind of painting. and I never miss the boat to see a gallery of a fellow artist when I visit a new city. I live in south Switzerland and I'm planning to move to Zürich. Besides oil painting I'm also interested in fishing, reading and traveling.
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