Color Mixing

When it comes to color mixing there is a little theory involved in the beginning, and the rest is practice, practice, and then some more practice.  Also, don't be afraid of experimenting. Remember that even the great masters became frustrated.  Let's dig into the theory so we can practice ASAP.  The ultimate goal of the practice of color mixing should be that  it becomes an instinctive reflex, and not something we have to think about.  Just like driving a car.  In the beginning you have to think about turning right or left, accelerating or slowing down, watching for other drivers, using your turn signals, etc, etc, etc.  After driving for some time, we begin to gain confidence and feel comfortable with it, until eventually we don't even think about it.  If you were to ask us: "How did you get that color you just applied?"  We would have to stop, and actually think and retrace our steps to understand how we just did something while we were not even thinking about it.  That is what we are after with every student.

The palette is the "color factory" from which all colors come from.  Just a few rules before we go to specifics:

  1. Try not to mix more that three colors at one time.  When you have too many in a mix, you actually produce what artists call "dirty colors" or "muddy colors"  These resulting colors are unpleasant to look at, and they distract from the total color harmony.
  2. It is a good idea to work with as many brushes as necessary to keep each color clean and pure.
  3. You can mix colors on the palette or on the canvas.  As you add colors to your mix, it is the canvas where the final color interaction will occur.  Thus, a color may look perfect on the palette, but totally out of gamma or value when placed on the painting surface.
  4. To lighten a color, you must add a lighter color (generally white,) and conversely add more dark color to darken the mix.
  5. Colors are considered cool or warm, depending on the color temperature.  Warm colors are in the hues of red, yellow, orange, etc. and these colors bring the objects painted closer to the eye of the viewer.  Examples of cool colors are blue, blue-green, purple-blue, etc. and these colors make the objects appear as though they are far from the viewer.  So, in addition to linear perspective, we use color temperature to place elements within a certain depth. 

Here are the four basic color group mixes based on the Santa Maria Palette.  The top colors are the pure pigments.  They form a different color as they mix, and Titanium White has been added to the resulting color to see the change in value.

In this trio, the color on the left is French Ultramarine, followed by Burnt Sienna (1,) Cadmium Yellow Medium(2,) and Alizarin Crimson(3.)

1:  This is why we don't use Black:   French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber create a color that "looks" exactly like black, but it has the advantage of providing you with a cold, or warm black, depending on the amount of each initial color.  In addition, when combined with white, it yields a pleasant gray. 2: This mixture is with Cadmium Yellow Medium and provides with a warm green that is very useful, more so, since in our palette we don't use but one green (Viridian) which happens to be in the cool side. 3: Again, since we don't have any purples in our palette, this combination with Alizarin Crimson provides one of the most beautiful and vibrant purples available.  The same cannot be said if we use Phthalo instead of French Ultramarine.  Keep that in mind as you mix your colors.

In this trio, the color on the left is Viridian Green, followed by Burnt Amber (4,) Cadmium Yellow Medium (5,) and Yellow Ochre (3.)

4:  This is a wonderful combination that works great on cool flesh tone on portraits and equally good on landscapes and still lives.  When white is added, it provides a very good gray for neutral areas.  Practice will help you find the perfect balance for warm or cool colors that come from this family of hues. 5: This mixture with Cadmium Yellow Medium provides the warmest and brightest green.  It can be toned down with Yellow Ochre or cool down even more with a touch of Phthalo Blue. 6: Yet another green to add to our repertoire of greens.  This one is also warm, but not as bright as the previous color.  Mixed with white, provides a cooler green that is great for sending objects farther into the painting.

In this trio, the color on the left is Phthalo Blue, followed by Cadmium Yellow Medium (7,)  Viridian Green (8,) and Titanium White (3.)

7:  Now you are starting to understand why we don't need greens in our original palette.  This is a subtle, unassuming green that is cool yet bright.  Be very careful when you use Phthalo Blue because this color is very strong and has the tendency to overpower others. 8: This mixture with Viridian Green  gives us one of the best colors for crystal clear water. Monet used it a lot in his seascapes.  Mediterranean paintings are loaded with this color.  For variety, add a touch of any of the yellow colors. 9: We have not found a more fun color to apply to clean, bright skies than this color.  As you paint skies, remember to add a little Yellow Ochre at the top of the painting, and more as you get closer to the horizon.

In this trio, the color on the left is Alizarin Crimson, followed by Cadmium Red Medium (10,)  Yellow Ochre (11,) and Viridian Green (12.)

10:  Very rich color that can be used in shadow areas of red tones, especially when color brightness is a must.  A warm color by nature, can be mixed with French Ultramarine to obtain purple tones that are nor as bright as mixture # 3 11: Wonderful earth tone that is full of life and is great for portraits and all other applications.  The sky is the limit when it comes to uses for this color. 12: A modest green that can easily pass for a gray when used in the proper proportion.  This color saves a lot of artists from using "dirty" colors in cool areas of paintings.


Graphics by Santa Maria Studio. All Rights Reserved. 2003