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How to Simplify Colour Mixing

One of the biggest struggles I noticed with my students is mixing colours, it can even be challenging for some experienced artists.

The difficulty lies really with colour theory. We are taught at school that red and blue for example when mixed together make violet, however that doesn’t translate to paints quite so easily.

Let’s explore why this can be tricky:

  1. Colour Theory and Perception
    • Colour Bias: Each primary colour (red, blue, yellow) has a bias toward another colour. For example, cadmium red leans towards yellow, while alizarin crimson leans towards blue. This bias affects how colours mix and can lead to unexpected results.
    • Subtractive Mixing: Unlike light, where colours add up to create white, mixing paints involves subtractive mixing. Each pigment subtracts certain wavelengths of light, and the combination of different pigments can lead to muddy colours if not done correctly.
  2. Pigment Properties
    • Transparency and Opacity: Some pigments are transparent, while others are opaque. Mixing a transparent colour with an opaque one can change the resulting colour’s appearance.
    • Staining and Granulating: Some pigments stain the paper, while others create a granulating effect. These properties can affect the texture and consistency of the mixed colour.
  3. Human Perception
    • Simultaneous Contrast: Colours can appear differently depending on the surrounding colours. This can make it difficult to judge the true colour when mixing.
    • Colour Memory: We’re not always very good at remembering exact colours, making it hard to replicate a colour mix exactly.

Tips to Make Colour Mixing Easier

  1. Start with Naming the Colour
    • Identify the Dominant Hue: Determine if the colour you need is primarily a red, blue, yellow, or another hue. This gives you a starting point. For example, is it a warm red (like cadmium red) or a cool red (like alizarin crimson)?
    • Use a Colour Wheel: A colour wheel helps you understand the relationship between colours and can guide you in choosing the right pigments to mix.

Practical Steps for Mixing Colours

  1. Use a Palette Knife: Mixing colours with a palette knife rather than a brush can help you achieve a more uniform mix.
  2. Mix in Small Quantities: Start with small amounts of paint to avoid wasting materials and to have better control over the mix.
  3. Test Your Mix: Apply a small amount of the mixed colour on a scrap piece of paper or canvas to see how it dries. Paint often changes colour as it dries, especially acrylics and oils.
  4. Keep a Colour Mixing Diary: Document your colour mixes and the proportions used. This can serve as a valuable reference for future projects.

Mixing colours with paint is both an art and a science. By understanding the principles of colour theory, paying attention to pigment properties, and following a systematic approach to naming, valuing, and saturating colours, you can overcome the challenges and create the exact hues you need.

Happy painting!

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