Color Mixing

Armand Cabrera

In teaching the workshop this weekend more than a few of my students were frustrated by having to mix colors instead of just squeezing them from the tube.They all asked me for a way to approach color mixing and so I thought I would write it for the blog.

The best way to understand color is to experiment with mixing two colors in unequal proportions to see the results. After you exhaust the possibilities with two colors try three colors and their combinations. By experimenting this way you will see how powerful just a few colors are.

At the very simplest level color mixing is combining two colors to make a third color. Examples would be blue and yellow make green, red and blue make violet and yellow and red make orange. Once you mix secondary colors you can now mix the tertiary colors by adding even more of a primary color. An example would be after making violet you can now shift that violet to blue violet by adding more blue or red violet by adding more red.
My palette consists of primary colors, red, yellow and blues plus white. When I mix, I try to think of the value of the color first. Is it dark tone, medium tone or light tone? Next I look for its hue starting with the primary hues of red, yellow, and blue followed by the secondary hues of green, orange, or violet and then consider tertiary hues, blue violet, blue green, yellow orange, yellow green, red orange, red violet?
If I want to mix a mid-tone green I know ultramarine blue and cad yellow can make a mid-tone green because one color is dark and one is light. By mixing equal portions I get a green with an approximate middle value. The reason I say approximate is because you must also take into account the tinting strength of the colors.
That gives me two aspects of color, the third is saturation. Saturation depends on value, so if I know the value of the color is low but it appears more saturated than the colors around it then I need to use the colors closest in value to the color I am trying to mix. If a color is less saturated I use its compliment to modify it, again taking into account its value.

8 thoughts on “Color Mixing

  1. Armand, This is where I get mixed-up… (My comments are in "()")

    That gives me two aspects of color (The hue and the value are correct at this point, right?), the third is saturation.
    Saturation depends on value (what does this mean? UMB is more saturated than cad yellow from the tube? Or does it mean
    that the green you just mixed is more saturated depending on how blue-green or yellow-green the mix is?),
    so if I know the value of the color is low (low meaning too dark?)
    but it appears more saturated than the colors around it then I need
    to use the colors closest in value to the color I am trying to mix (what is that color in this case? You are talking about
    mixing a mid-tone green, what color is "close" to it? We only have primaries to choose from, don't we?).
    If a color is less saturated I use its compliment to modify it,
    again taking into account its value. (We add a little red to reduce the saturation. Depending on the initial value that could
    lighten OR darken your new green. For each case, how do you get back to the correct value? Too light, add UMB? Too dark, add Cad Yellow?) (Thanks for this dicussion.)

  2. Wyn,
    Thanks for asking
    When you think you have the value and hue correct you still need to have the saturation correct. When I say saturation depends on value, what I mean is a colors value determines its saturation.Use UMB as an example. In its natural state at a 2 value, which is very dark; that is the value it is most saturated at, so it stands to reason making a lighter blue will cause it to lose saturation. The opposite is true for cad yellow, its highest saturation point is around value 8 so making a darker yellow will cause it to lose saturation. To keep a color more saturated you mix it using colors closer in value to the colors value you are trying to make. Cobalt blue or manganese blue is lighter than UMB, mixing those with cad yellow will give you a saturated green higher in value than mixing it with UMB.
    Say the green you make is at a 5 value and you want it less saturated, you can add cad red light which is approximately the same value. If the green was darker you might add a little cad red and alizarin which will lower the red to the value you want.

  3. Armand, you answer to Wyn clarifies further this discussion about color, which is a tough topic.
    When painters talk about color temperature, does that fall under hue? Cool or warm greens, for example, are relative depending on the colors(hues) around it. So you still figure out saturation and value as separate things. I always mix them up; in your example for making a darker green, would you use cad red to lower the green value, but keep it on the warmer side, and use alizarin to lower the value, but keep it to the cool side? Thanks!

  4. Thanks for explaining. I thought you were using only three primaries on your palette. It make more sense with a split-complement palette.

    Take care.

  5. Judy,

    Yes temeperature is dependant on hue and is less exact than using Hue, Value or Saturation as descriptions.
    Using the green example the answer is yes if I am comparing the green with alizarin to the green with cad red.

  6. Armand! This is very helpful to me!
    I don't use the terms primary and such, and probably should.
    Most recently I've become more aware of the values and try to get to my color matches by targeting the values.
    (I hope I said that right)
    However, I can only judge by if it feels right.
    If I took a pic of my painting with my digital camera on black & white mode, would this be a good way to see if I'm close to the right values?

  7. Bill,

    That is a great way to check your work in the studio, yes. Outdoors some people use red cellophane to filter the color out and only see values.

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