Free Painting, Drawing & Color Mixing Lessons

here at William Powell's Studio

Because so many of my tutorials and free lessons are being plagiarized, I am forced to place this notice stating that ALL tutorials on my website, including this one, are for the express use of visitors to the website of William F. Powell and may not be copied, pasted, or posted on any other website or used or reproduced in any other manner without the express written permission of William F. Powell

Color Mixing - William F. Powell
This information is published by William F. Powell as an aid for painters who need assistance in color theory and mixing and may not be altered, copied, reproduced downloaded or distributed in any manner without the written permission of William F. Powell. Thank you for your cooperation.


Some General Guidelines

All color mixtures come from the three primary colors, yellow, red and blue. When we mix these three primary colors together, we obtain a neutral gray. However by mixing only two of the primary colors together, we obtain colors known as secondary colors. For instance, primary yellow and primary red make the secondary color orange, red and blue make the secondary color purple and blue and yellow make the secondary color green.

Think of a tube of white as a tube of light...not white paint. If we do this, we use it in a similar manner that light rays affect colors we see. White can be considered a combination of all visible colors since all perceived color comes from white light.

If white paint is considered white light, then black paint must be considered darkness and therefore the absence of light and of course, color.

Colors directly opposite to one another on the color wheel are known as direct complements. When these complements are mixed together they neutralize each other. Any direct complement has the ability to neutralize its complement more than any other color on the color wheel. When these colors neutralize one another, they make a gray.

When any of the neutralized gray colors are mixed with a pure color, they will neutralize the pure color and create a softer and less gaudy version of the color.

Experiment with color by mixing a color with its complementary (color directly opposite on the color wheel) to gray it rather than reaching for the black. Mixing black with a color does not gray the color. Black only shades a color (takes light away from it) and the color is not as fresh as when mixed with a complementary color.

To obtain softer and more pastel mixes of colors, try intermixing white to the two basic colors to lighten the value of each and then mix the lightened versions together. This will result in some delicate values that can even be lightened more, brightened by the addition of one or both of the basic colors and/or bronzed by adding complementary colors.

Experiment with color mixing and do not be afraid to try something new.

Make notes of everything you do! If you come up with mixtures that work, and have made step progression notes all along the way, you will be able to repeat the process again. Without notes, the mixtures are lost forever. When making notes, place a swatch of color alongside the formula. If you don't, the mixture will be difficult to repeat and the exact value of the mix is lost. (see my book "Understanding Color" published by Walter foster Publishing, Inc. for numerous examples of notes, color smearings and swatches).

Never mix thinners directly into your paint as it washes away the bonding agents and oils and leaves a very weak and dull finish.

Do not be discouraged with your efforts in early color mixing. It comes slowly but surely with practice!


Arranging Colors

Try to think of colors in families. Categorize and arrange them into family groups such as yellows, yellow greens, blue greens, blues, blue purples, purples, red purples, reds, red oranges, and oranges. By doing this, you have created a group of color families that compare with those on the color wheel.


Color Strength / Warmth and Coolness

The strength of a color does not affect the warmth or coolness of that color. Strength only relates to the ability of one color to tint and neutralize another color. For instance, prussian blue is intensely strong and will tint white quickly and overpower most other colors. Manganese blue on the other hand is very weak and it takes a lot of it to tint white and affect other colors. A spec of prussian blue added to white will create a noticeable tint of blue. The same size spec of manganese blue added to the same amount of white will hardly be noticed. Though these two blues are both considered cool blues, their strengths vary greatly.


Controlling the Warmth or Coolness of Color Mixes

Remember that the more red a color contains, the warmer it is considered to be while the more blue a color contains, the cooler it is considered to be. In each color family, there are warm and cool colors.

For instance, a yellow that appears to have an orange tone contains more red and is considered warmer than a yellow that contains blue which makes it appear to be greenish and cooler. There are warm yellows (those containing red) and cool yellows (those containing no red and a bit of blue).

As a visual exercise, place a small swatch of all of your yellows in a line and notice how individual they are. Some look orangish (warm) and others will appear a bit greenish (cooler)

The same thoughts are applied to the colors in the blue family. The more purplish a blue appears to be, the more red it contains making it warm. The more cool yellow a blue contains, the more greenish it becomes making it appear cool.

Lay your blues out in a line the way you did the yellows and notice the difference of each color. Dark colors absorb light rays and are difficult to see. In order to see the dark blue colors well, add a touch of white to the darkest blues. If you are using a white palette, you can also scrape the mixes on the palette making a thin transparent glaze of the pure colors. This will allow you to see the white of the palette through the dark mixes creating a true sense of the pure color mix.

Repeat the above exercise with all the families of color you have in your paint box.


Some Color Mixing Formulas and Color Families

Following are some thoughts and guidelines to assist in arranging color mixtures into families and still control the warm and cool tones of each.

Greens have always been a problem mix for many students. Because of this, let's mix some greens. When mixing these, make notations whether they are warm or cool and dark or light.

We know that by mixing a yellow color and a blue color together we get a color known as green. The warmth of this green color depends upon the warmth of both the ingredients, blue and yellow. In the visual strength department, yellow seems to control the warmth of a mixture more quickly than a blue color.


Making Greens Look Natural

Study your subject and notice the toning of the different greens in the trees, shrubs, grasses and bushes. In nature, it is rare to find a bright - right out of the tube - green. If we find that a green mix is too bright, we can alter it by adding various colors to bronze the mix or white to lighten the tint or lighter colors to tint and weaken the mix.

Bronzing Greens - Lightening and Creating Delicate Greens

Bronzing Greens
To make raw, bright greens appear bronze (or brownish) as they do on some foliage in nature, add a tiny spec of red or orange. Good colors to use for bronzing greens are: alizarin crimson (a cool red), cadmium red light (a warm red), cadmium orange, burnt sienna (a deep value of reddish orange), burnt umber (a deep value of yellow-orange). Phthalocyanine reds also act beautifully as a different bronzing color.


Mixing Light and Delicate Greens
To make lighter and more delicate green mixes, study the subject and concentrate on the "delicate" tones of the color needed. When searching for a delicate color of green, instead of mixing pure yellow with a pure blue and then lightening the color, try mixing the basic yellow with white to get a lighter and more delicate tint. Do the same with the selected blue and then mix these two lighter and more delicate colors together. The end result mix can always be adjusted and strengthened with the addition of a spec of either or both of the pure colors and/or a touch of any complementary red to bronze.

To lighten a green, add more yellow along with a little white. Any other lighter color can also be added too but be careful not to mix too many colors together or a muddy green will result. There are however, no ugly colors! Sometimes we are just not thoughtful about how we use them. If they appear muddy and unpleasant, we most likely have used them in the wrong place and against other colors that make them appear out of place. I know of many beautiful, muddy greens along many creek banks in West Virginia.

Be thoughtful with your mixing. Test colors. Make the mixes happen, don't just hope it will.


Some green mixes to get started...

Here are a few dark mixes for interior of trees and foliage:

1. 2-burnt umber + 1-prussian blue = blackish green. Very dark green for underpainting dark interiors masses of bushes and trees.

2. 2-burnt umber + 1-phthalocyanine blue = blackish green. Also for underpainting

3. burnt sienna + phthalocyanine blue = dark rich green

4. ultramarine blue + cadmium yellow medium = dark, rich green

5. spec of phthalocyanine blue + cadmium yellow deep = dark, rich green

6. cobalt blue + cadmium yellow deep = dark, warm green (more dull than previous mix)

There are many, many more...experiment!


A few mixes for secondary light within trees and foliage:

1. 2 yellow ochre + 1 ultramarine blue = warm middle sunlight value green.

2. 3 naples yellow + 1 cerulean blue = cool middle value sunlight green

3. raw sienna plus ultramarine blue = warm sunlight middle value green

4. raw sienna + spec of phthalocyanine blue = rich middle value sunlight green

5. cobalt blue + spec of cadmium orange = rich middle value green

6. cerulean blue + raw sienna = dull middle value green

There are many, many more...experiment!


A few secondary highlight within trees

1. cadmium yellow medium + spec cerulean blue

2. cadmium yellow light + spec cerulean blue

3. cadmium yellow light + spec manganese blue

4. cadmium yellow light + tiny spec phthalocyanine blue

5. naples yellow + any of the above blues.

There are many, many more...experiment!


A few highlight greens (keep these on the yellow-green to yellow side)

The following are to be used as final highlights within the foliage and on areas where sunlight is strongest. Keep the mixes light and on the yellowish side. For the coolest appearing bright, sunlight greens, use both a cool yellow and a cool blue. For a slightly warmer but still cool and bright sunlight green, mix with a cool yellow and a warm blue.

1. Cool: zinc yellow + a small amount of any cool blue such as manganese, phthalocyanine blue, prussian blue, cerulean blue, etc.

2. Less cool: zinc yellow + a small amount of any warm blue such as ultramarine, permanent, cobalt, etc.

3. Warm or cool: hansa yellow + spec of warm or cool blue

4. Warm or cool: cadmium yellow pale + spec of warm or cool blue

5. lemon yellow + spec of warm or cool blue

To brighten and accent any of the above highlight yellow-greens, mingle an accent here and there with a spec of white + zinc yellow, white + spec lemon yellow, white + spec hansa yellow. Place these highlights here and there within the general highlighted area to emphasize the play of sunlight on the foliage.
For a lighter more bluish green such as the olive tree or eucalyptus, add a spec of cool yellow such as zinc yellow, a spec of cool blue such as cerulean blue, a spec of burnt sienna to bronze and a little white to lighten to value.


Some Color Thoughts Regarding Black and Blue Pigments

Any color that makes a green when mixed with yellow can be considered to be within the blue family of pigments.

Any color that makes a purple color when mixed with a cool red can be considered to be within the blue family of pigments.

Mix any black with any yellow and the result will be a greenish color! The green is more dull and not as chromatic as the pure pigment mixes but non-the-less, the result is still a greenish color!

Mix any black with a cool red such as alizarin crimson or phthalocyanine red, and the result is a purplish color. The purple is more dull and not as chromatic as the pure pigment mixes but non-the-less, the result is still a purplish color!

Now...this tells us that we have another avenue of green colors to try. Try mixing different yellows with different blacks.

There are warm blacks and cool blacks. For instance, ivory black and mars black are warm while lamp black is the coolest black available. Warm and cool blacks will result in warm and cool appearing green mixes.

You can mix your own version of a wonderful black by using equal parts of ultramarine blue + equal parts of burnt umber. The result is a charcoal black that can be cooled by the addition of more blue or warmed with the addition of more burnt umber.

A soft silver black can be obtained by mixing burnt sienna with ultramarine blue or cobalt blue or cerulean blue.

A rich black green can be mixed with burnt umber + phthalocyanine blue or prussian blue as used in the dark foliage above.


The above information just touches the tip of color mixing. There will be more in the future.

The real key to "Understanding Color" (the title of my first book...I couldn't resist the temptation) is practice! Experiment with mixtures and most importantly, make notes of every color you mix. If it doesn't work, no one will know...but if it does!!! you have the record of how you obtained the color and how to repeat the mixture again.

I hope the forgoing has been helpful to you in your color mixing and painting. The greens especially seem to be a real problem for many beginning painters. Hopefully this information will be of assistance. Practice mixing colors every time you have the opportunity!

Best wishes to you in your painting,

William F. Powell


Return to Exercises | Return to Studio