Watercolor mixing… Every time you paint with watercolors, you are working with color. As a beginner I often found myself reaching for a color that was closest to the one I was trying to paint. I would then adjust it by randomly mixing it with another pigment. This resulted only in frustration… My paintings would turn out muddy, sometimes flat and I had no idea what to do.
It wasn’t until I learned about the relationships between hues and the fundamentals of color mixing that finally drove me to mix the colors that I wanted with ease!
In this article, I explain the basics you need to know to build a strong foundation of knowledge on how to mix the colors you need. I hope you’ll find the information below helpful!
How can learning about color mixing help you?
Learning how to mix your colors is crucial in your watercolor journey!
Knowing how to work with different hues will result in you being able to create expressive and well-composed paintings. Not to mention, you will unlock far more color options with just a few tubes of paint on your palette.
This will give you the freedom and control when coming up with color schemes for your paintings, instead of just choosing which colors are available or which “look pretty”. You’ll also be able to understand what makes muted, vibrant, or neutral colors, which colors go well together, which don’t and so much more.
Watercolor mixing can be confusing especially in the beginning. However, once you understand the basics, and start applying these methods, you’ll eventually pick up a certain level of confidence and intuition making watercolor mixing super easy!
For this post, I tried to break down and simplify the fundamentals to help you build a strong foundation. I also included a free downloadable pdf at the bottom of the page which includes summarized notes and color charts to use as a reference.
How to mix watercolors using basic color theory
I know, color theory may sound daunting, but stick with me…
With color theory, we can begin to simplify and understand the relationships between different colors. We can then use this information to our advantage!
Let’s begin with the color wheel: The color wheel is a visual representation of the different relationships between colors. It is also a very useful tool and reference guide when it comes to the watercolor mixing process.
Below is an image of a basic 12 color wheel:
The colors can be divided into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colors
Primary colors: These are the three main colors in the wheel. They are Red, blue, and yellow. Primary colors cannot be mixed using other colors and that’s what makes them the parent colors. All other colors stem from primary colors.
Yes, that’s right! You can mix any color from red blue and yellow (more on this later).
Secondary colors: These colors are what you get by mixing two primary colors. They are: purple, green, and orange
Tertiary colors: These are colors created by mixing a primary and a secondary color. They are Blue-purple, red-purple, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green and blue-green.
4 properties of color
Colors can be described using four main characteristics.
Hue: (This is another word for color). Hue is basically the name of a color based on its position on the color wheel.
Saturation: Is also known as intensity or chroma. Saturation refers to how pure and vibrant a color is. A color that is very muted and gray is considered to have low saturation. Meanwhile, a color that is vivid and bright is considered to have high saturation.
Value/tone: This is basically how light or dark a color is.
Temperature: Refers to the warmness or coolness of a hue.
Colors have what is referred to as temperature bias, in other words, a color can be either “warm” or “cool”.
So how can you classify whether a color is “warm” or “cool”?
The answer lies in using the color wheel as a guide, below you can see an image of one. If we divide the wheel in half you’ll find that one half has all the warm colors and the other half all the cool colors.
Warm colors: Red, orange, yellow
Cool colors: Blue, green, purple
However, any color can have a warm/cool bias. Yes, that means you can have a warm red and cool red, warm blue and cool blue, warm green and cool green…etc This may sound a little confusing, so let us go back to the color wheel then look at an example:
On the color wheel above, there are warm and cool versions of each primary color. From there you can determine whether a color is warm or cool by looking at its position on the wheel. For example, between the two reds which one leans closer to yellow (a warm color) and which one is closer to purple (a cool color)?
In this case, the cool red leans towards purple which is positioned on the cooler half of the wheel. The cool red also has more of a purple undertone meanwhile the warm red has more of a yellow undertone.
Note: When comparing two different versions of the same primary color, we can see that one can be warmer than the other. For example, a warm red and a cool red, however both reds when compared to a blue (a cool color) will be categorized as warmer than the blue.
How to identify the temperature bias of a secondary color:
The temperature of a secondary color can be identified by comparing which primary color the secondary color leans closer to on the wheel.
For example, Green is mixed using yellow and blue, if you look down below you’ll see two different greens.
In this case, we could classify the first green as warm and the second as cool. This is because the first leans more toward yellow (a warm color) and the second leans more towards blue(a cool color).
If you can’t tell the temperature difference right away, don’t worry, with some practice mixing colors, you’ll slowly begin to understand. You can download the free PDF at the bottom which contains notes you can use as a reference.
How to mix vibrant secondary colors?
To mix a saturated secondary color, you need to refer back to the color wheel and look at the primary colors that are closest to the secondary color that you want to mix.
When you mix blue and red, you’re supposed to get purple right? However, not every blue and red mixture will produce a lovely, vibrant, saturated purple. In some cases, you might get a brownish color instead.
This is because to mix a vibrant purple you need a warm blue and a cool red. The answer as to why you need, specifically a warm blue and not a cool blue lies in looking at the color wheel.
If you look at the color wheel, (image above), you can see purple is positioned between the blue’s and red’s. However, if you look more closely you’ll see that purple is closer to the warm blue and cool red. This is why using these specific primary colors will produce a bright vivid purple.
So why are the blue and red positioned this way? Well, we know that when you mix all three primary colors, you neutralize them and produce a gray or earth tone. When mixing a bright purple, you can see the warm blue is categorized as warm because it is closer to red and therefore doesn’t have as much yellow as the cool blue. Just the same, the cool red is closer to blue and doesn’t have as much yellow as the warm red. So this way you mix a beautiful saturated purple without adding hints of yellow to neutralize it.
Mixing Purple and Green with different primary colors
The diagram below shows the result of mixing purple with primary colors of different temperatures. Mixing a cool red and warm blue are what resulted in a saturated purple.
The same concept applies to mixing the other secondary colors. To achieve a bright saturated secondary color, look at the primary colors that are closest and contain the least amount of the third primary color.
Let’s look at another example, in the image below there are four greens, each one has been mixed with blue and yellow of different temperature biases. You can see how the first produced a bright green and the others a more muted green. This is because the first used a mixture of cool blue and cool yellow.
Read this post: How to mix stunning landscape greens!
Complementary colors are colors that sit on opposite ends of the color wheel. These colors generally are:
- Blue and orange
- Yellow and purple
- red and green
Mixing complementary colors can help mute a color or neutralize and create a gray a lovely brown color. When placed side by side in a painting, complementary colors also create contrast (for eg. painting red flowers in a greenfield).
The diagram below shows examples of mixing complementary colors:
How to mute a color using complementary colors
When you mix a color with its complementary, you can slowly create a muted version. However, you need to be careful and keep an eye on how much you’re adding, if you add too much you can end up neutralizing it and creating a gray or brown.
Take the image below as an example, on both ends I painted two complementary colors, red and green. With each block, I am adding a small amount of its complementary color. So I’m adding small amounts of green to the red, and small amounts of red to the green.
You can see the results below:
You can play around with complementary combinations by adjusting the ratios to see what you can come up with!
How to create neutralized grays with complementary colors
When you mix complementary colors you can also get a neutralized color. For example, if you mix cobalt blue with burnt sienna (a dark orange) you get a nice gray. The same as when you mix alizarin crimson (a cool red) with viridian (a cool green) you get a beautiful dark gray.
So why is this? We know that if you mix all three primary colors you get a neutral color. For example, orange and blue are complementary colors. Orange is basically a mixture of red and yellow, when you add blue that’s what neutralizes the color and creates gray.
The image below shows an example of mixing gray using complementary colors:
Another example is mixing Cobalt blue, with burnt sienna and then adding a touch of rose madder. Burnt sienna is an orange-brown color and contains yellow, mixing it with cobalt blue creates a muted greenish color, adding rose madder then creates a lovely dark gray. (image below)
Creating browns using complementary colors
I like to think of browns as different versions of orange. My favorite way to mix a brown is by mixing purple and yellow. In the image below you can see a few examples of how to mix brown.
You can create a dark brown by adding more blue… and a lighter brown by adding more yellow than blue.
You don’t necessarily need to remember all the complementary colors by heart, however, having a color wheel for reference and experimenting with the colors on your palette will help you recall certain color mixtures.
You can create your own color wheel or download this free PDF color mixing cheat sheet which includes a color wheel and a few mixing charts for reference.
These are colors that sit next to each other on a color wheel. Analogous colors are generally categorized in groups of three to four colors, starting with the colors that sit on the left and right sides of any color on the wheel. An example is red-orange, orange, and yellow-orange.
When you paint these colors next to each other they create harmony because they relate to each other. You can also lighten or darken a color by adding its analogous color. For example, adding yellow to green can create a lighter yellow-green, and adding blue to green creates a slightly darker green.
Compound colors are colors mixed using all three primary colors, these are the grays, blacks, and earth hues (browns).
When it comes to watercolor mixing, compound colors are what you get when you mix complementary hues. For example, if you mix purple and yellow, you get a compound color. This is because purple is a mixture of red and blue, when you add yellow you get a brownish color which is considered a compound color.
What are watercolor mixing charts and what are they used for?
Color mixing charts are tools that visually represent the possible colors you can get from mixing different colors on your palette. They act as excellent reference guides to help you familiarize yourself and explore different color mixing options.
There are many different types of color charts including the color wheel; common mixing charts; compound mixing charts; value charts; two-color mixing charts…etc
The image below shows an example of a common color mixing chart. The point of the chart is to present what colors you can get by mixing every color on your palette with each other. The X and Y-axis show the different individual colors, when you mix two, the result is shown in the box where the two colors meet. The diagram below shows you how to read a color mixing chart.
To avoid repetition half of the chart shows what the colors look like in their lightest value. This is especially helpful when mixing strong dark colors. For example, mixing C and 5 gives you a dark brown, but you can see what it looked like when diluted (E+3).
The image below shows another mixing chart I did with 22 colors and what the colors look like when diluted. Although it looks pretty and was a fun exercise I would recommend choosing fewer colors to make the chart easier to read.
Watercolor Mixing Guide PDF:
You can download your free guide to color mixing PDF below:
If you want to further your understanding of watercolor mixing, then creating your own mixing charts with the colors that you have on your palette is the way to go. In the next post, I take you through a step-by-step on how to create your very own color mixing charts. You can also find out how to create a color wheel here.
Hopefully, by now you have an idea of how color mixing works and how to use a color wheel to help guide you. I hope you enjoyed reading this article on watercolor mixing, if so feel free to comment any questions you may have down below!