Mixing Colors for Watercolorists

When you are buying groceries, you very often look at the label of nutritional facts. In mixing colors, you are going to do the same thing. You are going to look at the ingredients in the tube before you buy. You should not go by a “common name” such as Sap Green, Bright Red or Sky Blue, etc.

You are going to look at the pigment code formulation, wording on the tube: PG meaning pigment green, PR meaning pigment red, and PB meaning pigment blue.

You are going to start with seven tubes only.  Why so few? You are starting with a small number of colors and using and mixing these for a while to get completely familiar with what they can do and cannot do. You can always add more pigments (colors) to your palette as you get more experienced.

Below are the seven pigments that I recommend as starters:

PB29 French Ultr Marine Warm
PB35 Cerulean Blue Cool
PR206 Perm. Alizarin Crimson Cool
PR108 Cadmium Red Warm
PY153 New Gamboge Warm
PY53 Lemon Yellow Cool
PR101 Burnt Sienna Warm

The above list of seven pigments are listed as warm or cool.  Remember warm colors tend to advance toward the viewer, and cool colors tend to recede.

Keep that thought in mind for a moment. Most books describe this or that color as being warm or cool as the case may be, but that statement is totally misleading. It may well be true as shown on a color wheel at that very moment you are looking at it, but it’s a whole different story on a painting for example. PB 29 is listed as a warm blue, and PR 206 is listed as a cool red. Now, place them together, and they switch roles: the blue becomes cool and the red becomes warm.

Colors are only warm or cool depending on their neighbors.

Most of you are familiar with the color wheel. It consists of primary colors red, yellow, and blue and what is known as secondary colors.  These are color produced by mixing any two primaries together, example red plus blue = purple, the other two secondaries being green and orange.

Six of the seven colors suggested consist of a warm and cool red, warm and cool blue. warm and cool yellow. The colors chosen all have a color BIAS, or leaning towards another color. The warm blue leans towards red, hence it’s a warm blue. The cool red leans towards blue, hence it is a cool red.

This will apply to the other four colors. They all lean one way or the other.

Remember this.  It is very important. If you mix any more than three pigments, you are headed may be for mud.

In the beginning of mixing colors, I told you to disregard common names. You are now going to look for Pigment Codes only-forget the name Pigment code PB 15, which is Phthalo blue.  It has at least 15 different names, each manufacturer having a different name for this pigment. If you like this blue, all you have to remember is PB 15 on the label, not 15 different names. Isn’t that easier.

Mixing Color is not difficult or complicated if you stop and think what color you want to end up with.

Let’s suppose you want to make “pure clean vibrant purple.” Look at the color wheel below:

Mix color #1 with #2.  Please note that you did not cross over the high fences. You stayed in your area. You mixed PB 29 (which is blue leaning towards red) with PR 206 (which is red leaning towards blue). This is what happened: you mixed the blue/red with a red/blue; therefore, you mixed two tubes of pigment together but only two pigments (blue and red) together.

image-color-wheelNow, suppose you need a dullish purple.  Be a kid and climb over one of the black lines, and mix color #1 with color #3. This is what happened: you mixed a blue/red with a red/yellow; therefore, you mixed two tubes of pigment together, but now three pigments (blue, red, and yellow) and you wind up with a dull purple.

Now jump over two fences. Mix color #6 with color #3. You are still mixing blue and reds together, but it’s going to look like mud because you mixed blue/green/red/yellow – four pigments out of two tubes.

Now, you can do the same for a nice green and mix color #5 and #6 together. Mix #6 & #4 and you are going to get a dullish green.  Mix #1 & #4 and you’re going to get mud green.

Do the same for orange #4 and #3 and you get a good orange, #4 and #2 gets you a dull orange, and #2 and #5 will give you mud.

Mixing two pigments that are biased towards completely different colors will always result in a more “neutralized” (less intense or pure) mixture. Some of these colors can be wonderful, and you need to know how to mix them to play them off against brighter and pure colors.

The above is the most important thing for you to understand. Remember, as you add pigments, you have to find out the “leanings” or bias of that particular color.  Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel tend to make a greyish/black color. White is opposite of black. I know you got that right away. Blue is opposite too. That might make you pause a second or two. Orange is blue’s opposite.

Try this tip: Blue, red, and yellow are the three primaries. Take one primary – let’s say blue and it’s opposite is the color produced from the other two primaries when they are mixed together.  In this case (red and yellow) orange.

Let’s take red.  The two primaries left are blue and yellow. When mixed together, green is the result. Green, therefore, is opposite to red. Blue and red make purple.  The primary left is yellow. Therefore, yellow is opposite to purple.

All my grays are made from Permanent Alizarin Crimson plus Winsor Green. (Beware both of these colors are stainers).

When you buy a tube of paint, try to obtain one with only one pigment stated on the tube. Single pigment tubes are the way to go, if possible. The least pigment in each tube the better.

I would never in a million years buy a tube of Davy’s Gray. It has PG 17 (green), PB k6 (black), PW4 (white), and PBk19 (black) – all inside the tube. Mix this with another tube and you’re in for trouble. I would not buy Burnt Umber PBk7 (black), PR101  (red), and PY42 (yellow). If you happen to mix both of these, you would have seven pigments mixed together. WHAT A MESS!

Mixing is also a matter of proportion. How much of each pigment that goes into the mix determines the outcome. Always start your mix with the lightest of pigments and add the others to it. Some pigments have greater tinting strength, and a little touch may change the other color quickly.

In mixing colors, I try to let them mingle and mix together on the paper rather than mixing colors in the palette. Don’t over mix your pigments, and for goodness sake, don’t push and pull them around the paper with your brush – over working them.

Always feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.

Your Pallette

The organized planning of the palette is a great aid to competent painting. Too often the beginner fails to realize the necessity of instinctively knowing where a particular color lies on his palette. Just as a typist automatically reaches for their keys, so a painter should automatically reach for his or her colors.

I would strongly urge you not to be too sparing with your pigments as you prepare your palette. Use about half a tube of each color. Nothing is more annoying when laying in a wash than to find you have no more color. By the time you squeeze out more color, the area being painted may have dried, causing serious trouble.

If a color has been lying on the palette for some time, between painting sessions, and shows signs of cracking, a drop of glycerine will soften it.

A palette with a lid and large mixing area is ideal.

Color Harmony

Colors and shapes have to work together at every stage of a watercolor painting development. We need harmony – no rock and roll in the middle of a Spanish Guitar rendering.

No one color can “sing” more loudly than others or be a glaring shape. That’s not to say, the center of interest cannot be painting with a little more pigment to emphasize where you want the viewer to look.

The road to color harmony starts with understanding the characteristics and properties of the colors on your palette. Learn how to mix and match them so that they work for you. Learn to appreciate the full potential of every color and the effects each has on another.

We are going to go through this subject matter in depth. So that means starting at the basics. For those of you that are ready to skip – DON’T – unless, without hesitation, you know the answer to this quick question.

On the value scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the darkest), what value would you assign to a mid value green and would Cadmium Red deep be placed to the left (lighter) or right (darker) side of the green?

Primary colors are : red, blue, and yellow.

Secondary colors are : violet, orange, and green (these are mixtures of two primaries).

Colors beside each other are called analogous; colors opposite are called complementary. Black is opposite to white (complementary).

Simple idea to quickly understand who is complementary to who.

1. Three primary colors, red, blue and yellow.
2. Remove one color from the group say red, leaving blue and yellow.
3. Mix the two, blue and yellow together; the result is green.
4. Green then is the opposite, complementary to red, which is the color you removed in the first place.
5. Repeat step 2, this time blue leaving red and yellow. Remove blue.
6. Repeat step 3. Mix red and yellow, which equals orange.
7. Step 4 .  Orange is opposite to the color you removed – blue. GOT IT?

Now do all the rest. Tertiaries are: yellow/ orange, red /orange, red /violet, blue /violet, blue/ green, yellow /green. Mixtures of one primary and one secondary.


What is complementary to the following tertiaries?

Red/orange. Ask yourself what is opposite to red? Answer: green. What is opposite to orange? Answer: blue. So, the complementary to a red/orange is a green/blue.

You may work all the others the same way (red/violet, blue/violet. yellow/green. yellow/orange).

TIP: Blue complements orange and violet complements yellow – so orange/yellow is opposite to blue/violet. You decide if and when you are going to fill your head with this stuff.

The Importance of "Values"

  • Value is the relative lightness of darkness
    of a color.
  • Here is a value scale 1-7.
  • Every color is capable of a range from light to dark.
  • Here are colors on a value scale 1-7.
  • Completely understand this.  Value is a property of color. Value and color are two separate subjects.
  • Colors can, and are, different from each other (for instance red and blue) can have the same value.
  • Colors used #2 – yellow, #3 – orange, red & green #4, blue- #5, violet #6, black #7
  • Yellow has the smallest value range. It is impossible to make a dark yellow.
  • Blue has a big range. a very light hint of blue all the way to dark, dark blue.
  • It is difficult to paint a yellow flower. You cannot make light tints and dark shadows.
  • But, with blue and red, you have a large range of values with those two colors.

Those last two written thoughts are very important. I hope I made it clear.

Yellow rose is a lot harder to paint than say a red one. There are very little variations in value with yellow, many with red. Plan your values with a thumbnail sketch. Try to match colors to your value sketch.

TRY THIS: Paint a value range for all the colors on your palette, using the above value scale. It would be better to make a large one yourself.

Knowing the value range of each color you have would start you seeing great improvement in your work.

  • Values – This is what judges look for in a nice well-thought-out range of values (and the public doesn’t know it, but, know just a “feeling” that they have about your painting if it is all painted in the middle range or any small range for that matter).
  • What would you think of a piece of music played on a piano using say the middle two octaves? Boring, that is how viewers see your painting if you don’t work on values.
  • Judges in a competition are first and foremost looking for your understanding of values – not subject, not technically painted well, not colors.  These are secondary considerations.  Values are the number one item for a judge (or should be).

Warm or Cool

Colors can be warm or cool. Have you ever seen a book stating this is a cool color, this is a warm color? Of course you have. This is misleading.

Warm or cool is only relative to its neighbors.

Alizarin Crimson is a warm color. Well, isn’t it? Place Cadmium Red Light as a neighbour, it’s now cool.

Temperature Variations of Red

Within any given red color, the warmest is the one with the most yellow. On the other hand, you could say the coolest red is the one with the most blue. Cadmium Red Light (leans to orange) has yellow in it. Alizarin Crimson (leans to violet) has blue in it. Isn’t this getting easy.

Temperature Variations of Blue

Cerulean Blue is cool as the blues move towards Ultramarine Blue. They become warmer as Ultramarine contains red.

Mixing in Secondary Colors

Choose a color scheme. Mastering the contrasts of color. How light and atmosphere affect color.

[Note: Subscribers to “Jim’s Watercolor Challenge” were able to view real-time video demonstrations on color theory, colorwheel, and mixing colors.]

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