You can mix the right color.
By Bobbi Baldwin
Remember how many times you have made huge piles of paint that were the wrong color??? You ended up with a pile of paint that you might have tried to save, so as not to waste it. But, all along, the frustration you felt in not getting the color you wanted just made it worse. You just knew if you kept adding different color, you would get to the color you were looking for… sadly never getting there. Some of you are shrugging your shoulders and saying to yourself “This happens all the time!” After you decided that you didn’t want to mix a gallon of the wrong color, you began buying all the colors there are for sale, right? Did you get any better at mixing color from it? Not really. Why? To coin an old phrase, you didn’t “learn to fish”, you just provided the fish. So, I’d like to teach you to really understand how to “fish with the right bait” and catch that perfect color with much more precision. I am going to help you find the color you are looking for much faster from now on.
I have been teaching for almost 30 years now and I have painfully watched so many painters when they first arrive, struggling through the process of mixing color to match what they see. After watching my students in pain for so long, I came up with an answer based on how I taught myself to mix color.
It’s simple. I think about color in primary terms. I know, the color wheel is a basic fundamental and you probably learned it in grammar school. Then, we learned about color in science, understanding how we see by the light rays given off by the sun. In art we learned that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that are only found in pure form and we cannot mix color to make a true primary color. We learned that green, purple, and orange are called secondary colors, and they are a combination of two primaries. Then, we were taught about the color wheel and that compliments are straight across the color wheel from each other. But, no one ever explains why it is that we should use the compliment to make the best shadows within a specific item’s color -as in: lemons are yellow, apples are green, red, or yellow, bananas are yellow, etc. There is no explanation that the compliment is actually the one or two missing primaries, meaning the colors that you haven’t used so far. My goal is to really press that idea into my students, helping them to be more observant of the way that they see color.
So, what is my secret to teaching students to mix color faster? I have really embraced the scientific concept of color rays. Knowing this, I look at every color with the knowledge that I can only see combinations of the primary colors and that is all I am seeing.
To begin, let me explain that I want you to stop calling any color by the name of brown or gray. Just omit those words from your mind. Every color is made of a variation of the three primaries, with or without white added. I want you to start looking for the dominant primaries in your color. Previously you learned that adding the “compliment” will create a brown or gray. Understand this is merely adding all three primaries together. So, from now on, let’s just eliminate gray and brown from our vocabulary and understand that gray is a term which identifies when there is more blue in the mixture of the three primaries added together, whereas, brown is also made from adding all three primaries together, just using more red and yellow. That is the only difference between brown and gray – meaning more or less blue added to the mixture. From now on, I want you to identify all colors as a color that is called the name of the closest primary or secondary color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or violet) that you can think of.
After you have identified what color your target color is closest to, you can deduct the right addition of the missing primary or primaries in order to find the solution to your mixture.
Let me show you here:
This is the target color that I am trying to mix.
I can deduce that all three primaries are in this color. And then I have to study it a bit longer until I can decide what color it is closest to. I go through the secondary colors first -green, orange, or purple. I think that if I had to describe it as any one of those I would say it is closest to purple. With this decided, I can begin with red and blue. I also know there is some yellow in it because it is a “muddy” color; we know that this color has all three primaries in it. Muddy color can describe any color that you previously identified as gray or brown. We have to do this by elimination and now we know it is the yellow that is missing. So, I start out with purple and add some yellow. There is also a bit of a green in this color. So, I continue to add small amounts of the yellow (and white) until I get close to this color.
Let me show you another one:
On this one, I would immediately say it is either a red or orange. But, again, it is not pure, so we know there will be all three primary colors in it. We start with a very red-orange and then add the missing primary blue and possibly some white.
Is this starting to make sense?
Here is a third example:
We immediately know this color is mainly blue. But, is it pure blue? No. Is it green or purple? No. But, it is a dirty color of blue. This means the other two compliments are also in it. So, we add red and yellow or orange (the compliment). We start with a tiny bit of these other “missing primaries” and slowly creep up to the color that we see here. If we get too green or too purple, we know we have added too much of one of the other primaries. So, we slowly add the blue back in. It is still most dominantly blue.
If you use my method of common-sense mixing by thinking about the way that we see with light rays of primary color to make all color, you will find it far easier to paint because it will become a natural task. If you ask yourself the simple question, “What primary or secondary am I missing?” you will be able to figure out how to mix that perfect combination that represents what you see.
Go to a local store where they have paint swatches for choosing wall paint. Pick up about 10 of those swatches, choosing some pretty muddy colors. Now, match them. This type of practice will really help you to embrace the concept and make it second nature to your painting technique.
Now let’s talk about the actual tubes of paint that we buy at the store and the purity of the primary colors.
I learned about color from a woman who studied in France at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1996, we spent a summer just pulling paint across a white surface of pallet paper and analyzing the pigments in every tube of paint I owned! I have never looked at color the same way since. I found a passion about color that summer that has never gone away. I began to understand how to look at pigments in a tube of paint and see the texture, purity, and consistency. I threw out some really bad paints with muddy colors that were so impure and ugly that I wouldn’t want them in my paintings. I quit working with “hues” and student-grade paints, due to the impure man made pigment. I limited my pallet to two tubes of red, yellow, and blue, a warm and cool of each. I also have white, umber (for opacity), green, violet, and orange. I can mix nearly any paint color from the 11 paint tubes that I primarily use. The only time I add a color to my pallet is when I want to get a purer form of a color that is bright, such as specialized cloth colors. Think of hot pink, fuchsia, really bright turquoise, and possibly chartreuse.
Pull every tube of paint out of your box and use your pallet knife to pull this color over you pallet. When a color is muddy, grainy, or just impure in quality, don’t use it.
Purity of color: Take all your red paints out and put a small sample on your pallet. Do the same with your blues. Choose the two colors that you think are the purest form of red and blue. Mix them. Did you get a pretty purple? No. It is nearly impossible to get a pure form of purple from the tubes we know to be close to a pure form of a primary. Most of the colors we assume are pure red, blue, or yellow have a bit of the other primaries in them. This makes it impossible to make a great secondary color if you need to get a really pure color. Now, I want you to look at all of your yellows as well. Try to make orange and green. Compare these mixtures to your tubes of green and orange. Did you come close to the pure color that is in a tube? You might have come a bit closer with these colors because you are starting to understand how to identify what primaries are in your tubes.
Take a bit of Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue and try to make a purple. Did it turn out? Not likely. They both look like they would be perfect forms of just two primaries. But, if they didn’t, that means that one of them has some yellow to it.
Look at Alizarin Crimson. Do you think it is pure red? No. Not only does it have blue in it, but there might be a little bit of a muddy color to it. We know this because we tried to make a purple, and it was muddy (yellow would make muddy color because the third primary was added). Could yellow also be in the Ultramarine Blue? It’s possible. But, if you were to try a Permanent Rose with Ultramarine Blue you might get a bit closer to purple. It’s still a bit muddy, not like a Dioxazine Violet, which is the prettiest purple.
Now, look at Cadmium Red Medium. Is it a pure red? Let’s try it. If it is pure, we should be able to add it to blue and make a purple. Did you get mud? It must have yellow in it. Add the Cadmium Red Medium to a Cadmium Yellow Medium and try to make an orange as pretty as a Cadmium Orange. Did it work? If not, there is blue in one of the colors.
Keep doing this. Do this mixing until you clearly see what is happening. It’s like doing math, simple addition and subtraction.
Summary: If we assume that all color is made of red, yellow, and blue, and we understand what colors we start out with from the tube, we can find the solution to all color mixing.