Everybody has a simple understanding of the basic color mixing recipes, but it requires more skill to match a color exactly. Fortunately, there are some basic strategies and principles that you can learn.
In this article, I discuss the basic color mixing strategies that I use for achieving exact color matches. It includes a 20 minute video where I match some of the standard colors found in the Liquitex Basics line of acrylics. I demonstrate how to match some of these standard colors so you don’t have to buy them.
The Benefits of Learning How to Match Colors
When it comes to learning how to match colors, there’s only a few basic concepts to learn. The majority of the learning takes place when you actually practice mixing colors. If you’re a beginner then you may want to practice matching colors as an exercise in itself.
The ability to confidently match a color will allow you to reduce the colors you use in your palette. While there are over 100 colors available you can get away with using just a handful of them. In this demonstration I use six colors plus white. It’s possible to use as few as three colors plus white to match the majority of colors that you’ll ever need.
Once you learn how to mix colors it will become second nature. You’ll be able to look at a color and intuitively know which colors you can use to match it. I sometimes refer to this skill as perfect pitch for color. Although it’s much easier to learn how to mix colors than it is to acquire perfect pitch.
If you can mix colors precisely your paintings will have a more natural and realistic appearance. That’s one of the mistakes that beginners make. They mix colors based upon what they know about a subject, instead of the actual colors they see.
Mixing accurate colors and placing them in the proper location will strengthen the sense of space and realism in your paintings.
My color mixing video is below. If you view it on YouTube the description contains links to the specific times. Just click on the time to jump ahead to the color you’re interested in learning how to mix.
Color Mixing Practice Exercises
As I stated above, the only way that you’ll become proficient with mixing colors is to practice. The exercise of mixing color samples is very useful for developing an eye for knowing what colors you need to match a color.
One color mixing exercise you can try is to cut solid areas of color out from magazines and match them. This was an assignment I was given in college. If you have color samples leftover from a home improvement project, you can practice matching those too.
Matching Standard Colors
One of the benefits of learning how to match colors is that you won’t have to buy as many of the standard colors as you normally do. You can match a lot of them yourself. For example, I demonstrate how to mix Ivory Black, Burnt Sienna, Light Blue Permanent, and Cadmium Orange Hue.
There’s nothing wrong with using convenience colors to save time, but you shouldn’t use them as a crutch. Most of these colors are overly simplified. For example, Liquitex Light Portrait Pink isn’t a realistic skin tone. It may work for illustrations of people that use flat areas of color. However, a realistic portrait requires numerous color mixes to represent skin tones.
A number of these convenience colors are just lighter versions of some of the standard pigments. Light Blue Permanent is mostly Phthalo Blue and Titanium White so mixing your own is very simple. There’s also Medium Magenta which is a mixture of Quinacridone Magenta and Titanium White.
One thing to keep in mind is that the color you mix may have slightly different properties than the tube color. For instance, the cadmium range of colors have great opacity. So when you try to mix Cadmium Orange, it may be more transparent.
The Basic Color Mixing Principles
There’s some debate about which colors are the primary colors. The traditional primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. However, I believe the true primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow.
The pigments that I feel best match the traditional red, yellow, and blue primaries are: Ultramarine Blue, Pyrrole Red, and Cadmium Yellow Light. The pigments that are closest to the printing primaries are: Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Magenta, and Hansa Yellow Medium.
In practice, I use all six colors because they each have their own advantages. For example, I can use Hansa Yellow Medium as my yellow but it’s transparent. I include Cadmium Yellow Light because it’s very opaque for a yellow. I can mix my own red by mixing Quinacridone Magenta with Hansa Yellow Medium, but I include Pyrrole Red because it’s also more opaque.
I explain the benefits of these colors in much more detail in the 7 colors you need to start painting in acrylics. I include hand painted color wheels that will show the range of colors you can create with them. My free color wheel PDF template can be found there too.
Student Grade Acrylics
The color chart that contains the colors I’m matching is from the Liquitex Basics student grade paint. They use pigments that are lightfast so the colors shouldn’t fade. The way that they make them more affordable is by using substitute pigments, less pigment, or both. If you want to use student grade acrylics, choose a brand that uses lightfast pigments.
For this demonstration, I use professional grade acrylics to mix my colors. Most of the colors are from Golden while the Cadmium Free Yellow Light is from Liquitex. It’s okay mix brands of acrylics.
You’ll notice that the Primary Yellow in the Liquitex Basics collection is more dull than either of the yellows that I have in my palette. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to match Primary Yellow. I wanted to show that the student grade colors aren’t as saturated as the professional versions.
Precise Color Mixing Recipes Aren’t Practical
You may be thinking that there must be a quick formula for matching colors exactly. After all, you can go to the hardware store and have them match any color on the first try.
The only way you would be able to use such a formula would be to measure each color by weight or volume.
Both methods are impractical for the artist. For one, if anyone were to publish these recipes for mixing colors, they would only apply to one brand of paint. The same color from different manufacturers can have different properties. The tinting strengths, or even the hue may vary across the different brands of paint.
The other problem with this approach is that it’s not practical to stop and weigh or measure the proportions every time you mix a color. Each painting requires numerous color mixes so it would be too time consuming to look up a formula and measure it out.
The only practical solution is to develop an eye for it. When you mix enough colors it will become second nature. You will just know what colors you need to match any color you see and it will only take a few minutes to mix it.
If you use less colors on your palette, you’ll become much more familiar with the characteristics of each pigment. Using fewer pigments on your palette can simplify color mixing.
Fine Tuning When Color Matching
If you watch my video you’ll notice that I make frequent corrections until I obtain an accurate color match. I’ll get close to the target color, then I add more of another color to try and get the final color match.
Except that I sometimes add too much. Then I have to compensate for it.
This happens to every artist. As I said, there’s no way to figure out the exact amount that you need to add. Sometimes you’ll get it right away, and other times you have to chase it a little bit.
One trick that I use is to add a small amount of color to see what the effect is before adding more of it. It’s easier to creep up on the color rather than it is to make bold moves.
Acrylics Dry Darker
One disadvantage to acrylics is they dry darker. I have a separate article that explains why acrylics dry darker. I explain in detail why they dry darker and how to compensate for it. There are also a few exceptions where acrylics dry lighter.
The basic idea is that you when you match the color, you have to add a little bit of white to compensate for how it darkens when it dries. It doesn’t darken by a lot but it’s enough that you’ll notice it. This affects some colors more than others. You will develop a feel for it as you become familiar with each pigment.
In this demonstration I match the color sample while the paint is wet, so I don’t take the time to compensate for how it will dry darker. The only exception is the Medium Magenta where I dry my color mix with a hairdryer. I compare it to the color chip I’m trying to match and make adjustments.
How to Lighten or Darken Colors
If you want to lighten a color, you can add white. Another option is to thin it with water and work transparently in a manner similar to watercolors. The white of the paper or canvas will make it appear lighter. This is obvious.
Adding white to a color can make it appear duller. That’s why watercolor paintings have brilliant colors. It’s because most watercolorists avoid using white in their paintings. Instead, they use the white of the paper to lighten their colors.
The same technique can about used with acrylics. You can dilute acrylics with water or use glazing medium. This is one of the strategies you can use for making your acrylics more vibrant.
Darkening a color is not as straightforward. For instance, adding black to yellow can make it turn slightly greenish.
Another issue is that adding black to a color can be tricky because it has a tendency to make “muddy” color mixtures. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use black in your paintings. But you should learn how to mix your own black, and how to darken a color without using black.
Many of the dark areas in a subject that you may perceive as black probably contain some color. If you only use black to mix it, then those areas may look flat and dull. Your painting will be missing some of the subtle colors that make it more appealing.
How to Neutralize Colors
One of most important keys to matching colors is learning how to neutralize a color. This is what most beginners are missing. What I mean by “neutralizing” is to make it less saturated. In other words, to neutralize a color is to make it more dull.
The colors in paintings that have naturalistic colors usually contain neutral colors. The colors that make up a landscape are typically neutral. Unless you live in a tropical location there’s a predominance of beiges, grays, browns, and greens in landscape paintings. Natural bodies of water are rarely brilliant blue.
Beginners often mistake subtle neutral colors for gray. If you want to paint color accurately, you have to learn how to see the colors that these neutral colors contain.
Mixing complements are two colors that create a neutral color when you mix them. Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue will create black for example. Other mixing complements aren’t as exact, you may get a brown when you mix them instead of gray.
The 11 ways to mix black contains many of the mixing complements. All of the recipes that only use two colors to create black are mixing complements.
There are many mixing complements and it’s good to become familiar with them. However, I think it’s simpler to become familiar with how the primaries work together.
A simpler approach is to think about color in terms of primaries. As I stated in the beginning, I consider cyan, magenta, and yellow to be the primaries. The way to determine which color to add in order to neutralize a color mixture is to determine which primary color is most dominant. Then you can add the remaining primary color(s) to neutralize it.
The following examples should help to clarify this principle.
If the color you’re mixing contains two primaries, add the third primary to neutralize it. For instance, when you mix Phthalo Blue and Hansa Yellow Medium to make green, those are the two dominant primaries. The remaining primary color is magenta. So you can add magenta to neutralize the green.
If the color you’re mixing is predominately a single primary color such as yellow, you need to add the two remaining primary colors to neutralize it. In this case that’s Phthalo Blue and Magenta.
This strategy still also works if you use red, yellow, and blue as primary colors.
There’s More Than One Way to Mix the Same Color
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way to match a color. In fact, there can be many ways to mix the same color. I demonstrate this concept in my posts 11 Ways to Mix Black, and How to Mix Sky Blue. Granted, not all of them are the exact same shade of black, but many of them are very close matches.
You can experiment with trying to mix the same color from different pigments. When you mix a green you can use Hansa Yellow Medium or Cadmium Yellow Light and achieve a similar shade of green.