To mix paints successfully, you’ll need to know color theory basics and where to start mixing. There have been peer reviewed papers on this topic, but let’s not get that deep. We’ll start with terms and how to visualize them using a color wheel.
There are 3 primary colors: Red, Yellow, Blue. They’re considered primary because they cannot be created by combining any of the other colors.
Primary = Primary
There are 3 secondary colors: Green, Orange, Violet (purple). These are secondary colors because they are created by different combinations of the primary colors.
Secondary = Primary + Primary
There are six tertiary colors as described by modern color theory. These are colors in between the secondary and primary colors and are created by different combinations of primary and secondary colors. They are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green.
Tertiary = Primary + Secondary
Hue is the origin of a color. You can find the hue by the dominant color family which is typically the Primary and Secondary colors: red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, and green.
White, black, and gray are not referred to as a Hue.
Reading a color chart
Now that you’ve learned about different color groups, let’s go over how to actually read the color chart.
Choose 2 colors on the wheel. The hues in between will be the result depending on the mix ratio of those 2 original colors.
Starting with primary colors, mixing red and yellow together will create a myriad of orange shades. More yellow will give you a yellow-orange. More red will result in an orange-red.
This same principle applies to the secondary colors. Mixing different ratios of orange and purple will result in an orange-red to purple-red shade.
Tertiary colors have the same outcome. A mix of teal and orange will give you a range of yellow to green shades.
Using Black, Grey, and White
Colors can be lightened, darkened or muted by mixing white, black, and grey respectively. This is otherwise known as tints, shades, and tones.
You can change the tint of a color by adding white. This will look like a pastel color to our eyes.
Change the shade by adding black. The color appears darker or muddier.
Alter the tone of a color by adding grey. This will appear as a dusty or muted color.
Warm and cool colors
Warm and cool colors are based on the primary and secondary colors: Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange, Green and Purple.
You can directly divide the color wheel in half to show warm and cool colors. Think of it like fire and ice. Fire is usually red, yellow, and orange colored. Ice has blue and purple hues.
Green can be tricky since we don’t usually equate this hue with fire or ice. If the green has a more yellow or olive tone then it’s warm. A true green or kelly green leans more blue and will be cool.
The 5 basic colors and supplies you need to mix paints
I use Liquitex Basics Acrylic paint. For greater flexibility, I have the primary colors in different warm/cool shades and a black and white. For simplification purposes, I would suggest starting with the 3 primary colors and black and white. As you grow comfortable mixing paints, you can add more colors.
Getting a palette to mix on is crucial. Any palette will do. As a beginner, you could even make your own by covering cardboard with foil or saran wrap. Since I am not an avid painter, I use a paint brush to mix the colors. Some painters use palette knives for this purpose.
How to mix paint colors
There is no official instruction to mixing colors. Everyone learns differently and finds their own method within the madness. Below I’ve outlined my process.
Choose a color on the color wheel and then determine what colors should be mixed to achieve it.
Start with a base color. Typically, the primary colors will be your base. You’ll choose this by the nearest adjacent base color on the wheel.
Add tiny amounts of other colors. Once you’ve got your base color, it doesn’t take much to alter it. The ratio of other colors should be small. Small increments is the key!
Let’s try an example with the teal color (next to blue).
Teal is a tertiary color which is created by mixing a primary and secondary color. The teal color is situated between Blue (primary) and Green (secondary) so we’ll mix Blue and Green.
Teal color is closer to blue than yellow on the color wheel so you would need to start with blue as the base. Add a very small amount of yellow. Keep doing this until your get the teal color.
Tips on mixing colors
It’s easier to darken a color than it is to lighten it. Add a dark color to a lighter color to make a specific color. For example, if you want pink try adding red to white instead of mixing white into red. It would take a considerable amount of white to lighten a red up to pink. You’ll use much less paint this way.
When trying to darken a color, don’t always use pure black. Black may seem like the obvious choice for darkening a color, but this can sometimes lead to loss of vibrance and turns out muddy. To create a darker color with the same brilliance, try adding a blue or make a brown color.
Remember warm and cool shades. Try adding a blue to make a color appear cool and a yellow or red to make it look warmer. Always remember to add in small increments.
Upgrade a paint set to include secondary and tertiary colors. The primary colors are good to learn mixing paints. When you are forced to mix your own secondary and tertiary colors, you lay a foundation for understanding color theory. However, it can be time consuming if you are using paints a lot. There are sets that include the secondary and even tertiary colors for quick mixing. For example, Liquitex has a burnt umber (brown) that is great for darkening colors.
Mix colors slightly lighter than your desired color. Because paints dry a bit darker than what you see straight out of the bottle, its good practice to mix them a couple shades lighter. This ensures your finished product is the color you envisioned.
Mix enough custom color for your project. If you are using a lot of one color that you’ve had to mix, be sure to mix enough to finish your project. Or at least write your mix ratios down so you can achieve that color again. Some paints can be saved in a container for a few days, or even covered with saran wrap, but they will eventually dry out.