The Best 30 Tips on How to Mix Colors 

Top view of opened cans of dried up used colorful paints a few with stir sticks and some still closed grouped together in a wooden box with dividers

Melanie Mavery   Melanie Mavery – Guest Contributor

Mixing colors is a fundamental skill for all painters. Otherwise, your work is limited to the primary and secondary colors and pre-mixed alternatives sold in the shops.

Moreover, you’ll quickly notice that colors from the tube are rarely in the shade you want. Often, you need to subdue it a little or brighten it up to bring it to the level you want. This is another instance when color mixing becomes important.

Above all, mixing colors is a money-saving hack. It saves you from buying every shade of paint, some of which can cost a premium.

Fortunately, color mixing isn’t too technical. Read on to learn basic color theory and how to mix your favorite colors to create new colors. Later, we also list thirty color mixing tips to help you perfect your trade.

Understanding Color Theory

The first step in color mixing is to understand the three primary colors. You probably already know about them from the lower grades. However, there’s no harm in revisiting the topic. From there, you need to understand how the primary colors create secondary colors and then tertiary colors.

red blue and yellow colors

Primary Colors

The three primary colors are blue, red, and yellow. All other colors originate from these three. Also notable is that you cannot create the primary colors by mixing other colors.

However, each primary color comes in multiple shades. That’s why many experts recommend purchasing a warm and cool shade of the primary colors you want. The most common color shades are as follows;

Red

  • Cadmium red – This is a warm red with a touch of yellow
  • Alizarin crimson – This is a cool red with a hint of blue

Blue

  • Ultramarine blue – This is a warm blue with minor traces of red
  • Phthalo blue – This is a cool blue shade that contains some yellow

Yellow

  • Cadmium yellow – This is a warm yellow with traces of red
  • Lemon yellow – This is a cool yellow with elements of blue

Having a warm and cold shade of each primary color makes your work a lot easier whenever you want to generate secondary or tertiary colors. You can generate the exact tone you want with less effort. Additionally, it allows you to generate a range of tones to benefit your work. For instance, you can mix different shades of yellows and blues to generate a variety of green tones to perfect your painting.

secondary colors

From Primary to Secondary Colors

The three main secondary colors are orange, green, and purple. You can easily create these colors by mixing two primary colors. Below is the basic color mixing guide to help you get the secondary color of your choice.

  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Purple
  • Yellow + Red = Orange

However, as we mentioned earlier, you can create a wide range of shades of each secondary color by mixing varying shades of the primary color. Additionally, you can vary the shades (depth) of the secondary color by adjusting the quantity of each primary color. For instance, adding a gram of yellow to three grams of blue won’t give you the same shade of green as mixing a gram of yellow to a gram of blue.

We recommend playing around with the colors before you begin serious painting. You can also use the color wheel for color selection. However, remember that you will get black you will get brown if you mix all three primary colors in the same quantities.

Tertiary Colors

From secondary to Tertiary Colors

Finally, you can mix adjacent (on the color wheel) primary and secondary colors to create tertiary colors. However, beware that tertiary colors aren’t as assignable as primary and secondary colors. As such, they’re often called “broken” colors.

Nevertheless, tertiary colors are very important in creating natural-looking pictures. The most common examples are;

  • Purple-Red
  • Red-Orange
  • Orange-Yellow
  • Green-Blue
  • Yellow-Green
  • Blue-Purple

The big takeaway here is that all colors originate from primary colors. You can easily create all the secondary and tertiary colors shades from the three primary colors.

mixing colors

Top 30 Color Mixing Tips

Let’s now look at thirty color mixing tips to help you create beautiful paintings for maximum product value. Remember that you can use the same tips when mixing wood stains

  • There are three primary colors

Sometimes people get confused on whether green is also a primary color. Often, the confusion arises because the primary colors for tech devices are red, green, and blue. Don’t get confused. When painting, there are only three primary colors, i.e., red, blue, and yellow. Alternatively, you can call them cyan (blue), magenta (red), and yellow.

  • Mixing two primary colors creates a secondary color

When you mix any two primary colors, you get a secondary color. For instance, mixing red and blue gives purple while red and yellow give orange. Meanwhile, blue and yellow result in green. Thus, you can see that we have three main secondary colors. Mixing all three primary colors gives off brown.

  • You cannot “create” primary colors  

All you can do is to vary the hues. For instance, you can create lighter reds or darker reds through additive color mixing or subtractive color mixing. However, you cannot create from scratch a primary color by mixing two or more colors. In other words, if you run out of a primary color, you must purchase another tube from the store.

  • Color ratio” determines the outcome during mixing

A color ratio refers to the quantity of one color relative to the other. For instance, if you mix two ounces of blue for every ounce of red, the ratio is 2:1. Typically, the resulting color will lean more towards the abundant color. For instance, mixing red and yellow at 2:1 results in a reddish-orange.

  • Primary colors come in many shades

Red, blue, and yellow come in many natural and artificial shades. For instance, shades of blue include cobalt blue, Caribbean blue, Prussian blue, and Celesan blue. Meanwhile, shades of red include Cadmium red, scarlet, carmine, and Venetian red. Finally, popular shades of yellow include Naples yellow, lemon yellow, and yellow ochre.

  • Of colors and pigments

Pigments are substances within the paint that impart color to the paint material. Indeed, most liquid paints are made from pigments. Mixing the insoluble pigment with a liquid generates paint used to impart color to coating materials, inks, plastics, etc. It’s best to use paints made from a single color pigment, especially for bright colors.

  • Creating tertiary colors

Mixing two secondary colors or a secondary and primary color gives a tertiary color. For instance, mixing orange and green gives a muddy grey, brown, or somewhat black tertiary color. Meanwhile, mixing red and purple gives a red-purple color.

  • Warm vs. cold colors

Colors can be warm or cold. The three primary warm colors are red, orange, and yellow, while the three main cold colors are green, blue, and magenta (remember that magenta is a shade of red). Defining whether a color leans towards the cold or warm end is known as color bias.

  • Similar temperature colors mix more easily

Warmer colors mix more easily, as do cold colors. However, cold and warm colors don’t mix so readily. For instance, it’s easy to mix yellowish red with reddish-yellow. They mix readily. However, mixing orange and blue is a little more complex. You must be very careful with the ratios.

  • Mixing two warm colors gives a warm shade

If you mix two warm colors, you get another warm color. For instance, mixing yellow and warm red gives off a warm orange. Similarly, mixing two cold colors gives off a cold color. For instance, mixing blue and magenta (a colder shade of red) gives off purple. However, mixing a warm and cold color gives a neutral color.

  • Always add dark to light, opaque to transparent

When mixing dark and light colors, add the darker color to the lighter color. Similarly, when mixing opaque and translucent colors, add opaque to translucent, not vice versa. Why? Because you need less dark paint to change a light one. Similarly, you need less opaque paint to change a transparent paint.

  • Always buy white and black directly from the store

Although you can create black by mixing the three primary colors, it’s not easy to get “perfect” black shades through mixing. Similarly, it isn’t easy to get perfect white shades through color mixing. Therefore, you should always consider getting your black and white paints directly from the store.

  • Consider buying brown from the store too

You can make brown paint by mixing selected primary and secondary colors, such as red and green. However, it’s best to purchase brown from the shop, as getting the “perfect” brown shade can be a challenge. Get a sample or picture of the desired shade of brown, and the storekeeper will help you find a tube or can of the same.

  • How to create light and dark brown shades

You can make lighter or darker browns through subtractive or additive mixing. To make a light brown color, gradually add a white color to your brown texture until you achieve the desired shade. Meanwhile, to make a warm brown shade, gradually add dark blue paint to the brown paint until you achieve the desired level of brown.

  • From neutral to cool or warm brown

You can also make your brown shades cooler or warmer as you wish. To make your brown paint warmer, mix it with red or yellow paint until you achieve the desired level of brown. Meanwhile, to make it cooler, add some blue color.

  • How to get a grey color

You can easily get grey paint by mixing a larger portion of blue with a small portion of orange and adding white until you arrive at the desired shade. Adding a lot of white to the mixture will give you pale grey. However, if you want a warm grey hue, a mixture of red and green paint will do the trick.

  • What are complementary colors?

Complementary colors, also known as opposite colors, sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Remember that complementary colors, when combined, or mixed, cancel each other out (lose hue) by producing a grayscale color like white or black. Complementary colors also create the strongest contrast when placed side by side.

  • You can “tint down” with complementary colors

If a certain color seems too intense, you can tone it down using the complementary color. For instance, you can use a little umbra if you want to soften an overly harsh grey tone. Alternatively, use a little brown paint. However, never use black to soften intense color tones as it makes the color appear dull.

  • What’s the need for the color wheel?

A color wheel is a vital tool in color theory as it displays the relationship between colors. More importantly, the color wheel helps artists find practical and common color combinations as well as establish the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

  • Always test colors before painting

This applies to all paints, including those purchased directly from the store. Test the color on a piece of paper or canvas before you begin actual painting. Mixed colors can especially be misleading. Moreover, our eyes sometimes lose “sense” of color. So, looking alone may not be enough. You want to compare the mixture to the target color.

  • Consider optical color mixing

Besides physical color mixing, painters can also consider optical mixing. Also known as divisionism, optical mixing is a practice in which paints are not mixed before painting. Instead, different color pigments are placed side by side in the painting so that they mix later “in the eye.”

  • The impact of setting two colors next to each other

Strategically placing colors next to each other can have a dramatic effect. For instance, lighter colors stand out more when painted next to neutral colors. Red next to grey is an excellent example. Similarly, darker colors stand out more next to lighter colors.

  • Be cautious when mixing acrylic paints

Mixing acrylic paints often results in undesirable chemical reactions that may adversely impact the outcome of the color mixing process. Therefore, we strongly advise against mixing acrylic paints, especially from different manufacturers. Alternatively, ask the manufacturers first and only mix the paints if you get the go-ahead.

  • Don’t mix colors too thoroughly

You may be tempted to mix the colors for several minutes to get the perfect shade. However, that’s not always necessary as a consistent mixture is often boring. So, unless you want a completely uniform mixture, consider mixing the two colors briefly. The varying shades across the painted area make the finished job more interesting.

  • Tertiary color becoming muddy? Start over

Although creating tertiary colors shouldn’t be too difficult, sometimes it might feel like you’re chasing your tail. If you ever get to that point where you feel that you’re in danger of producing a muddy result, it’s better to stop and start over. Adding more paint only makes the situation worse.

  • Consider glazing to produce livelier color mixtures

Paint glazing is the practice of applying one paint directly over another paint. For instance, you can paint with red and then apply blue paint directly over the red coat. It’s another technique to consider if you want to produce livelier secondary and tertiary colors. For instance, applying blue paint over a yellow coat produces an exciting tone of green.

  • Creating depth and space with juxta-positioning

Juxta-positioning refers to strategically positioning warm and cool colors to create the impression of depth and space. It relies on the fact that the eye perceives cool colors as far away and warm colors as close to the viewer. So, you can place cool colors at the horizon to add depth while using warm colors at the front.

  • Always start with a small color palette

We recommend a cool and warm shade of each of the three basic colors (primary colors) to start with. The reasoning is that you will ultimately create more colors on the way as you need. Starting with a small color palette also reduces confusion.

  • Always start with small blobs of paint

Whether you’re painting cardboard or solid wood pieces, pouring an entire gallon of paint into another makes little sense if you don’t know yet what to expect. For instance, even if you know that red and yellow give orange, you may not know the shade of orange to expect from your basic colors. Starting with small quantities lets you correct any mistakes without too much waste.

  • Consider professional advice

Many people will not tell you this. But it’s very important that you listen to the pros and even seek professional help whenever you’re stuck. For instance, if you think you’re doing everything right but keep getting the wrong color shade, a professional can point out the likely mistakes and set you on the right path.

paint mixing

Summary

Now you know how to mix colors, be it primary colors, secondary colors, or primary colors with secondary colors. You also know about the color wheel, color palette, and advanced color mixing strategies such as juxta-positioning and glazing. The next step is to practice repeatedly until you get the hang of how these processes work.