How your hairdresser can teach you to mix colour

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting,colour theory

colour mixing primary colours

“All colours will agree in the dark.”
Francis Bacon

How to Mix Colour: The Basics

Learning how to mix colour can be daunting, colour theory can be off putting, but understanding the basics is key when starting to paint.

A knowledge of colour theory is helpful, but in practice nothing beats actually mixing colours, however, you need to start somewhere so let’s start with some basic theory. I’ll be going into some advanced techniques in later posts.

Please note: New Colour mixing course for beginners is now live!

How your hairdresser can teach you to mix paint colour

I’ll be honest, a few years ago I knew nothing about the hairdressing business until my wife opened her hair salon above my gallery, I can now tell you the difference between a champagne blonde and a beige blonde..(0.4 if you were wondering) but the main thing I hadn’t realized was the similarities between hair colourists and painters.

If you want to learn a fast track to understanding your paintings next time your at the salon have a chat to your hair colourist…

They are amazing. They could pick up painting in no time and here’s why.

When hair colour goes wrong our old friend colour theory can save the day. Have you ever seen really yellow bleach hi-lights and wondered how to save them? Well a colourist will immediately put on a violet toner to neutralize the colour.


This is an example of when colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel (complementary colours) are used to tone down a colour e.g: If the yellow in your painting is too bright add a touch of violet to achieve a much more muted subtle colour.

This video below shows how a blue can tone down orange. And how orange can make blue appear darker.

These are both opposite each other on the colour wheel so are complementary colours.

Ever seen someone try and cover blond with brown home dye and end up with khaki green undertones? The hair colourist will put on a red based rich colour to counteract the green.

So if your trees are unnaturally bright green add a little red to the mix to make a more subtle shade.

Complementary colours help tone each other down and are the simplest colours to start to understand colour theory. (3 tricks of complementary colour you can learn from Van Gogh)

Yellow & Purple, Red & Green, Blue & Orange



The problems with the colour wheel

  • It puts you off
  • It reminds you of school
  • It appears more complicated than it is
  • It’s ugly to look at
  • It seems too academic
  • It is a tool and not a list of paints to go and buy and paint all your paintings with.

The irony is, when learning about colour mixing, it is the most important thing to understand.

Having a basic knowledge of the colour wheel is really important so you can always find your way out of a colour mixing corner.

The 3 primary colours

Blue, Red and Yellow.
These are the colours that are impossible to mix from a combination of other colours.

The 3 secondary colours

Orange, Violet, and Green
These are a mix of two primary colours.
For example mix primary yellow and primary red to make secondary colour orange.

These 3 primary colours and 3 secondary colours make up the basics of the colour wheel.

This is where theory hits reality and the colour wheel should be used only as a tool to learn about colour rather than a guide for choosing paint as all paint colours have a colour bias.

For example: Cadmium Red is an orange-red and will have a bias towards yellow. Alizarin Crimson is a blue-red and will have a bias towards purple. So it is not just as easy as buying a ‘pure red’ and a ‘pure yellow’ they don’t exist.

As a beginner painter learn the theory and start simply.

The 6 Tertiary colours

No, I don’t know how to pronounce it either! These are the mixtures between the previous 6 colours mentioned above. To start with don’t worry about them.

Analyzing the 3 properties of colour

To accurately mix or match a colour you need to analyze it’s properties. This takes years to master so don’t feel overwhelmed if you don’t get it straight away, the more we talk about it the more practiced you’ll become.

The 3 things to remember are Hue, Value & Saturation

Hue – In the land of colour mixing ‘Hue’ simply translates as the colour e.g: ‘that vase has a red hue‘  literally means if you had to mix that colour in paint what is the closest pure colour you can think of, as in red, orange, yellow etc…but not necessarily bright red.

Pro tip: Not to be confused with the labelling of pigments on paint tubes such as Cadmium red ‘Hue’. In this example ‘hue’ means imitation. So Cadmium Red Hue isn’t a pure pigment, it has been replaced with a alternative.

Confusing isn’t it.

Value – how dark or light the colour is if you took a black and white photo of it.
This is one of the most important factors in mixing accurate colours but one of the hardest to master.

value scale painting

Pro tip: We easily understand value when we look at a range of greys, or a black and white photograph. When it it transferred into colour it is sooooo much harder to judge. Try squinting while looking at colours to determine their value. Squinting helps the eyes’ black and white receptors to make value judgments

Saturation – how bright, or intense the colour is. It is sometimes called Chroma or Intensity

How to match a colour

Target colour                                            Target Colour

Once you know this information you can match any colour, although the steps below seem a bit mechanical they actually all intermingle together when you look at a colour. When you first start its advisable to take your time to understand each step.

Step 1: Analyze the hue – what colour is it closest to on the colour wheel?

I’m going to go with yellow. And in this example I’m going to uses Cadmium Yellow Light.

cad yellow light

This is a yellow with a orange/red bias.

When I look at Cadmium Yellow next to the colour swatch I can see it’s too Yellow and the swatch has a much more Orange hue to it. So I’ll add a bit of Cadmium Red (remember this has a bias towards yellow) to achieve a Yellow-Orange

colour mixing


Step 2:  Analyze the value – How light or dark is it?

For this it is easiest to paint a swatch onto a bit of scrap paper, let it dry and compare it.
If its too dark we can add white, if it’s too light we can add the complementary colour.

In this case I’d look at the colour wheel and see what is opposite the yellow-orange we have mixed which is a dark blue-purple.

Step 3: Analyze the saturation – How bright or dull is it?

Mines too bright, so I’ll need to add a touch of blue-purple to tone it down. For this example I’m using Ultramarine Blue (which has a purple bias)

colour mixing complementary colours

Be careful though as darker colours usually have a lot higher tinting strength than yellows so you only need a tiny amount. A little at a time and keep checking it.

Developing your Artist’s Eye

The process of developing your Artists’s eye can take a while. So be patient. Your brain is very good at playing tricks on you, telling you it knows what colour you need to paint. Often when a colour first goes on the canvas it will look wrong. It is only when it is surrounded with colours around it it balances together.

I’m a keen believer that starting Acrylic painting with muted pigments such as Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue is more beneficial to your work than starting with Cadmium Orange and Phthalo Blue, same ball park but very different results.

Acrylics can get a bad press as being too garish and childlike but its not the paints but an Artists choice of pigments.

You might also like:
The hidden hues of colour mixing

How to balance Warm and cool colours

The 3 tricks of complementary colour you can learn from Van Gogh

{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: