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.

Why?

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

 

colour-wheel-complementary-colours

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

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Carpenter September 17, 2011

Thank you for this article. It has a ton of helpful information packed into it in an easy to understand format. I will be coming back to this page often till I get it :)

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Will Kemp September 18, 2011

Hi Dave, glad you found the information helpful, it can be a lot to take in to start with but keep with it!

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Zheila November 6, 2011

Thanks Will, you are great.

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Will Kemp November 6, 2011

Hi Zheila,
What can I say, I totally agree with your comment 100%!
Good to hear you’re finding the site helpful in your paintings,
Will

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rachel April 29, 2012

Great website!
Have you got any tips for choosing a good palette knife for mixing colours?
Rachel

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Will Kemp April 29, 2012

Hi Rachel,
I usually use a number 45 palette knife from RGM, you can watch a video here on basic palette knife techniques,
Hope it helps,
Will

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Tony Fountain September 21, 2012

Hi Will,

Really enjoyed this article – I’m learning a lot, but I do have a few questions…

Having read about the difference between value, tinting, saturation / intensity etc. I’m a little confused. Surely ‘saturation / intensity’ is the same thing as ‘value’? The way I see it you’re simply talking about the brightness or darkness of the colour….am I missing something here?

Also with regards to ‘tinting’ am I right in thinking that tinting strength relates to its value, i.e. the darker the colour the higher the tinting strength? However I have also read in other books that a ‘tint’ is lighter than the hue and is made by adding white, so I’m a bit confused here?

Add to this the concepts of ‘shade’ and ‘tone’ and I wonder if these terms sometimes have different meanings in different contexts? For instance I’ve also read that a tone is made lighter by adding its complementary colour, but this seems to be the opposite of what I have read in this article.

Any help would be much appreciated!

Thanks

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Will Kemp September 21, 2012

Hi Tony,

Colour mixing can be tricky at times and different artists use different expressions and approaches to colour mixing.

To answer your questions:

1. I’m a little confused. Surely ‘saturation / intensity’ is the same thing as ‘value’? The way I see it you’re simply talking about the brightness or darkness of the colour….am I missing something here?

Saturation / intensity’ is not the same thing as ‘value’. You can have a bright red that has a high saturation of colour, but if you took a black and white picture of it it would have a mid-tone value.
Its not a simple case of brightness or darkness, more looking at the intensity of pigment and then where the colour falls on the value scale, ie: lightness or darkness.

2.Also with regards to ‘tinting’ am I right in thinking that tinting strength relates to its value, i.e. the darker the colour the higher the tinting strength? However I have also read in other books that a ‘tint’ is lighter than the hue and is made by adding white, so I’m a bit confused here?

You’re right, ‘a tint’ is a colour that has had white added to it so as result is lighter in value than the colours hue. (Its original colour)

‘Tinting strength’ describes how little or how much of a pigment is needed to change the colour, for example, generally the darker the colour the higher the tinting strength but there are exceptions to the rule.
A good example is Phthalo blue as indicated in the table in the article.

3.For instance I’ve also read that a tone is made lighter by adding its complementary colour, but this seems to be the opposite of what I have read in this article.
A colours intensity is reduced when adding a complementary colour, you wouldn’t normally use it to lighten the tone.

It can be confusing as there are works such as shade and tone that mean different things in drawing and painting.

Hope this has helped to clarify some points,

Thanks,
Will

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Tony Fountain September 21, 2012

This helps a lot, thanks for the reply

Let’s see if I understand this……out of two different reds, say ‘alizarin crimson’ and ‘cadmium red’, my guess would be that ‘cadmium’ red would have the greatest colour saturation because it appears to have more ‘red’ pigment….is that correct?

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Will Kemp September 21, 2012

Hey Tony,
Yes, you’ve got it!

Will

P.S I’m currently working on an ‘Essential guide to colourmixing course’ keep an eye on the blog for updates.

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Robin September 30, 2012

Hello Will,

I am very happy to have joined you.

I’ve read a bit about colour mixing but found differing opinions from different sources, so gave up for a while…too hard.

I happened on your website by accident and decided to try again since it looked a lot more friendly.

From what I’ve understood so far…and you seem to subscribe to this…is that two primary colours make a secondary colour – red and yellow make orange ..like 1+1=2?

You mentioned tertiary colours…so does it work like math, i.e. a primary colour and another primary colour generate a secondary colour, therefore a primary colour and a secondary colour generate a tertiary colour? (1+2=3)?

If, for example, primary red and secondary purple mixed together make a tertiary colour….what is the name of that colour? ( and the others?)

I bought a tube of each colour on your colour wheel…as close to the colours as possible, and, in my search for tertiary colours on the basis of 1+2=3, much to my disgust, I mixed some really awful colours!

Where did I go wrong ? ..(set aside impatience, curiosity and excitement about making paintings.) This is such a buzz! R

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Will Kemp September 30, 2012

Hi Robin,

Great to have you onboard, to answer your questions about the perils of colour mixing!

Two primary colours make a secondary colour – red and yellow make orange ..like 1+1=2?

Correct, two primary colours make a secondary colour.

A primary colour and a secondary colour generate a tertiary colour? (1+2=3)?

Correct, a tertiary colour is a mix of a primary colour and a secondary colour.

If, for example, primary red and secondary purple mixed together make a tertiary colour – what is the name of that colour? ( and the others?)

In this example it would be: red-purple (red is the primary colour, purple is the secondary colour made from red + blue) The colours would be named by using a hyphenated name that indicate the source of the colour, yello-green, yellow-orange, blue-purple etc

Where did I go wrong ?
Usually due to the hidden colour bias of a pigment.

Have a look at these videos to see how using the ‘wrong’ red or blue can make a vivid bright purple or a muted purple.

Hope this helps,

Thanks,
Will

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Esther F October 18, 2012

Yes! My art teacher can be confusing but after watching the clip i understand! I even sent a link to my classmates to help with their homework!! Very helpful! ^-^

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Will Kemp October 18, 2012

Good one Esther! Glad you’ve found it useful.
Cheers,
Will

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Sara Halter December 13, 2012

Hi Will,
Great blog! The way you explained things made it a lot easier to understand. In my art class, the assignment was to do a painting, and now I am stuck! How do I mix colors to make skin color? Which colors do I mix?

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Will Kemp December 13, 2012

Hi Sara,
If you have a look at How to choose a basic palette for portraitsi there is a video lesson at the bittom of the article showing you how to mix and match your own skin colour.

Cheers,
Will

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kevin January 25, 2013

Thanks for this article.
I’m a 22 yr old boy from Durban(KZN, South Africa) and draw portraits but i can only draw in pencil and I have mastered my medium after drawing for years now since I was 8 and without any art lessons but now I feel that I also want to do coloured paintings but i’ve been finding it hard to mix colours, but from reading this article i now have the basics of mixing colours. So as i’ve learned over the years of drawing in pencil, practice makes perfect so with this start on paintings I’ll have to apply the same principle.
Thank you so much and God bless.

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Will Kemp January 25, 2013

You’re welcome Kevin, mixing colours is a step-by-step approach, but with your drawing skills you’ll be able to pick up painting very quickly.

Cheers,
Will

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Suzie May 8, 2013

Hi Will, Thank you so much about the colour wheel, whenever I see one my eyes just glaze over it and nothing else, I also quite often end up with a lot of muddy colours on my pallet and waste so much paint. After reading what you wrote about the colour wheel, I gave it a go and I am converted. Thank you for your free tips, by the way, you have another talent other than being artistic, you possess and display an exceptional talent in conveying ideas and concepts effectively.
Thanks again
Suzie

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Will Kemp May 10, 2013

Hi Suzie, thanks very much for your kind comments. Really pleased you gave it a go with the colour wheel. Just taking the colour mixing a step at a time can really make a big difference in your success rate!

Thanks again,

Will

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Zachary June 3, 2013

Hello Will, you have written a really wonderful and approachable article on color mixing, that being said, if you are able to receive my comment I would like to ask you how you go about mixing a purple out of napthol crimson and ultramarine blue? I most often arrive at a result which is more similar to a dark maroon mud than anything which actually resembles brilliant purple. If you were able to answer this question I can imagine myself as well as other internet users may find it helpful.

Thank you for your time,
Zach

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Will Kemp June 4, 2013

Hi Zach, pleased you’ve found the article helpful.

You might be interested in these two videos:

How to mix bright pink paint & a bright purple

Cheers,
Will

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Jordan June 30, 2013

Hey Will,

Just a question I’ve been curious about during the time reading your articles.
It has to do with toning down.

I understand that the complementary color is used to tone down, but if I were to use a pure black (such as the Mars) in very small amounts, would this achieve the same result? (Toning down).

Also is toning down the same thing as desaturation?

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Will Kemp June 30, 2013

Hey Jordon,

Nice to hear from you, yes, you would achieve a similar result on certain colours.

If you added black to red it will mute it down nicely, as with blue. However, if you add it to yellow you’ll produce a green due to the underlying blue bias of the black.

Have a look at the green mixes here:

And an article on the use of black in your paintings here.

Hope this helps,
Will

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deane July 10, 2013

Hi Will, my wife has just started to paint a German shepherd dog for a friend, but she can’t seem to get the colours right for the light coloured fur.
Could you please tell me the exact colours she needs to make the fur?
It looks a sandy colour to me. thank you
Deane

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Will Kemp July 11, 2013

Hi Deane,

When painting there isn’t usually an exact formula for a particular subject.

Different light conditions and surroundings of a subject will effect how we perceive the actual colour.

A grey circle will appear differently on a white background, black background or coloured background.

This is called colour constancy and is why in painting each colour needs to be judged individually.

She might me interested in my simple colour mixing course which goes through the entire process of mixing and matching colours.

Cheers,
Will

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Vanessa October 31, 2013

Hi Will
Have found your website amazing thank you. I am painting a horse portrait in oils. It’s a ginger/warm brown colour. Have made the under painting in raw umber and oms as per your lessons. I’m not sure whether to complete a full black to white value under painting using the measured mediums because I think the paint might be too thick by the time I get to use colour. I am intending to buy the portrait lessons but in the meantime want to get this done as it’s for a friend. Please could you advise as I’ve made three attempts already n can’t keep buying more canvases! Also too impatient to wait for the lessons!
Kindest regards
Vanessa

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Will Kemp October 31, 2013

Hi Vanesssa,

Nice to hear from you, and so pleased you’ve been finding the website helpful in your painting.

Regarding the layers on your painting i t depends how you are going to add the colour to the painting, either by glazes or by painting thicker, more impasto paste.

If more impasto, then once you’ve had some practice turning forms and building tones with the black and white portrait you can start to build up the first layers using more tonal colours for the portrait.

For glazing, you’ll be able to apply colour ontop of the completed grisaille.

Hope this helps, enjoy the portrait course.

Cheers,
Will

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Michael Worobec November 6, 2013

I am an artist and part time Art teacher and stumbled on your site today. Great. Learned a few things and I went to art school. Great site.

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Will Kemp November 6, 2013

Hi Michael, thanks for dropping by, so pleased you’re finding the site of interest, thanks for your kind comments,

Cheers,
Will

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B.RIYAS DEEN November 26, 2013

Thank uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu

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Timothy Hime December 23, 2013

Your articles and videos show that you have pedagogy which is rare. (particularly among teachers) You bring in concrete ideas, simple presentation, packed with an abundance of the real meat of painting. All one need do is become playful and diligent for the abstractions so hard to grasp to come to one seemingly out of the blue. Play to the muse and she will reward you, so to speak. Thank you very much and I just bought a box-load of paint and brushes. With the valor of St. George I will now destroy some blank white dragons.

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Will Kemp December 23, 2013

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your kind words, may the valor of St. George be with you with your creative endeavours with paint!

Cheers,

Will

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Aiseng February 26, 2014

it was great

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