Theory to Practice: Mixing any colour you want

If you have not seen the previous posts I highly recommend you do, as this one won’t make much sense otherwise! You can find them in the navigation below this article.

This is the third and final email on Colour Mixing.

Let’s recap and then bring it all together so we can pinpoint exactly how to mix any colour we want – hopefully taking lots of the guesswork and frustration out of colour mixing.

This is just a beginning. We will be taking a really deep dive into colour mixing in both the Primary Principles Course, and the Essential Elements Course of the Watercolour Masterclass series.

This will only be running once a year. It starts in just over a month’s time


 

Recap So far we have looked at where our pigments and colours sit on the colour wheel along with their colour temperature, and how this dramatically influences the colours we can mix with them. Next we investigated lightening and darkening colours. For absolute simplicity this boils down to adding more water to lighten (do see the last email content for a deeper explanation).

Then we looked at the importance of knowing how to subdue colours by using their complements, essentially greying a colour down by bringing it closer into the centre of this colour wheel. We also spoke about how using a tube grey or black is a perfectly fine way to subdue and darken colours, but they have limitations, and knowing how to subdue colours using three primaries will be a huge help to your painting. Finally, we explored how colour mixing, even with lots of fun and exciting tube colours, is essentially just balancing our three primaries. We can conceptualise this by imagining we are simply moving colours around the colour wheel; pulling them into the middle (greying them down) or pushing them to the outside edge (increasing the chroma by adding more colour).


 

Bringing it all together So how do we mix any colour we want? Like any theory, it does take practice and good observation. However, it won’t be long before you can achieve it, particularly with this focused way of thinking about colours. The theory may initially seem complex – and many people find colour mixing daunting – but armed with a bit of knowledge it can be one of the most exciting elements of painting, particularly with watercolours!!

Once you know and understand the colours you have, then take a moment to play around with them, pushing and pulling them around the wheel. I promise that colour mixing will become much simpler, and hopefully much more fun! I will also add that from a technical point of view, you should allow time whilst colour mixing. Take your time on the palette. Consider how much of each colour you are adding. Sometimes the tiniest brush tip worth of colour will create the shift you want. OK, so here is the super simple approach to colour mixing: This is a process of boiling it down, so we’ll start broad and bring it to a simple refined point. We have seen that colour is made up of only 3 characteristics:

  • Hue – Where the colour sits on the colour wheel

  • Chroma – How intense or saturated the colour is (where it sits on the wheel)

  • Tone – How light or dark the colour is

To simplify further I would lump Hue and Chroma together as they are both just a case of “where does the colour sit on the colour wheel?” Let’s call this Hue. When considering Hue we are automatically taking into account colour temperature, how our colour choices affect the mixes available to us, and how we subdue and intensify colours. In fact, all we are really doing is asking very, very simple questions like: "Does it get more red-ish? Or orangey? More blue? Stronger blue? More subdued blue?” And so on. Whatever your current experience level, I think you will be surprised at just how easy these questions are to answer when you take time to concentrate and really observe. Then Tonal Value is very simply how light or dark a colour is. For the sake of super simplicity, this is how much water is in the mix.

  • Less water = darker

  • More water = lighter

Let’s keep on boiling it down To simplify this as much as is possible let’s reduce this two considerations: Hue = Where does the colour sit on the wheel (Balancing primaries i.e. pushing and pulling colour around the wheel) Value = how much water If these are the only two possible considerations for mixing a colour then it makes sense that to get from Colour ‘A’ – The colour we have to Colour ‘B’ – The colour we want We simply have to ask these two questions: 1) Does it get lighter or darker? 2) Which part of colour wheel is it moving to? That is it. That’s all you need to know. That’s all we can know!

This may seem an overly simplified conclusion after 3 articles worth of theory but my hope is to have taken you on a journey into colour theory, to then extract only what is practically useful to us as painters. It can be frustrating that there is no special trick or magic secret to colour mixing. For me though this is exciting! It is something that can be learnt. Once learnt it will set your painting free! (or at least your colour mixing) It boils down to taking the time to think about colour in the correct way. To be conscious of colour and follow a specific thought pattern in regards to mixing it. The bottom line is that this is all about changing the way we think about colour, how we conceptualise it in our minds, and as always, keeping the whole process, both mental and physical, as simple as possible!! With a little practice and getting to know your colours, plus practising subduing and intensifying colours, plus playing with pushing and pulling them to different areas of the colour wheel, answering these questions with your brush becomes a straight forward process that soon will be almost second nature.


 

I hope you have found this useful.

Of course, there is only so much I can explain in writing. Showing these principles physically with the paint, very clear examples, and then through painting demos, allows for a much deeper understanding.

So if this has been useful and you would like to take it further, please do consider joining me for the upcoming Watercolour Masterclass series.

Don’t forget, you don’t have to sign up for all four courses, you can just pick one or two which most interest you.

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