On art
How to mix the colour you want.

How to learn watercolour, Part II

How to mix the colour you want.

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

How do you mix a particular colour you want, in watercolour painting?

Here is a rough and ready guide, as well as an overview of the different ways painters tackle colour mixing.

It is useful to know a bit of colour theory - tonal value, hue and intensity; primary colours and complementary colours. I’ve covered it briefly here; it is easy to find more information online or in most art instruction books.

Let’s say we’re trying to mix the colour of a green grape - a slightly dulled, light, yellow-green. You might be using this colour in a still life or a landscape or in a non-representational, more abstracted painting. How do you mix this colour from your paints?

TONAL VALUE (how light or dark is the colour?)
The first thing to know about watercolour paint is that you make a colour lighter by adding water. So if you end up with a mix that is darker than you want, it is easy to fix, just add some water.

Making a colour darker is not so easy. Watercolour paints come out of the tube in various tonal values (lightness or darkness). All the yellows are light colours, and some other colours come out of the tube light too, depending on the actual chemistry used for the pigment, for example raw sienna, cobalt violet and manganese blue. If you mix any of these together, the mix will never get really dark.

However most pigments come out of the tube at mid or dark value, so it’s easy to choose one of these for a darker mix. And of course you can make any of these tube colours lighter with water or just use a little, if it is overpowering the colour you are mixing it with.

So mixing the tonal value you want is not hard - use the right tube colour for the job and use water to make lighter when needed. In the case of the green grape, we want a fairly light colour so we could use just about any tube paint.

HUE (colour, eg, red or purple)
It is pretty easy to get close to the hue you want if you know a bit of colour theory. There are many models or systems to depict how all the colours relate to each other. I like this basic, simple, widely-used colour wheel the best.


There are three 'primary’ colours. If you mix them you get the three ‘secondary’ colours. And if you mix a primary with a neighbouring secondary colour, the colour you get is a ‘tertiary’ colour.

Every colour that you see around you can be slotted under one of these twelve hue names - though what you see may be a very grubby or greyed version of it, and lighter or darker. Each colour position stands for all tonal values of that colour, from very pale through to as dark as it can go, so the ‘orange’ section represents all oranges from very pale tints to as dark as orange can go (which is not as dark as purple can go).

Our grape is a yellow-green. Now that we can see that hue on the colour wheel, it is easy to get a mix of paint that is roughly yellow-green because the colour wheel works geometrically too. Pick any two colours and draw a line between them.


- 1. If you mix a yellow paint and a red paint, whoops, you certainly won’t end up at yellow-green.
- 2. If you mix a yellow paint and a green paint, you’ll certainly get a yellow-green, and a nice bright one too.

INTENSITY ( how bright or greyed/neutralised is the colour?)
- 3. If you use a yellow paint and any blue paint, you’ll get a yellow-green too, but it will be a more dirty or greyed version. The further away from yellow the blue is, the more grey or low intensity the mix becomes. (This hasn’t shown up too well on my diagram, but you will notice it in practice.)
- Similarly, if you had mixed a very orangish yellow with any green or blue, you’d also end up with a more greyed or neutralised or ‘low intensity’ yellow-green.
The mixed colour is brightest when it is mixed from two colours close together on the colour wheel.

COMPLEMENTS (opposite colours on the wheel)
We call colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel ‘complementary’ colours. If you mix any two opposites you’ll get a neutral grey. Try it - some work more easily than others. Here’s an example, using yellow and purple.


Notice how the centre of the colour wheel is where grey lies. And this is the location of all tonal values of neutral grey, from pale grey right through to black.

The reason this happens with complements (opposites) is that whenever you mix the three primary colours, yellow, red and blue, you get a grey. (Try it). And opposite colours will always have enough yellow, red and blue in them to make a grey. For example:
- yellow and purple (red +blue)
- red and green (yellow + blue)
- yellow-green (yellow + (yellow+blue)) and red-purple (red + (red+blue)).

What we found above was that anytime you join colours a long way apart you get a resulting hue in the greyer area within the colour wheel, not on the outside with all the bright colours. The mix is a dull, lower intensity colour. This is because any mix of colours a long way apart already has some of all three primaries in it, which are mixing together to give a greyness to the mix.

So one way of mixing your colours is to start with tubes of the bright colours of the colour wheel, but choose the ones at the location that will give you the hue and also the intensity you want. In our case we want a slightly dulled yellow-green so we shouldn’t use a yellow and green right near each other; we are better off using a blue of some sort with the yellow, or a more golden yellow with a green.

Here are some ways artists go about mixing colour. This is just an overview of some main ones, but there are other systems too. Each system is actually a lot more sophisticated than my brief discussion here, with a lot of interesting aspects to explore if you’re interested; colour is a huge field.

But perhaps from this overview you’ll gain some understanding of how you are currently being taught or how your favourite artist works, as well as setups you’d like to explore more.

You can actually just put three tube colours on your palette, a yellow, a blue and a red (the three primary colours) and from there mix all twelve colours on the colour wheel.

Try it yourself. A good triad (set of three) is Aureolin Yellow, Quniacridone/Permanent Rose and Cobalt Blue - these three don’t lean too much to a neighbouring hue. In fact I use this trio a lot in my paintings, especially for purple-greys and soft pink-oranges. It’s amazing how much of your painting you can complete with just these three. It is also good practice to try using just them, to stretch your mixing ability.

Later you can have fun trying a different triad of yellow, red and blue paints - such as a golden Raw Sienna for the yellow, a Scarlet Lake or Cadmium Red sort of colour for the red, and maybe some sort of aqua hue of blue. See what colours you can make, and which ones you can’t. Often a painting done with a triad of colours has a sense of colour harmony. The limitation is that you can’t make every colour you want, only some colours. Even with the versatile triad I use often, you can’t mix an particularly bright orange or green.

SIX PRIMARIES (‘split primaries’, a pair for each primary colour)
If you look at all the yellows available in watercolour paint, you’ll see that some are heading towards yellow-orange on the colour wheel, and some are heading towards yellow-green. And the same is true for red and blue paints, a lot of them lean towards their neighbours.

So an easy way to ensure you can mix really bright colours is to make sure you have two of each primary colour on your palette, not just one - a golden yellow and a greenish/lemony yellow; an orangey red and a purple/pinky red; a purplish blue and an aqua/turquoise blue.

Then as we saw above, to get the brightest yellow-green, you use a yellow that leans towards blue, and a blue that leans towards yellow. Or if you want a dull green, use a yellow that leans towards red and a blue that leans towards red. Draw a line between these colours on a colour wheel and you’ll see that you’ll get a duller, lower intensity result.

Jeanne Dobie’s best-selling book Making colour sing brought us a more practical system that starts from the primary colours. She bases her mixing on the triad I recommended above, Aureolin Yellow, Quinacridone/Permanent Rose (or Rose Madder Genuine which is weaker and can fade) and Cobalt Blue, but then adds other colours to her palette to make up for the limitations of the three paints.

Dobie adds Viridian for a better green mix, some stronger colours to make really colourful darks (Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo/Winsor Blue and Phthalo/Winsor Green), and other tubes of various hues simply to get a more intense result, for example, Cadmium Orange to make a more intense orange than you can get from just mixing Aureolin Yellow and Permanent Rose.

With Dobie's system you make the green grape colour by mixing a bright yellow-green from yellow and green, and then toning it down by adding a red colour (which means that there are then enough of each primary present in the mix to start greying the colour down).

There is a lot more to Dobie’s system and it is well worth exploring from time to time as you progress because the colour exercises get more and more sophisticated; see my note under Books I have found helpful, about how her website gives an update for the paints listed in her book.

The easiest way to mix is if you have a large palette in the shape of a colour wheel and put out paint in all twelve hues. As seen above, it is then quite simple to achieve the hue, intensity and tonal value you want.

This is the method used by Stephen Quiller in his books and DVDs. It can give rise to some lovely and not-often-seen mixes too, such as a red-orange being dulled down by a blue-green, and making an unusual grey. Artists tend to stick to common patterns and this breaks free of it.

Interestingly, pigment chemistry isn’t always amenable for stocking the twelve paints around the colour wheel. For example, there is no single pigment bright yellow-green paint, and the slightly blueish purple that is exactly opposite yellow only comes in a pigment that is rather weak in mixes, Ultramarine Violet. No problem though, either use a pre-mixed paint (the tube lists the pigments on its label or on the website if you’re ordering online), or a nearby useful hue that is close enough.

A popular variation of this is a palette of high intensity, transparent paints that are good performers and come in most colours of the colour wheel, supplemented with a few favourite other colours too.

A lot of artists use a traditional palette of colours that has been around for a long time, together with some new paints we now have. Charles Reid is one artist who uses this sort of system. There are some pairs of primaries (a lemon yellow and a golden yellow; a cadmium/scarlet red and a crimson like Alizarin Crimson) and a nice strong orange such as Cadmium Orange. This is supplemented by ‘earth colours’, which traditionally are made from earth/dirt - raw sienna, yellow ochre and raw umber as duller and darker yellows; and burnt sienna and burnt umber as browns that are duller, darker shades of orange/red. The traditional blues are a choice of French Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, as many as you like having on your palette; some artists now use Phthalo or Winsor Blue (often in ‘red shade’) for a basic, strong blue. Some artists have no greens on their palette or no purples, mixing these colours them from scratch each time.

Whatever you mix using this system, you would still have in mind the rough hue you’re heading towards and what hues will mix to it; and then how to tweak the mix with something that’s roughly a complement to tone it down if necessary.

Artists don’t always work with a comprehensive selection of soft paints squeezed into a palette in front of them. Shirley Trevena designs her studio paintings slowly. Once she has decided on the colour she wants to mix, she selects the appropriate tube or two from her collection of paints, and squeezes a little out onto a plate (for painting not food, some colours are toxic). Of course she then mixes and adjusts colours in the same ways as mentioned above. She knows her paints well and is always exploring new mixes.

Once you are experienced at mixing colours, using any of these systems or any other you like, you tend not to get the dreaded ‘mud’ result (unless you want it), because you are headed to your goal by the shortest route.

(A side note: you can also get a muddy result if you keep working on wet paint as it is drying. That’s a different problem.)

Try to reach your desired colour with just two paints, using a bit of a third to tweak it if necessary. You shouldn’t actually need a fourth colour, and that gets too slow anyway.

Which is why we artists often add some extra colours to our palettes. I like dropping a Burnt Sienna/ Quinacridone Burnt Orange colour into a wet shape on the paper, and that burnt orange-red-brown is not an easy colour to mix in a hurry; it’s far easier to simply dip into a paint that’s ready to go.

Another reason artists have particular colours on their palettes is a practical one. Every pigment is different, pigments don’t all behave the same. Dobie chooses pigments for luminosity, how far the colour carries when you stand back from a painting. Other painters only use transparent colours and no opaques. Or they like the grainy effect of granulation, something a few pigments do. Some colours spread quickly when touched into a wet mix, others hardly move. And then some colours are so powerful they stain and can be hard to lift and correct - yet their power is what we like about them.

But you don’t want thirty different paints on your palette, or you won’t master any of them. Try starting with ten to fifteen colours, planning to only use say six or seven of them a lot and the rest as a support act. I would suggest buying an art instruction book of someone whose work you like and using their palette of colours. (Interestingly, your work will quickly have bits that look a little like theirs.) If you're stuck, you could try the systems of Dobie, Quiller or Reid, found in their books and DVDs; Trevena's approach is less systematic and more creative, a good supplement to any system you use.

It is normal to change the colours on your palette over time especially the supporting ones, if not the main ones. We artists like trying new colour ideas to stay fresh.

You also develop favourite paints that you love to use. These are actually the most important colours on your palette as they form part of your unique artistic style.

This article has been about getting to a particular destination colour using a logical system. But of course art is not constrained by logic. You can mix any two paint colours, anytime. And you will discover mixes that you will want to use again - try Viridian with pinks and purples for delicate other-worldly greyed colours; or pinks and magentas mixed with blue-greens for some quite different purplish colours.

There is no right or wrong way to mix colour, use whatever methods suit you. The colour goal in watercolour painting is to have wonderful clean colour in each shape.

Have fun mixing. You’re in for some surprises, colour mixing is never boring.

- October 2016, updated 1 November 2016

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.