Colour mixing is one of the most difficult aspects of learning how to paint using acrylic or oils. It is very easy to create muddy or lifeless colours which deaden a painting. The following colour mixing tips will help you create very interesting colour mixes both bold and subtle.
Mixing Flesh Colours
The problem for the artist with painting flesh colours is that the shadows often look dirty and not too convincing. Restricting ourselves to just white flesh in this instance, because dark flesh is a completely different range of colours, here are some ideas. The colours I use are: titanium white, yellow ochre, light red, Indian red (now called Red Oxide), alizarin crimson, cadmium red, cadmium yellow light and cobalt blue.
Generally speaking I mix a standard flesh tint in the following proportions: 5 parts white, 1 part yellow, half a part of red; the mixtures are approximate. A cool flesh tone I would use Titanium white, yellow ochre and Indian red, a warm flesh tint Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light and Light Red. Variations on this theme could be to replace Indian red with alizarin Crimson in a cool tint and light red with cadmium red for a warm tint. The highlights can be a mixture of alizarin crimson and titanium white for cool areas and cadmium red and titanium white for warm areas.
Shadows, if they are very deep, could be a mixture of Indian red and Cobalt blue, this creates a cool mauve colour which is ideal.
Don’t be afraid to use blues, purples and mauves in shaded areas. As a very simple rule the areas of the face that are in shadow or further away paint in cool tones, the areas closer to you in warm tones. Obviously this will vary depending on light, angles etc. Lines on the face can be defined with Indian Red but this may well need toning down depending on the general colour scheme chosen.
Try to avoid mixing flesh colours with blue because they will be come muddy very quickly. Also avoid the earthy brown colours (burnt umber for example) as they too become muddy when mixed with flesh tints.
How to mix Greys
Mixing greys to provide the artist with the subtlety required in oil/acrylic painting cannot be achieved by simply mixing black and white together. Try this for an idea. Take the three primary colours; Red, Yellow and Blue – which particular red, yellow etc will affect the outcome so experiment – and mix them together. Use small amounts of paint and try to mix equal amounts. You will end up with a sludgy colour; now add a little white and bingo a grey appears. If you want a cool grey add a little more blue, for a warm grey a little more red and so on.
An endless range of ‘greys’ can be achieved, for example, using alizarin crimson as the red, will give a different grey from using vermilion. If you want a more sophisticated approach try to find out whether the colour you are using is a cool tone or a warm tone, then just mix the cool tones or the warm tones. For example, Permanent Rose is a cool red – slightly bluish, mixing it with ultramarine and a cool yellow like lemon yellow will give less sludgy grey.
A really good exercise in colour mixing would be to produce a whole painting just using greys, cool greys in the background, warm greys in the foreground and a huge range of tones of grey in between would be a good starting point.
General Colour Mixing Tips
The following are simply suggestions you may wish to consider:
If you need a black this is not just flat like Mars Black try mixing together Ultramarine or Phthalo Blue with Burnt Umber. This gives a ‘black’, which can be used in the background – more blue than brown to give a cool black – or in the foreground, more brown than blue to create a warm black. Remember, that black used from a tube in both the foreground of a painting and the background will have a flattening effect. This idea can be used for oil/acrylic painting as well as watercolour.
Have you ever been stuck trying to work out which colour to use in the background of a painting. One idea that can sometimes work well is to choose a complementary colour to the predominant colour of the foreground. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. So red is the complementary of green, blue of orange and yellow of purple.
It is very easy to mix muddy secondary colours; orange, green and purple if you mix together the wrong reds, blues and yellows. Colours can have what is called an undertone, for example French Ultramarine has a red undertone and Permanent Rose has a Blue undertone. When these are mixed together they produce a pure purple. Prussian Blue has a green undertone therefore would create a muddy purple when mixed with Permanent Red. The following colours can produce clean secondary colours if you mix the right combinations, experiment but remember they are not the only ones,:
Oil Colours: Cadmium Yellow Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, Permanent Rose, Cadmium Lemon Hue
Acrylic Colours: Cadmium Yellow Hue, Vermilion Hue, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue, Permanent Rose, Cadmium Lemon Hue
Watercolours: Winsor Yellow, Cadmium Red, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue, Permanent Rose, Lemon Yellow
If you find a colour is too strong or intense, for example, red, you can tone it down a little by mixing a very small amount of its complementary colour, in this case green. All colours can be reduced in intensity by mixing with their complementaries.