Mixing color in any medium can be intimidating and mixing with acrylics can be its own challenge. With its fast dry time and difficulty blending, acrylics can often be a hurdle for beginner painters and those new to the medium in general. This article will address some basics of color mixing, some acrylic specific concerns, along with some exercises to help you get a better handle, or a refresher, on specific color mixing concepts.
Acrylic Specific Concerns
Premixing vs Free Mixing
Mixing paint can be broken down into two main methods; Premixing and Free Mixing.
Some artists will swear by one method over the other, but both can be useful depending on your style of work as well as if you are working with a limited or wider ranged palette.
Premixing means you have all of your colors mixed before you start the painting, which is great if you like to plan ahead or work with a limited palette. This is also preferred if you work in a more graphic style of art, where a specific color is needed to create clean shapes or lettering. In general, this is harder to achieve with acrylics because of the fast dry time. There is also the challenge that if your paint dries on your palette before you’re done, it creates waste that will need to be remixed. There are solutions for this that will be reviewed in this article.
Free mixing means you have some basic starting colors on your palette that you mix over time as needed. This is preferred if you’re using a wider palette of colors or will be using more gradation of colors. This way of mixing is also more useful if you have a more realistic or impressionistic way of painting. This mixing style also tends to be more useful when working with acrylics as you can mix the paint on the fly when needed and easily introduce new colors.
No matter which method you prefer, there are different ways to accommodate both into acrylic painting and mixing.
Wet on Wet
There is also the technique of ‘Wet on Wet’ which simply means instead of mixing on a palette then applying the paint to your surface, you apply the paint to an already wet surface. This can be done with another paint color or with a light application of Gesso.
This technique is particularly useful when you want to paint a sky, water, clouds or create a blurred effect to your subject. This is also useful for creating a ‘ground’ to build the rest of your painting from. By mixing color this way you can create interesting and complex backgrounds.
Wet on wet isn’t great for fine details or crisp lines as the presence of that moisture can make getting details pinned down a challenge.
Acrylics are known to dry quickly and this can be very useful when needing to create work fast and to avoid the wait between layers. However this does pose some problems when mixing colors and keeping them workable for the length of time it takes to create your painting.
If you need to extend your work time overall, #299 Acrylic Retarder and #217 Slow Dry Matte Liquid can be used to increase the time you can use the acrylics. This also increases the overall dry time, so depending on what method you are using to paint, can be both helpful or frustrating.
It’s best to mix them into your starting colors at the recommended ratios provided on the bottle. When you mix in a second color, it will decrease the dry time again and readjust by adding more medium, only a little at a time, if necessary.
If you’re noticing that your paints are having trouble blending together, you can also keep a spray bottle of water on hand to re-moisten your palette. You can also put #235 Nova Plex into a spray bottle and use it similarly to water without having to worry about breaking your binder. The spray should be more particalized and less of a stream for the Nova Plex. Unlike water, the Nova Plex will need to be washed off any nozzles to prevent clogs.
If you are working with canvas, you can also spray the back of your canvas with water to add more moisture to the canvas itself so that your paint has less opportunity to evaporate out of the back of your canvas.
General Set up
Having an organized palette will help you pick colors quickly and develop muscle memory. This section is helpful for beginners.
To organize your palette, group colors by neutrals, warm/cool tones or values. Examples are shown below:
The only warning to give is that some palettes are easier to clean than others. Any palette with wells or pots tend to be a bit harder to clean especially when the acrylic has fully cured. The best palettes for acrylics, in general, are flat with lots of room for mixing.
Acrylic palettes are versatile and available in various colors. Use a plastic scraper to clean them, but be careful not to let the paint dry. If it does, soak it in hot water or wipe down with diluted acetone.
Glass palettes are easy to clean with a metal scraper, but they are pricey, heavy, fragile, and only come clear.
Wet palettes can be useful for painting, but they also have their challenges. They can be made with a shallow waterproof container and wet paper towels covered with parchment paper for the paint to sit on. Alternatively, you can buy wet palettes specifically designed for this purpose. However, these commercial options can be wasteful as you'll need to replace the paper towels and parchment paper frequently. Additionally, if too much water is added to the palette, the polymers in the acrylic paint can break down, affecting the paint's adhesion and longevity.
The best palette to choose is up to you and your preferred workflow.
In the past, artists were limited by available pigments and their preferences. You may already have what you need to get started, but if you're a beginner, here are some helpful colors to consider:
The purpose of this selection is to provide a variety of colors that can be easily blended with other colors to create a wide range of shades. However, please feel free to make alternate choices depending on the requirements of your project.
Shades, Tints, and Tones
Values are an important part of understanding mixing any color. Knowing how to mix all ranges of value will help you push and pull your shadows, make your colors harmonize, and make your colors stand out. The main vocabulary to understand begins with Shades, Tints and Tones:
- Shades are the values you achievewhen you mix any color with pure black.
- Tints are the values you achieve when you mix any color with white.
- Tones are the values you achieve when you mix any color with a neutral gray.
Above are examples of all three of these for each of the primary colors. The Shades are on the left, the Tints are in the middle, and the Tones are on the right.
These ideas are important to understand and conceptualize for when you're actively mixing. They can be utilized to create a monochromatic look for your work while also helping you recognize how to see the subtle changes in value in any given direction; Dark, pastel, or midtone. These types of charts can be useful when pinpointing the level of chroma in any given mixture as well.
Exercise: Pure Value Study
Pick a color to create tints, tones and shades with. Similar to the image here:
To determine your preferred color mixing approach, try creating a column of shades starting with the darkest value paint and gradually adding the lightest value paint. Then, create a second column with the same shades, but starting with the lightest value paint and adding the darkest value paint.
This exercise will help you identify if you prefer working from dark to light, light to dark, or are comfortable with both. For beginners, this exercise can highlight areas for improvement and areas where you feel more confident. Additionally, take note of where you use more paint to achieve a desired shade, as this will help you save time and materials in the future when making color mixing decisions.
Generally you will find, adding the darkest value paint to your lightest value paint will be more effective, since it takes less paint to make a value darker and more paints to make a value lighter!
Hue, Chroma, and Value
We’ve already gone over how different values can be achieved with black, white and gray, but let's think about a color’s relative value and its relationship to chroma.
In the above image (left) you can see three primary colors (#122 Ultramarine Blue, #187 Pyrrole Red, and #123 Cadmium Yellow Light) next to a blended gradient (#109 Carbon Black and #118 Titanium White). When we turn the image to grayscale mode (right), we can see how the color itself has value even when not mixed with any other neutral to create shades, tints and tones.
This is important to understand if you need to lighten or darken an area of your painting, but you want it to retain more chroma and not become muted or muddy when mixed with a neutral color.
Hue is the most vibrant color on the color wheel, while Chroma is the level of purity or grayness of a particular hue, while keeping its value constant. The highest chroma that can be achieved is the hue itself.
On the right, you can see that the yellow, and the white it is mixed with, have a very close (but not exact) value. However that swatch of yellow on the top left image pops, not because of its value but, because of its Chroma.
Now let's tackle the way color can change when mixed with other colors.
Although a color wheel can serve as a useful guide for mixing colors, with practice, you will soon be able to determine which direction a color will shift on your own.
To create secondary colors, mix any two primary colors together. To create tertiary colors, mix any primary color with any secondary color. This can be observed on the color wheel where, for example, green is located evenly between blue and yellow. By adding more yellow to the green mixture, the resulting color will shift towards yellow-green or chartreuse.
Let's apply this basic mixing knowledge to what we now know about chroma.
Whenever two colors are mixed, the overall chroma tends to decrease from the original colors. For instance, when mixing #187 Pyrrole Red and #122 Ultramarine Blue you would expect a nice vibrant purple. While a nice purple is achieved, the chroma found in the pigment of #186 Medium Violet, is more vibrant.
Here are some comparisons above to show just this. The square swatch being a secondary of the two outermost circle swatches of paint. These colors are the primaries from the suggested palette: #187 Pyrrole Red, #122 Ultramarine Blue, and #123 Cadmium Yellow Light.
The circle of paint in the middle, next to the square swatch, is the color straight from the container with the highest chroma of that hue. Going from top to bottom, these are: #186 Medium Violet, #182 Medium Green, and #110 Organic Orange. Some appear closer than others, but in general if you want a higher chroma, you’ll need to get it directly from a jar instead of mixed.
This is good to know ahead of time if you want to create a limited palette or need a color that is going to “pop” against the rest of your colors. This also helps you know where you can spend more on some pigments over others.
When you mix three colors that are farthest away from each other on the color wheel you can create a neutral brown. (sometimes even grayish color depending on the pigment.) You can use primary colors, yellow, red and blue, to achieve this but also orange, green and purple as well. This also happens when you mix two complementary colors, since this is usually a primary and a secondary color. (For example Yellow and purple) This is useful to know when mixing because, when done in excess, it is called ‘muddying’ your colors.
“Muddying” your colors isn’t always a bad thing and can be great to create neutral colors when you don’t have any on hand, but can lead to problems if you’re not careful when mixing wet on wet or if your palette gets messy.
Some general concepts to grasp:
- It’s easier to darken a hue than to lighten it when mixing purely for value.
- When mixing for chroma, your base pigments will always be the strongest chroma and mixing will always decrease the overall chroma.
- The best practice for mixing more than two colors is to place your lightest color down first, then add in your darker values to shift the chroma and value a little at a time. Once you do this enough, you’ll become able to push and pull any color in any direction you like!
Overall, understanding these basic concepts will help you mix colors with ease. Below are a few exercises designed to help you zero in on these in applications.
Exercise: Invent the Wheel
To practice color mixing, you can paint the color wheel or create gradients to obtain secondary colors like green, orange, and purple. Afterwards, you can further adjust the mixed colors to bring them closer to the primary colors that were used to create them.
Exercise: Chart Your Limits
For a fun exercise, create swatches by blending two primary colors together and find the resulting color that appears to be in the middle. Then, create a new set of swatches using that color and the highest chroma available for that hue. This exercise will help you define the range of that hue in your palette and improve your color mixing skills. In the example below, #122 Ultramarine Blue and #187 Pyrrole Red are mixed to create a dark purple, and then that purple is mixed with #186 Medium Violet. If you have another shade of purple, create a gradient with that one as well to see where else you can push your paint.
Exercise: Matching by Eye
Punch/cut out a nice color in a magazine and try to match the color by mixing. Start off simple with flat colors in your selection. For more of a challenge, select images with more color variation and texture.
This will help you understand how to shift color in one direction or another. This takes practice, but referencing the color wheel and your value shifts will help you make decisions about what to add. If you’re unsure of how much paint to add, start small and remember that it takes more paint to lighten than it does to darken. This will also help you spot how different the apparent local color can be different than the color you actually mix.
In the example below, the image looks quite blue, but purple and gray tones were used to shift the color closer to the image.
Opaque vs. Translucent
When mixing colors you’ll notice something particular about transparent and translucent colors; they can only make your hues lose relative chroma and value. (If you want to know the difference between translucent and transparent visit our FAQ page)
Even if a transparent color has a lighter value in the container, the lack of opacity means there is a lack of reflective material in the paint so it will always appear to lose chroma. Building lighter values means using opaques or white only. Transparents are ideal for mixing and glazing, rather than adding pure value to your work.
Exercise: Sample the Glaze
To get a sense of how glazing affects an artwork, find an image in a magazine or your favorite art piece, and print it out. Observe how adding glaze lowers the chroma of the colors in the image. This exercise will help you understand how glazing might look on your own work and how it can be used effectively. In the image below, you can see the effect of glazing with one coat of #110 Organic Orange painted over another image.
While there are many approaches to mixing acrylic paints, these general guidelines and concepts should help you better understand what can be achieved and how to supplement your mixing with specific tools and techniques.
We hope these general guidelines and concepts have been helpful in improving your acrylic paint mixing skills. We would love to see your work! Share your creations with us and tag @novacolorpaint. We look forward to seeing what you can achieve with these new techniques and tools in your creative toolkit.