Clean Colour Mixing

Primary ColoursFirstly there are no such colours as “true” primaries from which all other colours can be mixed. In fact, red, green and yellow might give better colour mixing  (additive colour mixing) than the equivalent pigmented colours.

It is necessary, however, to widen a palette beyond three colours for true colour mixing. This is why there are such a variety of colours, such as in the Daler-Rowney System 3 Acrylic colour and Georgian Oil colour ranges.

Furthermore colours may be transparent or opaque. Some colours have an earthy quality and others are more saturated. Part of the thrill of painting is experimenting to achieve different effects from a variety of colours. It is fun to try new colours and see what happens rather than try to mix from only three primaries, only to be disappointed by producing dirty colours. 

Colour Wheel


Step 1. Describing colour

You need to ‘describe’ colour before being able to successfully mix colours together. Some artists are able to do this naturally by eye, without any thought, but for others it can be a very difficult task. Here is a systematic approach that you may find useful.

Colour is described according to three dimensions. The three dimensions of colour are red-green, blue-yellow and white-black. Not only are colour-measuring instruments built around these three dimensions, but the human eye responds to these dimensions of colour as well. This is most noticeable when considering colour blindness, where 99% of the deficiency is red-green and the other 1% deficiency is blue-yellow.

Let us map this out in the following diagram:

Colour Diagram


The positions on the cross represent the colours red, green, blue and yellow. White and black extend from the cross to give varying shades of grey. This forms the basis of a typical colour solid.

Colours are described according to elements of colour on the other dimension. So a yellow is either green shade or red shade; green is either blue shade or yellow shade; red is either blue shade or yellow shade; blue is either red shade or green shade.

To help gain an understanding of the different descriptions for colours take the Graduate Acrylic colour chart (click here to view or download). You will see colours, such as Lemon Yellow that are clearly green shade, oranges that are yellow shade reds etc. Can you start to see an order to the way the colours are laid out? It is worth just spending some time learning how to describe the colour in this way – hopefully the tint chart will act as a guide. 


Step 2. Mixing Colour

Once you can describe a colour, you then need to work out how to mix colours without getting mud.

To achieve a clean colour mix, elements of the fewest colour options should be present. For example, to mix a bright mauve or purple, use a red shade blue (e.g. Ultramarine Blue) and a blue shade red (e.g. Crimson). To obtain a bright green, mix a green shade yellow (e.g. Lemon Yellow) and a green shade blue (e.g. Primary Blue).  And so on.

Colour Mixing Colour Mixing

Test this out by mixing different combinations of colours. How clean is your purple if you mix a yellow shade red (Vermillion) with a green shade blue (Primary Blue)? Compare this to a mix of Crimson and Ultramarine Blue.

Consider colour mixing along these lines and you will start to develop an understanding for what might happen when two different colours are mixed together. It may not come very easily to begin with, but persevere. Slowly colour mixing will come naturally to you.

It was said at the outset that colour mixing is a complex subject and this is clearly a simplification to get you going. We have not yet gone into the effect of opacity and earth colours on colour mixing. We nevertheless hope that this will prove a valuable starting point for you.

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