Observations About Mixing Oil Paints

| July 2, 2009
mixing oil paint colors

Know the Limits of your Mixed Colors

I am by no means an expert on mixing oil paints. I have, however, struggled to figure out which colors I should put on my palette and have struggled to mix the right colors for my paintings. For these reasons, I thought I would share an exercise that I tried recently that was aimed at helping me understand ways to overcome these challenges.

When I first started painting, I jumped all in and bought a ton of colors thinking that it was the path to great paintings. I quickly learned that the more colors I had, the more difficult it was to mix the colors I needed. To minimize the confusion, I decided to reduce my palette to just three primaries plus white. For my landscape paintings, I find that I can mix better than 90% of all the colors I need with Cad. Yellow Light, Cad. Red Hue, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium White. A benefit of this approach is that all the colors I mix are going to be in harmony with each other. A problem with a limited palette, however, is that I end up with a limited color space with which to work. If all the colors I need are contained within all the possibilities that can be mixed with the chosen primaries, I am in good shape. If not, I may need to add additional tube colors to extend the color space to achieve the results I desire. These additional colors serve to extend the available color space of a limited palette to create the full range of color possibilities for my work.

To help me visualize the limit of color space provided by my chosen primary colors, I mixed my best versions of green, orange and violet between the primaries as well as one additional step in between (see image at top of post). I quickly realized that my best green would never be more intense or saturated than the mixed result. The same is true for orange and violet. Although the mixed orange is very nice, it will never be as bright as a tube version of Cad. Orange no matter how hard I try. Also noticed that the best mixed violet is not anywhere near the Blue Violet I can get straight out of the tube. My paintings may not need the extra colors, but if they do, I have to add the tube colors to get there. Oh, the image at the top of this post can be clicked so you can see the text and detail on the color panel.

Another thing I learned through another exercise is that I will probably never by a tube of Ivory Black again. I have sometimes reached for black while painting landscapes and have rarely been happy with the choice. I have found that Alizarin mixed with Viridian makes a great black for my paintings when I need more shade than is available by mixing all my primaries into a neutral.

This is not the only way to think about color, it is just my way at the moment. I hope this is helpful to others starting out. I know it has helped me become more confident about mixing color and I feel that I like my paintings more as a result. I would love to hear from others about their color mixing adventures and tips to expand my understanding of the dynamics of color in oil painting.

Category: Fine Art and Painting

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Kerri Settle says:

    Thanks for the color observations and tips. I always like to hear how other artists work. I’ve been using a combination of French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber for my blacks lately.

  2. One of the most fun things about painting is that you get to forever experiment with things like this!

    I think a limited palette is a great way to simplify things and achieve color harmony, but as you pointed out, it does have limitations. For instance, Scott Christensen uses a primary palette and while I love his paintings, I do find that there isn’t a wide range of color in them.

    I have a couple of different yellows on my palette to give a wider range of greens, and a few different reds to give me more options with violets. Recently I’ve added a few colors to my palette – who knows if they’ll stay, but it’s fun to try something new!

  3. Lee says:

    My pleasure Kerri and I appreciate your comment. Thanks for sharing your solution for Black. I have another color exercise that I will write up soon and post as well.

  4. Lee says:

    Thanks for the comment and insight Stacey. I have studied and like the dynamic range of color in your work. I also like that your use of color adds believable interest without feeling forced. My earlier work went overboard with color. Everything was shouting so nothing was really heard. The limited palette has helped me keep the color under control, which allows me to use vibrant dashes of color for accents and a way to create heightened visual interest.