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7 Ways to Mix Paint Colors

There's more than one way to mix paint colors

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There isn't a right way or a wrong way to mix paint colors, but there's definitely more than one way! Try them all, as each produces a mix with a particular characteristic, or quality.

1. Mixing on a Palette, or a Physical Mix

6 Ways to Mix Colors
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Taking a little of two different colors (or more) and mixing them together on a palette with a palette knife or brush is the first method we usually use when learning to paint. If you want to get into art jargon, call it a physical mix.

Advantages: You can mix the exact color and tone you want before adding it to your painting. Depending on how much you mix, you'll have some for later on in the painting.

2. Incomplete Mixing on a Palette

Painting glazes
Image: © Katie Lee. Used with Permission of the Artist.
If you mix the colors thoroughly, you end up with a new color that's consistent in hue and tone. But not doing so is also an option, and gives you a color that varies. As you paint with it, you'll see you get the mixed color, plus bits of the original colors. This way of mixing paint can be very effective for subjects where you want some variation, for instance greens in a landscape.

Advantages: Variation in color adds to the visual interest. Easier and faster than painting small bits of color separately.

Disadvantages: Results a bit unpredictable. Large bits of unmixed color can spread out and ruin effect.

3. Wet-on-Wet, Mixing on a Painting

Instead of mixing colors on your palette, you can mix them directly on your painting, whether you're working on paper or canvas. It's a technique that requires a little experience, knowing how much paint you need to squeeze out from a tube in order to cover an area. If you mix too much, you'll need to scrape it off your painting.

Advantages: The color is right where you want to use it in your painting, without needing to be transferred from your palette.

Disadvantages: It's riskier, as you could create a mess on your painting by mixing the wrong color, mixing too much, or inadvertently mixing into a bit of the painting you hadn't intended.

4. Scumbling or Broken Layers

Ways to Mix Colors
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Scumbling is like glazing but instead of an even layer of paint, you use a dry brush technique to apply a broken, uneven layer of paint over an existing color. The lower layer, or color, shows through the gaps in the new, scumbled layer. It's a technique that shows up best with opaque colors, but you can use it with transparent colors too.

Advantages: Layers of paint add depth and variation to the colors in your painting. Variations in color engages a viewer's attention by making you look a little longer.

Disadvantages: You have to wait for the first layer of paint to dry, otherwise your scumbled layer will mix with it rather than sit on top. Too much scumbling and the technique becomes too prominent in the painting, distracting the viewer from the overall composition.

5. Glazing or Layering

Ways to Mix Colors
Photo © Katie Lee
If you're painting with colors made from transparent pigments, then some of what's underneath shows through the color. With glazing, you use this transparency to build up layers of colors that when you look at them mix together. Glazed colors can be very rich, with a deep, inner glow.

Glazing does take patience. For starters, you have to be sure a layer of paint is completely dry before you paint over it, otherwise you'll have a physical mix rather than a glaze. You also need to know which of your paint colors are transparent (the paint tube label should tell you), and understand the basics of color mixing to be able to predict what color you're going to get.

Advantages: Produces deep, rich colors.

Disadvantages: Requires patience to wait for each layer to dry, and to acquire a good working knowledge of your colors (which are transparent colors and what the result will be when you glaze a particular color on top of another).

6. Optical Mixing or Proximity

Ways to Mix Colors
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
If you've small bits of color next to one another, when you look at them from a little distance they merge together. It's only up close that you see the individual specks of color. That's optical mixing of color.

Pointillist painters such as Seurat were masters at this, working with uniform dots of color. But even if you don't go to the extremes of having ever bit of color the same shape and size, you can use optical mixing to make your colors seem to dance, add a vibrancy.

Advantages: Colors engage the viewer's mind, as the eye spends time interpreting what is being seen. Colors aren't static.

Disadvantages: Takes patience to work with small mark-making, to not blend colors, and learn how colors interact when placed alongside one another.

7. Sgraffito, Also Optical Mixing

Sgraffito for Mixing Paint Colors
Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
Another form of optical color mixing is sgraffito, where you scratch through a still-wet layer of paint to reveal colors underneath. In the example shown there, a layer of Prussian blue has been painted over a canvas which had lighter colors (blue, yellow, orange) on it already. A painting knife was used to scrape across the top of the canvas, leaving the dark blue in the lower parts of the canvas weave only. The tip of the painting knife was also used to scratch lines into the paint.
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