How to Mix Watercolor Paints

Sep 9, 2009Updated 3 months ago

Watercolor Palette
When first experimenting with watercolors novices can easily become intimidated about the various colors and how to mix them. However, color mixing isn’t that hard, but just requires knowing the qualities of different colors and how they work together.

What is Color Theory

Color theory is the study of how colors relate to one another. Basically, color theory examines how colors are formed and arranged, as well as how they interact. By using a color wheel, color theorists study how different colors work either for or against each other in a work of art.

Limit Watercolors to Six Pigments

Artist Ellen Fountain of the National Watercolor Society, recommends beginning watercolorists limit a palette to only six colors: ultramarine blue, thalo blue, hansa yellow light, hansa yellow medium, carmine and organic vermillion. This basically is using two of each of the primary colors or reds, yellows and blues.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors such as blues and oranges neutralize each other when combined, making a brown, grayish color. Start with the lighter of the two colors and then add the darker one, gradually, until obtaining the desired color. Because watercolor dries lighter, make up for this drying quality by using a deeper more saturated mix.

Intense Watercolor Mixtures

To create intense watercolor mixtures that are the purest possible colors, combine two primary colors (red, blue or yellow) that are more partial toward the same secondary color. For example, French ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson both lean toward violet. Therefore, combining French ultramarine blue with alizarin crimson produces an intense violet.

Less Intense Watercolor Mixtures

To create a mixture that’s not so intense, select pigments influenced toward colors that are totally different. For example, for a more neutralized, less intense purple, use a red color that’s more orange based combined with a blue that’s more green based. This makes a more neutralized mixture that isn’t that pure or intense.

Watch Proportions in Mixing Watercolors

Begin mixing watercolors with the lightest amounts of pigments. Then consider which pigments will make a mixture more powerful or have greater tinting strength. For example, thalo blue has more tinting ability than ultramarine blue. Other staining watercolors with high tinting strength include the winsor colors (such as winsor yellow, winsor red, winsor violet, winsor blue and winsor green), as well as scarlet lake and permanent alizarin crimson.

Mixing Colors on Paper or Palette

While some watercolorists prefer to mix their paints on a palette, others mix them on paper. To let color mix on paper rather than the palette, pick up color with one side of a brush and then pick up another color on the brush’s other side. Do this a few more times and see what color combinations are made.

Warning: Do Not Overly Mix Watercolors

Be careful not to over mix too many colors. Colors become duller or grayer with the more pigments that are mixed together. Each time you use an adjacent color quadrant you make the mixture duller.

Finally, an advantage of watercolor is that, unlike acrylics or oils that dry, left-over watercolor paint can always be used. However, be sure to apply a light mist or spray over the paints before using them. Then, it’s best to wait about ten minutes before using them. Most of all, experiment with different paints, learning from your mistakes, how various colors interact with one another.