Mixing Colors for Painting - Avoiding Muddy Colors

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How to avoid muddy colors when painting and how to chart your color mixing.

Muddy Colors When Painting? All blues are not the same! That goes for red and yellow as well. Here are some color mixing tips that might be helpful.

Avoiding muddy colors when mixing paint is a tricky business for artists. Many artists think that if you mix yellow paint and blue paint you will get green or if you mix blue paint and red paint you will get purple. So why do you get some awful looking greenish-brown color when you mix that yellow and blue or some dull purplish gray when you mix red and blue?

Understanding basic paint color mixing is the first step. There are the three primaries Red, Yellow, Blue and the secondary colors that are derived from the mixture of the primaries.

The Basic Paint Mix

Red + Blue = Purple

Blue + Yellow = Green

Yellow + Red = Orange

You can make colors that are in the tertiary range by mixing a little more of one color over the other. For example one third yellow paint plus two thirds red paint will give you a reddish orange and conversely one third red and two thirds yellow will give you a yellowish orange.

These rules are simple if you have pure true primary colors. True primary colors will give you true vibrant secondary colors.

The problems begin when you are mixing colors that have pigments of other colors in them. That is when you will start getting muddy colors when mixing. You may indeed want a color that is more of a toned down version or a more neutral version of green, orange or purple. These will be your neutrals, browns and greys.

Making Browns, Greys and Neutral Paint Colors

In order to make a variety of browns, greys and neutrals you will combine all three primary colors in various ratios. Use a secondary color and add the third primary color into it a little at a time until you have achieved the neutral color that you desire. You can make hundreds of beautiful neutrals from golden orange/browns to lavender/grey. It takes a little experimentation and record keeping.

The difficulty for many beginners when trying to mix clear vibrant colors is the failure to understand that the colors that they are buying are often not pure. There are blue paints that range from slightly greenish blue to slightly purple blue. If you use blue that is slightly purple (because it has a little red pigment in it) with yellow you are essentially mixing in a little red without even realizing it. You may be expecting a nice vibrant green but because there is actually a small amount of red already mixed in with the blue you will get a slightly muddy green or perhaps a nice olive green. Mixing any two secondary colors is going to give you some form of brown or grey.

Look at the paint tube label and it will tell you what pigments are in your paint. Liquitex makes it really easy. On the back of their acrylic paint label there is a small indicator chart that will tell you if a color moves in one direction or the other. This will give you the information that you need when purchasing and mixing color.

The first image shows a true purple that is even between blue and red. The second image shows a blue that has a little red in it as you can see that it is labeled BP with a little star on the side toward the P (purple)

Dick Blick has an excellent tool on their website. After you make a selection of the paint color you want to view select the item number next to it and it immediately takes you to view a larger color swatch. This is reasonably accurate and you can see if a color is true or has a hue that moves toward one color or another.

Excercise and Palette Record Keeping

It is important to keep a record of your color mixing. Create a chart for yourself on a large water color paper. Divide the paper into lines of two inch squares. Begin with one color at the start of one line of squares and paint the first square. Mix in a little of another color and paint the next square. Continue mixing more quantity of the second color for each square that you paint.  Label each square with the brand, color from the label, and quantities of each color that you are mixing. This will be a life long process as you paint more and more pictures. You won't regret it when you are looking for that exact color of green that you want to use for that grassy dune you want to paint. You can go right to your color chart and see all the greens that you mixed and how you did it.


Sourav RC
Posted on Sep 28, 2010
Kathleen Murphy
Posted on Sep 27, 2010