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How To Mix Colors

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When it comes to mixing up the basic colors and making all those purples and greens and oranges we love, how you do it depends on many things. The questions are, are you mixing pigments, or are you mixing light? We will show you how to work with each medium and give you the tools to mix all the colors of the rainbow!

Method: 1 – Mixing Colors


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1). Familiarize Yourself With The Color Wheel - The color wheel is a map of colors, showcasing the ways new colors can be created. There are three sets of colors present: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary colors are: red, blue, and yellow. These are colors that come straight from a tube; they cannot be made from mixing other colors. However, secondary colors (purple, green, and orange) can be made from the primary colors. Tertiary colors are in between primary and secondary on the color wheel (think teal or peach).

  • Red + Yellow = Orange

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  • Yellow + Blue = Green

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  • Red + Blue = Purple

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2). Mix Your Colors - If you would like a more varied choice of colors then you may choose to mix a range of colors to make your choicest one. Nothing is worse than creating a painting using colors only straight from the tube. Mix your colors together to create new variations; mix the two primary colors in equal amounts for a true color, or add a little more of one color than the other. For e.g., making purple with slightly more blue than red will result in a blue indigo color, while mixing with more red may result in a deep maroon.


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3). Create Different Tints - Adding a small amount of white to any color will make it lighter, turning it into a tint. Most from-the-bottle colors are very vibrant and bold, and can be made more pastel-like by adding white.

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  • It is harder to add white to a color, so try adding a bit of your color to white paint first. You will have to use less paint to make a tint in this fashion.

4). Mix some shades - The opposite of a tint, a shade is when you mix any color with black. This makes the color slightly darker, i.e. turning red into burgundy or blue into navy. It is easiest to add a small amount of black to your color (rather than adding your color to black paint) to accomplish your shade. In this case, less is more - always start with the smallest amount of paint possible to avoid making a drastically different color right off the bat.


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5). Create different tones. If a color is too bright for your liking, mix the color’s opposite into it to dull the vibrancy. Doing this is changing your hue (true color) into a tone; you’re toning the color down. A color’s opposite is the one directly across from it on the color wheel. For example, the opposite of red is green, yellow is violet, and blue is orange.


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Method: 2 – Mixing Paint – Subtracting Color



1). Assemble the colors of paint shown above - Any paint will do—even house paint—but a few small tubes of oils or perhaps acrylics will be the most effective (and least messy) for these exercises. Let's start by seeing what happens when we mix a just 2 colors together—red and blue.

  • Note: you can make dark neutral black by mixing it from the available colors. Black pigment is too recognizable wherever it is used. Instead mix the transparent primaries together to make darks and add color to your shadows depending on the time of the day. Black is used in the light color wheel, by subtracting light.
  • See our 'More Tips' section, below, for help in choosing the best magenta and cyan paints.

2). Mix red and blue together - Everybody knows red and blue mixed make purple, right? While it’s true that they do, it’s not a bright, vibrant purple. Instead, they create something more like this:


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  • It doesn't exactly rock your world, right? That's because red and blue are secondary colors—mixtures of primary colors themselves, each one subtracting more and reflecting less from the spectrum, giving you a purple that’s dark and muddy instead of vibrant and bright.

3). Mix magenta with a small amount of cyan, and you’ll see the difference - Now you get something more like this:


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  • You can see how using the true primary colors—magenta and cyan—results in a much brighter and more vibrant hue. If you want a richer purple, add more blue. A darker purple, add black.

4). Know your primaries and secondaries - There are three primary pigment colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. There are also three secondary colors, made by mixing two transparent primary colors together:

  • Cyan + yellow = green
  • Cyan + magenta = blue
  • Magenta + yellow = red.
  • Cyan + magenta + yellow = neutral dark black.
  • With subtractive pigment color mixing, the presence of all colors results in black.

5). See below - Our Mixing Paint Colors section gives more detailed help for mixing all the various hues as well as light, dark, and grayish colors. In our Tips section, we offer you a comprehensive list of colors and the blends you can use to create those colors on your palette.

Method: 3 – Mixing Light – Additive Color

1). Take a look at your monitor - Look at the white areas on this page, and get really close. If you have a magnifying glass, the better it becomes. What you see when you get up close and personal with your screen is not white, but red, green and blue dots. Unlike pigments, which work by absorbing color, light is additive, and works by combining light. Movies and display screens, whether they are your 60-inch plasma television or your 3.5-inch retina display on your iPhone, all work using additive color mixing.

2). Combine light to make secondary colors - Like subtractive color, there are three primary colors, and three secondary colors, made by mixing the primary colors together. The additive light results may surprise you:

  • Mixing red + blue = magenta
  • Mixing blue + green = cyan
  • Mixing green + red = yellow
  • With additive color mixing, the presence of all colors results in white.
  • Notice the primary light additive colors are the same as the secondary pigment subtractive colors, and vice versa. How can this be? Consider that subtractive color works by a combined process: it absorbs some colors, and what we perceive is what’s left: reflected light. The reflected color is the color of light that is left after all the other colors are absorbed by pigment.

Method: 4 – Advanced Color Theory

1). Become familiar with the subjective nature of color perception - How humans perceive color, and how we define it. While science can define and measure light down to the nanometer, what our eyes perceive is a complex mix of not just the hue, but the saturation and the lightness of the color as well. This is further complicated by how we perceive the same color against different backgrounds

  • Consider this simple example to illustrate color perception:

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  • Do you see a bluish-green, a blue, a creamy yellow, a bright yellow, and a bright green?
  • Now look at the actual colors. There are only 3:

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  • What we see is about where we see it influencing the actual values. To make things even more interesting, some people’s color perception is so different that we term this as “color blindness,” though it’s simply an imbalance in color perception.

2). Consider hue, saturation, and lightness, the three dimensions of color - Any given color can be said to have three dimensions: hue, saturation, and lightness.

  • Hue refers to a color's position on the color wheel, yellow, orange, red, etc., plus all the intermediate colors such as red-orange and orange-yellow. Some examples: Pink's hue is magenta or red (or something between). Brown's hue is orange, because brown is dark orange.
  • Saturation is what gives you rich, bright colors, like those in the rainbow or on the color wheel. Pale colors (tints), dark colors (shades), and muted colors (tones) are less saturated.
  • Lightness indicates how close a color is to white or black, regardless of the color. If you took a B&W photo of your colors, this tells us which ones would be lighter or darker.
  • For example, bright yellow is a relatively light color. It’s lightness can be increased even more by adding white to make pale yellow.
  • Bright blue is naturally dark, low on the lightness scale, but dark blue is even lower.

Method: 5 – Mixing Paint Colors 

1). Follow  these guidelines to mix any and every color - Magenta, yellow, and cyan are the “subtractive” primary colors, which means they can be combined to make any other color but cannot themselves be mixed from other colors. Subtractive primaries are used when mixing pigments such as inks, dyes, and paints.

  • Magenta and yellow mixed make reds and oranges.
  • Yellow and cyan mixed make greens.
  • Cyan and magenta mixed make blues and purples.

2). Make bright clean colors - If you arrange your color wheel as a triangle, with yellow, magenta and cyan at the three corners, then to make bright colors, just mix any of the colors on only one side of the triangle.

  • For example, you can mix magenta with orange or yellow to make red, mix red with transparent yellow to make orange, or mix orange with red to make orange-red. There's no need to limit yourself to using only the primaries, and if you want bright colors, you'll find that mixing colors nearer each other on the color wheel will give you better results.

This disappointing "purple" was made by mixing red and blue.

If you mix colors from two different sides of the triangle, for example blue and red, you will not get a bright color. Blue and red together make a dark dirty purple. 

3). Make low saturation colors - Low saturation colors (colors that are not bright) come in three basic varieties: tints (light colors), shades (dark colors), and tones (muted, dull colors).


4). Add white to any color to lighten it (tints) - For a light color it may be better to add your main color to the white a little at a time so you don't waste paint.

5). Add black to any color to darken it (shades) - Some artists prefer to add the color's complement, which is its opposite color on an accurate CMY/RGB color wheel. For example, green can be used to darken magenta, and magenta to darken green, because they are across from each other on the color wheel. Add black, or a complement, a little at a time so you don't overdo it.

6). Add both white and black (or white and the color's complement) to any color to make your color muted, grayish, or dull (tones) - By varying the relative amounts of black and white, you add to your mix, you can obtain whatever lightness and saturation you are looking for. Example: add both white and black to yellow to make light olive green. The black will darken yellow, turning it into olive green, and the white will lighten that olive green. Different light olive greens can be mixed by controlling how much of each is added.

  • For an unsaturated color like brown (dark orange), you can adjust the hue the same way as you would for bright orange, by adding small amounts of nearby colors on the color wheel: magenta, yellow, red, or orange. These will brighten your brown as well as changing the hue. But since brown is not a bright color, you can also use colors from other sides of the triangle like green or blue, which will darken brown while also changing the hue.

7). Make black - Black can be made by mixing any two complements, but it can also be mixed from three or more colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. Just make sure you do not add any white or any color that has white in it, like opaque yellow or opaque yellow-green, unless you want a shade of gray. If the black you are making is leaning too much toward some color, neutralize it by adding a little of the color opposite it.

8). Don't try to make white - White can't be mixed from other paints. Like the three primaries—magenta, yellow, and cyan—it will have to be purchased, unless you are working in a medium like watercolor in which your paper provides the white you need.

9). Plan your strategy - Think about the hue, lightness, and saturation of the color you have and of the color you want, and make the necessary adjustments.

  • For example, green's hue can be changed toward cyan or toward yellow, its neighbors on the color wheel. It can be made lighter by adding white. Or it can be made darker by adding black or green's complement, which will be purple, magenta, or red, depending on the hue of the green. You can make it duller by adding both black and white, or you can make an unsaturated green a little brighter by adding pure (bright) green.
  • Here's another example. You've mixed red and white to make pink, but your pink is too bright and too warm (yellowish). To correct the warm hue, you will have to add some magenta. To dull your bright pink, you will have to add either white, its complement (or black), or both. You need to decide whether you want a darker pink (add only the complement), a grayish pink (add both white and the complement), or just a lighter pink (add white only). If you plan to adjust the hue with magenta and dull your pink with green or cyan (complements of magenta and red), you can try to combine those steps by using a color that is between magenta and cyan, like blue.

10). Mix your colors, and get going on that masterpiece - If all this sounds overwhelming, you may just need some practice. Making a color reference booklet can be a good way to practice using the principles of color theory. Even printing one on your computer can provide you with a helpful reference until you have gotten more practice and are starting to find the process more intuitive.


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