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Tips for Mixing Oil and Acrylic Paints

March 28, 2010

how to mix paintsWhen painting for the first time, mixing colours can seem very complicated. If you freeze when faced with a palette full of nice, new, fresh-from-the-tube paints, then these tips are for you!

  • Go slowly and add little bits  of colour at a time. Some paints are “stronger” than others and you only need a tiny bit for tinting.
  • Mix dark into light; the dark colours will quickly over-power the lights.
  • Make sure your palette is large enough that you have a decent space for mixing. A yogurt lid may not be big enough!
  • A tiny bit of solvent for oils and water for acrylics can help make your paint go further. If you find your acrylics are drying much too fast, you can get a retarder to slow it down some.
  • If you want to mix a “clean” secondary, choose primaries that lean toward that colour. For example, for a clean orange, choose a red and yellow that leans more towards orange (you should be able to tell just by comparing two reds which one leans more towards orange or violet).
  • Try not to mix too many pigments all together; you will likely end up with mud! Remember that the three primaries mixed together will create grey, so if you’re using three pigments that contain the primaries between them, you will get grey too.
  • If you do end up with grey, stop. Don’t try to add more and more paint to fix it. The easiest thing to do is wipe it off your canvas or palette and try again.
  • Experiment with mixing using a brush and with a palette knife; see which one feels better to you.


On the Palette or On the Canvas?

When painting with oils and acrylics, you have two choices of where to mix your paints.

Mixing on the palette is probably the most common way to start out. This lets you mix and mix and mix until you feel ready to apply the paint. The problem with this technique is that you won’t truly know that you’ve mixed the right hue until you put it to the canvas and see it against the rest of your painting. To get around this, periodically hold your brush up to the canvas while you mix to make sure you are getting the right colour.

Mixing on the canvas is when you apply a pigment, then add another into it to create a new colour. This lets you instantly react to the painting as it progresses, but it’s trickier to do. You need to work quickly, especially with acrylics, and you run the risk of over-mixing and making mud.

Each technique has its pros and cons, but I encourage you to try both and see which one is more comfortable for you.


Finding the In-Between Colours

Sometimes it can be a challenge to see beyond the basic hues of the colour wheel: red, yellow, blue, green, orange, and violet. In reality, there are an infinite number of colours that can be mixed with the three primaries and some neutrals. The trick is to train yourself to see the colours that fall inbetween the tubes of paint you have; in other words, the colours that you can mix.

In general, it’s best not to use colours straight from the tube. These pigments are very saturated and are not often found in nature. Even if you want a very intense red, for example, it is a good idea to tint it slightly with a neutral colour to create an intense red more suited to the colour palette of your painting.

A great way to learn what colours you can make with the paints you have is with a colour chart. When you have some spare time, sit down with your paints and start mixing them all, keeping track of your combinations. When you’re finished, you’ll have a chart that shows you all your colour possibilities!

Have a look at this excellent article that goes into much more detail about creating a simple colour chart.

PS: As the end of March draws closer, I’m working on the next issue of the Learn to… Art! newsletter. Get it here!


From → Painting

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