How To Mix Watercolors Like A Pro

Why don’t they ever put instructions on how to mix watercolors on the paint tubes? O.K. they may be less complicated than oils but there’s a bit more to it than “Just add water”. Do your watercolors always end up looking muddy? Maybe you’re wondering what colors to spend your limited budget on. Is it really necessary to buy them all? In this post. I’ll tell you everything you need to know about how the pros mix watercolors and demystify this subject once and for all. I may even save you some money too!

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How To Mix Watercolors Like A Pro: What You Need

  • Watercolor Paint. Either tubes or pans. Tubes contain wet but concentrated paint. Pan paints are small dry blocks of paint that need to be reactivated by gently scrubbing with a wet brush. When watercolor paint is diluted and brushed on to an area of your paper this is called a “Wash”.
  • A jar of clean water.
  • A brush. There are many types of brushes. Round brushes are good general purpose brushes.
  • 100% cotton paper such as Arches is expensive but cheaper papers won’t take the paint so well. For more on this see my related post all-about-watercolor-paper.
  • A palette or white china plate.
  • Clean cloth, or paper towels for drying your brush.

How Much Water Should I Add To Watercolor Paint?

Watercolor paints can be used straight from the tube at full strength or extremely diluted to make very thin consistency washes. Some paints are much more highly pigmented than others and may need to be more dilute to compensate.

As a general rule. A dilution of 1:4. i.e. One part paint to four parts water will give you a mixture that is of a mid-strength milky consistency, suitable for most washes.

The Watercolor “Clock”

In his book Mastering Atmosphere & Mood, master watercolorist, Joseph Sbukvic came up with a system for how to mix watercolors by how much water to add to watercolor paint to create different effects that he calls the Watercolor Clock. It takes into account the consistency and thickness of the paint together with the amount of moisture on the paper. The full explanation is beyond the scope of this blog post but Joseph notes that watercolors don’t always need to be used at a uniform “Milky” consistency. He classifies the consistencies of paint as follows.

  • Tea: Lightest toned wash, runs freely on a tilted palette
  • Coffee: Used for quarter tones, runs freely but less than tea
  • Milk: Use for half tones, moves slowly on a tilted palette
  • Cream Thick pigment for three quarter tones, moves a little on a tilted palette, doesn’t form a bead
  • Butter Full tone pigment no added water, sticks to palette like glue

How To Mix Two Colors Together

Let’s take the example of how you could mix Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow to make green.

Squeeze two pea sized blobs of paint, one of each color next to each other on your palette. Dip your brush in your water and lift a little of the blue and slowly start to add it to the yellow. Add more water, by wetting your brush if the mixture is too thick.

Always add the darkest color into the lightest rather than the other way round, as it’s generally much easier to darken a color than to lighten one.

How To Mix Any Color

The Primary Colors

The good news is, you don’t need to go out and buy hundreds of different colors, you can mix any color you require from red yellow and blue. These are known as the Primary Colors. See, I told you I’d save you money!

How To Mix Watercolors 01: The Primary Colors

Mixing two primary colors together will give you one of the three secondary colors, orange, green and purple. Mixing a secondary color with an adjacent primary color will give you the following six tertiary colors. Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet. This gives you a total of 10 additional colors that you can mix from your initial three.

Laying out all these colors in order in a circular formation gives us the Color Wheel.

How To Mix Watercolors 02: The Color Wheel

You may have heard some people say that red, yellow and blue are not the actual true primaries but don’t get confused. Yes, there are different systems for classifying primary colors. You’ve probably heard of the RGB and CMYK systems as they relate to computer screens and printer colors respectively. There is also the Additive color system, which deals with the properties of pure light. For watercolor painting purposes. red, yellow and blue are called primaries because these are the three colors that can’t be obtained by mixing any other colors. It does get slightly more complicated than that, because there are different reds yellows and blues but I’ll come back to that.

Harmonious, Or Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Therefore, for every color there are two analogous colors. Analogous colors are sometimes referred to as “Harmonious”. Harmonious colors work well together. When they are used as the dominant colors in a painting, they can help bring a unified appearance.

How To Mix Watercolors 03: Analagous Colors

Complementary Colors

Complementary color is one of those terms that often confuses people. It doesn’t mean a set of colors that work well together (Though complementary colors can and do work well together, because they create a visually striking contrast). It specifically refers to two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. In the color wheel below, you will see that yellow is opposite purple, green is opposite red. These are examples of complementary colors.

How To Mix Watercolors 04: Complementary Colors
Mixing complementaries creates a colored neutral
Mixing Complementaries creates a colored neutral

Complementary colors are great for creating strong color harmonies and and striking contrasts. The artist Thomas Schaller uses complementary colors to great effect in his work usually, cool purples and violets contrasted against warm oranges and yellows. Notice how one color is usually dominant.

Hue, Saturation & Value

These terms tend to be used in different ways, so I’ll define them. Hue is the color ie red, green etc. Saturation is the intensity of the color. The color straight from the tube is at its highest intensity you can’t add anything to make it more intense but you can reduce it’s intensity by adding some of its complementary hue or a neutral. Value refers to how dark or light the color is.

Neutral Colors

Neutrals can be obtained by mixing the three primary colors together, or two complementary colors. These neutrals are the earth colors and colored colored grays which lean to the cool or warm side of the color wheel. What do I mean by cool and warm?

How to mix neutrals

Color Temperature

Artists talk a lot about color in terms of temperature. In the diagram below I’ve drawn a dividing line separating the warm colors from the cool colors. In reality. Where exactly to draw that line can be debated. It really doesn’t matter too much. For practical purposes, the most important thing to know in terms of mixing water colors is the “Bias” of a particular color.

Color wheel split by color temperature

Color Bias: How To Avoid Mixing Muddy Colors

I mentioned that we’re not dealing with pure light when painting and in reality the primary colors you can buy tend to have a cool or a warm bias. For instance, Cadmium Red is a fairly pure red whereas Alizarin Crimson contains a bit of blue making it a red with a cool bias . The same could be said for Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow and and French Ultramarine and Cerulean Blue.

When you mix a cool primary with a warm primary, or vice versa you tend to get duller muted colors, in other words, “Muddy” colors. To understand why this happens lets take the example of mixing yellow with red. Mixing Cadmium Red (Pure red) with Cadmium Yellow (Pure yellow) creates a strong saturated orange. However if you were to mix Lemon Yellow with Cadmium Red, this gives a rather dull orange. This is because Lemon Yellow has a cool bias. In other words, it contains a little bit of blue which brings it closer to green. As we have seen, green and red are complementary colors, which create muddy neutrals when mixed.

Split Primaries Palette

Having two sets of primaries, one warm biased and one cool biased, allows you to overcome this problem by only mixing cool biased primaries with other cool biased primaries and warm biased primaries with warm biased primaries. You are now able to mix a wide range of hues without affecting color saturation. If you want to make duller muted colors then you still have that option.

split primaries palette
Split primaries color wheels
Warm PrimariesCool Primaries
Cadmium RedAlizarin Crimson
Pyrrol OrangeQuinacridone Rose
Cadmium YellowHansa Yellow
New GambogeLemon Yellow
French UltramarineCerulean Blue
Cobalt BluePthalo Blue

Daniel Smith sells an introductory set of split primary colors Buy From Amazon

Watercolor Mixing Techniques

Watercolor is slightly different from other painting media because of its predominantly transparent nature. This means we need to think of it in a different way to say oils or acrylics. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned black or white paint. Black and white can be used in exactly the same way as they are used in other painting media. i.e to lighten or darken colors but many watercolorists tend to avoid using black and white at all as it can easily lead to dull and muddy colors if overdone.

Mixing colors on a palette is the most obvious way to mix colors but it’s not the only way it can be done. Watercolor allows you to create some stunning effects when you mix the colors directly on the paper. This is known as creating a “Variegated” wash. When colors mix on the paper they blend in an organic way that really brings out the full potential of the medium that is almost impossible to replicate in any other medium.

How To Darken And Lighten Watercolors

In watercolor you would usually lighten a color by adding water to it rather than by adding white to it. Essentially, what you are doing is allowing more of the white paper to show through which is the equivalent of adding white. You can darken watercolor in several ways. Adding a dark neutral, adding a darker complementary color or a darker adjacent color. Layering washes of a diluted color over each other is another way of darkening the color once it has dried on the paper. This is known as glazing.

Adjusting Color Intensity

We have already seen how mixing complementary colors together will create a dull neutral. We can use this in a controlled way to reduce the intensity of a color. Take a color such as Viridian Green for example. It’s way too intense and unnatural looking to use in a landscape painting, but adding a touch of red (Complementary color) tames it, creating a much more natural looking usable green.

Glazing can be used to darken colors, to create secondary and tertiary colors It can also be used to tone down the brightness of colors.

That’s how you can tone a color down but what if we wanted to make a color appear more saturated? We know that pure color straight from the tube can’t be made any more saturated no matter what we mix it with. What we can do though, is place that color next to another color that will make it seem more intense.
Let’s look at how we can affect the perceived saturation level of Cadmium Orange when placed on top of three other colors. of roughly the same tonal value

In the first example below, Cadmium Orange is placed inside a square of Cadmium Red. The Cadmium Orange stands out as it is lighter in tone but it still has to compete with the color saturation of the Cadmium Red.

When placed over a square of neutral grey, the Cadmium Orange really stands out. Neutral grey has almost zero color saturation, so it’s not competing for attention with the Cadmium Orange. In the third example, Cadmium Orange is placed over a square of it’s complement, Ultramarine Blue. Now the Cadmium Orange appears to be even more intense as there is now a tonal contrast and a complete color contrast.

Watercolor Mixing Tips

Mixing paint on the palette

Put Your Colors In Order

Arrange the colors on your palette according to the order of the color wheel. This will make life easier when trying to locate colors quickly.

How To Mix Greens

The color green can be a problem

Using the color green in a painting can be problematic as it can very easily dominate and overwhelm your painting. Artists have always struggled to mix the right shades of green. This is particularly problematic when painting landscapes, which obviously tend to contain a lot of green. Greens, of course, can be mixed from Yellow and Blue but in order to get a wide range of greens and to tame their intensity, think in terms of adding a warm or a cool neutral into the mix. For more specific mixing suggestions I’ve written a very detailed blog post on the subject which you can read here. See also this post on how to paint trees.

Limit Your Palette

Limiting your palette to primaries and one or two colors that you use a lot, forces you to do more with less and creates a more unified painting. Here are my suggestions for limited palettes that you could try. The following

  1. Cadmium Yellow (Warm), Lemon Yellow (Cool), Alizarin Crimson (Cool), Cadmium Red (Warm), French Ultramarine (Warm) Cerulean Blue ( Cool) Optional: Paynes Gray (Cool Neutral), Burnt Sienna.
  2. New Gamboge (Warm), Hansa Yellow Cool, Mid) Cobalt Blue (Cool, Mid) , Pyrrol Red (Warm), Winsor Red (cool). Neutral Tint, Burnt Umber

Limit The Mix

As a general rule I never mix more than three colors together at a time. As doing so, tends to lead to the dreaded mud.

Specialty Colors

For botanical painting and floral designs that may require very intense reds you may need to include several specialty reds in your palette. Reds which are useful for painting flowers include colors such Scarlet lake, Rose Madder, Coral and Quinacridone Red.

Watercolor Mixing Exercises

Make your own color wheel by starting with the three primaries. Mix them together to create the secondaries and tertiaries

Making color swatches are a great way to learn the properties of the paints you have. There are different ways to do them . You can experiment with different versions of one color, so you might have a row of blues along the top and see what happens when you mix them with other colors running down the left hand column. Arrange your colors in the order of the colors of the rainbow i.e Red, Orange, Yellow, Green Blue, Indigo Violet Or you could take one color and make lighter versions of it running along the top row and another color getting lighter down the left column Create your own color swatches using my free color swatch template.

Practice glazing by painting lines of color and painting a line of another color over the top. This will help you get to know which glazes work together and also will help you understand which colors are the most transparent. As the opaque and semi opaque colors will tend to obscure the colors underneath rather then blend with them.

Glazing is a useful watercolour mixing technique
Glazing Exercise

Create a two color graduated wash. A graduated wash is when you blend two or more colors together. Start with one color and start painting paint a flat wash down the paper. Gradually add more of the second color as paint down the page until you’ve gone from one to the other. If you’re not sure how to paint a flat wash. Check out this post.

Two colour graduated wash from Alizarin crimson to ultramarine blue
Two color graduated wash

If you have any questions regarding mixing colors that I haven’t addressed here please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer your question.

If you need some help trying to select appropriate art supplies for your needs I’ve put together a list of my recommended art supplies.

How to mix watercolours. Watercolour Mixing Techniques. Colour theory, how to mix grays and browns. watercolour painting technique #watercolor #watercolorarts #watercoloring #howtopaint

2 thoughts on “How To Mix Watercolors Like A Pro”

  1. In watercolor you really have to understand the opaque, semi opaque and semi tranparents to successfully mix, layer and glaze.

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