How to Mix Oil Paint

Knowing how to mix colours is essential to avoiding dirty colour mixes. The solution to banishing muddy colours in painting is simple if the artist observes a few simple guidelines in colour mixing.

Avoiding Dirty Colours in Painting
Muddy colours can ruin a painting. The problem often lies with darkening a color, such as areas of shadow, or with neutral colours, such as shaded snow. The offending colour will often jar the painting and draw the eye towards this area in a fashion the artist would not have intended. The secret is not to use black or a multitude of earth colors within the color mix. Using too many premixed colors could result in a muddled representation of the subject matte rendered. Using fewer pigments will inject more freshness into the painting.
Primary Colour Mixing


One of the problems lies with the old conception of the colour wheel. When asked what the primary colours are, one will usually answer, “red, yellow and blue.” However, not any red yellow and blue is in fact a primary colour. Cadmium red, for instance, contains a lot of yellow and if mixed with blue, will make a dirty purple. Similarly, French ultramarine contains a lot of violet, and if mixed with yellow, would result in a muddy green.


In terms of printing ink, the primary colours are yellow, magenta and cyan. In terms of oil paint, these colours are not similarly labelled, but cadmium yellow (pale), permanent rose and pthalo blue are close. These colours are the closest approximation one can get to a true primary colour in oil paint, and will usually produce clean mixes.


How to Darken a Colour


Darkening a colour might be a challenge for the beginner, and the automatic reaction might be to mix the colour with black. In fact, the best way to darken a colour is by the introduction of its complimentary. A complimentary colour is the opposing colour to a particular colour on the colour wheel.
Red, for instance, is the complimentary to green; violet, is the complimentary to yellow, and so forth. From this, one can avoid black altogether, for in fact, black will often deaden a colour and it is best omitted from the artist’s palette if the intention is to create clean colour mixes.
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Paint Mixing Scheme for Shadows

Shadows are often a problem area for beginners, for they are not merely pools of black or grey, but contain lots of other colours; reflections from the sky, for instance, or crimsons, pinks and even greens. One area of shadow might contain several colours. Sensitive observation is the key to replicating convincing hues within shadows.


Colour Theory Basics


Vibrant colours need not necessarily mean garishly bright colours, but clean, lively colours one might see in a Van Gough landscape painting or the palette used by the French Impressionists. Many tubes of oil paint are not required within the artist’s palette to produce a successful and lively painting. In fact, the artists Renoir and Monet were known to use a limited palette of a mere three colours and white in several of their landscape paintings.


Guidelines on Colour Mixing


To summarise, the following pointers might help the likelihood of dirty colour mixes creeping into the painting.
  • Omit the use of black or grey to darken a colour, particularly in shadows.
  • It is better to introduce the colour’s complimentary. For instance, on darkening the colour of grass beneath a tree, it is best to introduce a little red to darken it.
  • Keep the palette to a minimum. Too many colours, particularly earth colours and greys will deaden the overall feel of the painting.
  • Include the primary colours within the palette as described above. Not any red, yellow and blue is a primary colour, but in terms of oil paint, cadmium yellow (pale), permanent rose and pthalo blue are quite close.
  • Avoid using more than three colours to achieve a colour mix.
  • Let a few streaks of colour to remain on the paintbrush. Over-mixing a colour will take the life out of the painting.

This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010