Accurate colour is one of the most important skills you can have as a realist painter.
Why? Well, being able to mix accurately gives you:
- Believable colour – a natural, effortless look to your work
- Three dimensional form – good colour relationships between light and shadow create form
- Light and depth – believable space and a feeling of light comes from colour, and especially value relationships
- Freedom – Being able to mix colour accurately frees you from the endless frustration of hunt, peck and guesstimate, and allows you to focus on the important, interesting stuff: making beautiful art that connects with people
And also, just by the by, if you can’t match the colours you see, you’ll never be able to paint realistically.
Why is Colour Mixing Hard?
If you’ve ever struggled to match a colour you see, it could have been for three reasons:
- You didn’t judge the colour correctly – mostly this comes with practice, but there are tools you can use that can help you develop this skill
- You couldn’t mix it accurately – again this comes down mostly to skill, and the knowledge you have of what can be achieved with your tube paints
- The colour you were trying to reach was outside the range of paint. Not much you can do about this one. But it helps to know when that’s the case, so you can stop chasing rainbows and compromise intelligently
I’m going to show you a simple method for judging and mixing a colour accurately. One that most art teachers don’t teach. One that’s reliable and repeatable, and will mean you’ll rarely struggle to match a colour again – if you practise it.
How to Mix Any Colour
To learn this approach, begin by picking a colour you want to match. For this example, I’m going to demonstrate matching a very specific colour from the Munsell Student book. This one:
That might look like a pretty non-descript grey-orange to you. And it is, actually. But it’s also the average colour of most caucasian flesh.
In Munsell terms, it’s 5YR 6/4.
Now I know that looks a little confusing if you’re not used to Munsell notation. Scary, even. Scientific. Unartistic. Just plain wrong!
But it’s actually a beautifully simple (and very useful) way to describe a colour.
The first part, 5YR, refers to the hue. It’s a middle Yellow Red.
The next part, 6/, refers to the value. So it’s a little above a middle value, from dark to light.
The last part, /4, refers to the chroma – or the intensity of the colour, from grey on one end of the scale to very intense on the other. Orange can get up to about a chroma /14 in paint, so /4 is pretty close to grey.
I’m going to show you how to mix that colour exactly now. I’m going to do that by starting with a higher chroma version of it, and then bringing the chroma down. So you can see how far I have to take it down (it’s a long way) and also to show you that it really is an orange.
Here are the two colours, the target colour and the higher chroma (more intense) one, side by side on the palette:
You can also see there the tube colours I’m using: Titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange and yellow ochre. I’ve also got a Munsell neutral value 6 there – the grey colour at the top of the palette – which I’ll use to bring the chroma down.
On the left there is the page from the Munsell student book that those chips came from. All the chips on that page are of the same hue, 5YR. Or, middle yellow-red, if you prefer.
Just in case Munsell is new to you and all this hue-value-chroma stuff makes no sense, here’s a quick video outlining the basics:
All good? OK, let’s get mixing.
Step 1: Bracket the colour
We’re going to use a technique called bracketing to hit this colour.
In a nutshell, you bracket a colour by mixing two colours of the same value, but different hues, one hue on one side of the your target colour and one on the other.
So, if your target colour was a middle yellow hue, you’d mix a green yellow and an orange yellow of the same value.
Then, by mixing the two of them together, you can match the hue of the colour you’re trying to hit with great accuracy. The control you have with this method is amazing.
So, to match this higher chroma orange, I need to mix a yellow orange and a red orange, of the same value. Here’s the yellow orange happening on the palette:
In this next picture, I’m checking my yellow-orange against the chip. I’m doing this by putting a little of it on a small piece of clear acetate, and placing it directly over the chip:
Notice that I’m not trying to match the colour exactly, I just want the value to be the same, and the hue to be more yellow than the target colour.
Here’s the second bracketing colour being mixed, the red-orange:
And here’s that colour being checked directly against the chip. Again, I’m just checking for value and making sure that the hue is more red than the target:
Step 2: Get the hue right
Now that I have two colours of the same value as the target, but on either side of it as you see it on the hue wheel, it’s just a case of mixing between the colours until I hit the hue:
Here I’m checking my mix against the target colour. This time, I’m looking for an exact match.
And I’ve got it. The high chroma colour has been exactly matched, using bracketing to give me fine control over the mix.
The next step is to bring the chroma down to my less intense target colour.
Step 3: Adjust the Chroma
The most effective and controlled way to bring down the chroma of a colour is by mixing in a Munsell neutral of the same value, in this case a value 6. This allows you to drop the chroma without changing the value.
Sometimes when you do this, the hue might change too. But generally, with oranges, the hue shift is minimal.
By the way, if you want to know how to mix Munsell neutrals, here’s another quick video on mixing a single value:
So now to bring down the chroma. First, pick up some of the neutral:
Then mix it gradually with some of the higher chroma version:
Then, it’s time to check the chroma against the target. It takes time and practice to really nail this. But the value of doing it this way is that you can change just the chroma without affecting anything else. You can’t get this kind of fine-grained control any other way.
Now, I appreciate that this may seem like a somewhat convoluted method if you’ve not come across it before. But there are a few really useful things about mixing colour this way:
It’s reliable. It works for any colour. It gives you incredibly fine control over your mixes. And if you can’t match the colour with your tube paints, it will show you that, and exactly how close you can get.
Still, though, this is a skill like any other. It requires practice to develop. The good thing about this approach is that it exemplifies some of the principles of effective practice:
- Have a clear goal – to mix a single target colour
- Practice a specific skill – by taking a single skill out and practicing in a focussed way (like colour mixing) you make more progress on that skill more quickly
- Immediate feedback – you can check how close you’re getting to your target and see immediately what you need to change to get closer
- Break a complex skill into smaller parts – trying to match a colour exactly is difficult. This way, you break it down into separate pieces, first matching the value, then the hue, then lastly adjusting the chroma, if you need to.
Practise this, and when you come to paint, you’ll find that your sensitivity to colour has improved. You’ll find that your knowledge of what you can achieve with your tube paints is much deeper. You’ll find that you can get much closer to the colours you see much more quickly – even if you’re just mixing on the fly.
Develop Your Colour-Matching Skills
A great way to practise, even you don’t have the Munsell student book, is to pick colours from around you and attempt to match them, using this bracketing method.
Begin with easier, lower chroma colours, and flat surfaces. As you gain confidence and hit more colours exactly, move on to three dimensional objects (like fruit) and higher chroma colours.
Free Video Tutorial
I’ve made a detailed (and slightly longer) video of using this method to match the local colour of a lemon. The actual colour might surprise you!
I hope that was useful. Best wishes and thanks for reading,