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How to Mix Colors with Confidence

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Understanding Color Theory and How to Mix Colors with Confidence

What colors go well together? How do I get my colors not to look muddy when mixing?

These are just some of the questions I get in emails from readers about color mixing.

This guide will be covering color theory and how to use the color wheel with confidence.

What’s Inside:

  • You will learn about Color Zones
  • How to Use it to Mix Colors to the Desired Hue, Shade, and Tint
  • Color Mixing Tips
  • Explore Color Expression and How to Use it in your Art
  • Examples of Color Theory in Art
  • Best Color Palette Sites for Artists


What is Color Theory, exactly?

Knowing how to mix and use color is crucial to any painting. The color wheel is an important tool and should be in every artist’s toolbox. The first thing to know when understanding color theory is that there are three colors that cannot be made by mixing other colors together. These are the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. The color wheel is broken down into color zones known as primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

the color wheel


Primary Colors

Red, blue, and yellow also known as primary colors. These colors cannot be made by mixing other colors together. This begins the introduction of the color wheel.

primary colors


Secondary Colors

To create more colors on the color wheel, start by mixing equal amounts of two primary colors together to create a new color. For example, by mixing an equal amount of blue and yellow it creates green; red and yellow make orange; blue and red make violet.

secondary colors


Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors consist of six colors made by combining equal amounts of a primary and secondary color. For example, by mixing red and violet makes red-violet. The other tertiary colors are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-violet.

tertiary colors


Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are colors that are opposite from another on the color wheel contrasting partners. For example, red is the complementary of green, blue of orange, and yellow of violet. This can also include secondary and tertiary colors as well. These colors are high in contrast and intensity making it a harsh color scheme and not balanced.

complementary colors

More color zones below.



Photo credit: mason.gmu.edu

Color Theory Terms to Know

Hues – Are also known as color and often used to observe the color of objects. Hue refers to primary and secondary colors. For example, the hue of hunter green is green.

Intensity – This refers to how bright or strong a color is. For example, an intense vibrant color such as cadmium red loses its intensity when white is added to become pink.

Tone – Tone refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. Tones make vivid colors more muted by adding grey.

Shade – It’s a mixture of a color with black which reduces the lightness of that color.

TintIt’s a mixture of a color with white which increases lightness.

Saturation – Is a measure of how pure a color is. To reduce the amount of saturation, try adding grey to a hue.

hues and shades Chart


Photo credit: Azza.tistory.com

List of Essential Colors for Mixing

Here’s a list of some basic acrylic paint colors to help get you started mixing colors with confidence.

  1. Cadmium Red – This is a warm and relatively opaque color.
  2. Phthalo Blue – Is an intense color, but it should be When combined with burnt umber it gets very dark. To create lighter blues only use a small amount of blue mixed with white. A good substitute is an ultramarine blue.
  3. Cadmium Yellow – You can create lighter hues simply by adding white to it. To darken the yellow, add complementary colors like purple.
  4. Titanium White – Bright Opaque white; great for tinting colors.
  5. Mars Black – It’s a relatively opaque color; it must be added in small quantities when mixing.
  6. Raw or Burnt Umber – This is great for darkening the tone of hues. Raw Umber has a lighter cooler shade and Burnt Umber is a warmer rich brown.
  7. Phthalo Green– Is a bright green with a bluish tint. This makes it ideal for mixing yellow for a variety of green shades.

Tips for Color Mixing

  • Bright colors tend to be more vibrant and rich next to neutral colors.
  • Darker tones intensify next to light tones.
  • Add white and/or yellow to lighten the color.
  • Add blue and/or raw umber to darken the color.
  • Acrylic paint will dry darker, so be sure to blend your colors a shade lighter.
  • Start with a light color and gradually add a dark color to get the desired color. For example, add small amounts of blue to yellow to make green.

rainbow mandala stones


Photo Credit: Eszter Csóka

Express Yourself with Color

Expressing yourself with color says a lot about how you are feeling in that moment. Someone wearing a pink blouse may be in a happy positive mood. In art therapy, color is often associated with a person’s mental or physical state. Warm colors such as red, orange and yellow tend to represent life, strength, and strong emotions. While cooler colors of purple, blue and green can range from restful calm emotions to sadness and passive.

color expression chart



Photo Credit: ColorPsychology.org

Learn to Mix Colors for Beginner’s Video by Katie Jobling


Examples of Color Theory in Art

Primary Colors

Red, Blue, and yellow also known as primary colors. these colors cannot be made by mixing others together.

Still Life on a Blue Table, by Henri Matisse 1947


Woman in Blue at a Table, by Henri Matisse 1923


Complementary Colors

Colors that are opposite from another on the color wheel  that are contrasting pairs. Painting (A) reveals red and green; Painting (B) reveals blue and orange complementary colors.

(A) The Night Cafe, by Vincent Van Gogh 1888


van gogh self
(B) Self Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh 1889



Analogous Colors

Analogous colors is a collection of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Paintings (C & D) reveals blue, green and yellows.

(C) The Japanese Bridge, by Claude Monet 1889


(D) Horizon Ocean View, by Richard Diebenkorn


Warm Colors

Red, Orange, and Yellow


Mandolina and Flowers, by Paul Gauguin 1883


 Cool Colors

Blue, Green and Purple

main-image key west
Fishing Boats, Key West, by Winslow Homer 1903

High Intensity

Gypsy in front of Musca, by Pablo Picasso 1900


Low Intensity

Place du Theatre, Paris France, by Camille Pissarro 1898

Best Color Palette Sites for Artists

Choosing a color palette to work with can make you second guess yourself as soon as you start your painting. Here are some nice visual color palette sites to help make that decision process easy. I personally, love Design Seeds, it’s offers nice visual photos with coordinating color palettes.  

ColorScoop2_150 color palette


9_11_2ColorFlora_elena palette


That’s all folks! I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new today. You can download a free pdf of this guide in our free resource library.

If you haven’t read the beginning of the series of Rock Painting for Beginners, check them out here. 

Part 1 – How to Paint Rocks 

Part 2 – Rock Painting Supplies | What you need to know

Part 3 – Easy Rock Painting Techniques