How to Mix Colors

Four Methods:Mixing Paint—Subtractive ColorMixing Light—Additive ColorAdvanced Color TheoryMixing Paint Colors

When it comes to mixing up the basic colors and making all those purples and greens and oranges we love, how you do it depends on many things. The questions are, are you mixing pigments, or are you mixing light? We'll show you how to work with each medium and give you the tools to mix all the colors of the rainbow!

Method 1
Mixing Paint—Subtractive Color

  1. 1
    Assemble the colors of paint shown above. Any paint will do—even house paint—but a few small tubes of oils or perhaps acrylics will be the most effective (and least messy) for these exercises. Let's start by seeing what happens when we mix a just 2 colors together—red and blue.
    • Note: you can make dark neutral black by mixing it from the available colors. Black pigment is too recognizable wherever it is used. Instead mix the transparent primaries together to make darks and add color to your shadows depending on the time of the day. Black is used in the light color wheel, by subtracting light.
    • See our 'More Tips' section, below, for help in choosing the best magenta and cyan paints.
  2. 2
    Mix red and blue together. Everybody knows red and blue mixed make purple, right? While it’s true that they do, it’s not a bright, vibrant purple. Instead, they create something more like this:

    Image titled Dull purple.png
    • It doesn't exactly rock your world, right? That's because red and blue are secondary colors—mixtures of primary colors themselves, each one subtracting more and reflecting less from the spectrum, giving you a purple that’s dark and muddy instead of vibrant and bright.
  3. 3
    Mix magenta with a small amount of cyan, and you’ll see the difference. Now you get something more like this:

    Image titled Purple 1.png
    • You can see how using the true primary colors—magenta and cyan—results in a much brighter and more vibrant hue. If you want a richer purple, add more blue. A darker purple, add black. For more on this, see How To Determine Correct Primary Colors.
  4. 4
    Know your primaries and secondaries. There are three primary pigment colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. There are also three secondary colors, made by mixing two transparent primary colors together:
    • Cyan + yellow = green
    • Cyan + magenta = blue
    • Magenta + yellow = red.
    • Cyan + magenta + yellow = neutral dark black.
    • With subtractive pigment color mixing, the presence of all colors results in black.
  5. 5
    See below. Our Mixing Paint Colors section gives more detailed help for mixing all the various hues as well as light, dark, and grayish colors. In our Tips section, we offer you a comprehensive list of colors and the blends you can use to create those colors on your palette.

Method 2
Mixing Light—Additive Color

  1. 1
    Take a look at your monitor. Look at the white areas on this page, and get really close. If you have a magnifying glass, the better it becomes. What you see when you get up close and personal with your screen is not white, but red, green and blue dots. Unlike pigments, which work by absorbing color, light is additive, and works by combining light. Movies and display screens, whether they’re your 60-inch plasma television or your 3.5-inch retina display on your iPhone, all work using additive color mixing.
  2. 2
    Combine light to make secondary colors. Like subtractive color, there are three primary colors, and three secondary colors, made by mixing the primary colors together. The additive light results may surprise you:
    • Mixing red + blue = magenta
    • Mixing blue + green = cyan
    • Mixing green + red = yellow
    • With additive color mixing, the presence of all colors results in white.
    • Notice the primary light additive colors are the same as the secondary pigment subtractive colors, and vice versa. How can this be? Consider that subtractive color works by a combined process: it absorbs some colors, and what we perceive is what’s left: reflected light. The reflected color is the color of light that is left after all the other colors are absorbed by pigment.

Method 3
Advanced Color Theory

  1. 1
    Become familiar with the subjective nature of color perception. How humans perceive color, and how we define it. While science can define and measure light down to the nanometer, what our eyes perceive is a complex mix of not just the hue, but the saturation and the lightness of the color as well. This is further complicated by how we perceive the same color against different backgrounds
    • Consider this simple example to illustrate color perception:
      Image titled Colorbars_perception.png
    • Do you see a bluish-green, a blue, a creamy yellow, a bright yellow, and a bright green?
    • Now look at the actual colors. There are only 3:
      Image titled 540
    • What we see is about where we see it influencing the actual values. To make things even more interesting, some people’s color perception is so different that we term this as“color blindness,” though it’s simply an imbalance in color perception.
  2. 2
    Consider hue, saturation, and lightness, the three dimensions of color. Any given color can be said to have three dimensions: hue, saturation, and lightness.
    • Hue refers to a color's position on the color wheel, yellow, orange, red, etc., plus all the intermediate colors such as red-orange and orange-yellow. Some examples: Pink's hue is magenta or red (or something between). Brown's hue is orange, because brown is dark orange.
    • Saturation is what gives you rich, bright colors, like those in the rainbow or on the color wheel. Pale colors (tints), dark colors (shades), and muted colors (tones) are less saturated.
    • Lightness indicates how close a color is to white or black, regardless of the color. If you took a B&W photo of your colors, this tells us which ones would be lighter or darker.
      • For example, bright yellow is a relatively light color. It’s lightness can be increased even more by adding white to make pale yellow.
      • Bright blue is naturally dark, low on the lightness scale, but dark blue is even lower.

Method 4
Mixing Paint Colors

  1. 1
    Follow these guidelines to mix any and every color. Magenta, yellow, and cyan are the “subtractive” primary colors, which means they can be combined to make any other color but cannot themselves be mixed from other colors. Subtractive primaries are used when mixing pigments such as inks, dyes, and paints.
    • Magenta and yellow mixed make reds and oranges.
    • Yellow and cyan mixed make greens.
    • Cyan and magenta mixed make blues and purples.
  2. Image titled All these colors were made from only three paints, transparent magenta, yellow, and cyan.
    Make bright clean colors. If you arrange your color wheel as a triangle, with yellow, magenta and cyan at the three corners, then to make bright colors, just mix any of the colors on only one side of the triangle.
    • For example, you can mix magenta with orange or yellow to make red, mix red with transparent yellow to make orange, or mix orange with red to make orange-red. There's no need to limit yourself to using only the primaries, and if you want bright colors, you'll find that mixing colors nearer each other on the color wheel will give you better results.
    • This disappointing "purple" was made by mixing red and blue.
      If you mix colors from two different sides of the triangle, for example blue and red, you will not get a bright color. Blue and red together make a dark dirty purple.
  3. 3
    Make low saturation colors. Low saturation colors (colors that aren't bright) come in three basic varieties: tints (light colors), shades (dark colors), and tones (muted, dull colors).
  4. 4
    Add white to any color to lighten it (tints). For a light color it may be better to add your main color to the white a little at a time so you don't waste paint.
  5. 5
    Add black to any color to darken it (shades). Some artists prefer to add the color's complement, which is its opposite color on an accurate CMY/RGB color wheel. For example, green can be used to darken magenta, and magenta to darken green, because they are across from each other on the color wheel. Add black, or a complement, a little at a time so you don't overdo it.
  6. 6
    Add both white and black (or white and the color's complement) to any color to make your color muted, grayish, or dull (tones). By varying the relative amounts of black and white, you add to your mix, you can obtain whatever lightness and saturation you are looking for. Example: add both white and black to yellow to make light olive green. The black will darken yellow, turning it into olive green, and the white will lighten that olive green. Different light olive greens can be mixed by controlling how much of each is added.
    • For an unsaturated color like brown (dark orange), you can adjust the hue the same way as you would for bright orange, by adding small amounts of nearby colors on the color wheel: magenta, yellow, red, or orange. These will brighten your brown as well as changing the hue. But since brown is not a bright color, you can also use colors from other sides of the triangle like green or blue, which will darken brown while also changing the hue.
  7. 7
    Make black. Black can be made by mixing any two complements, but it can also be mixed from three or more colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. Just make sure you do not add any white or any color that has white in it, like opaque yellow or opaque yellow-green, unless you want a shade of gray. If the black you are making is leaning too much toward some color, neutralize it by adding a little of the color opposite it.
  8. 8
    Don't try to make white. White can't be mixed from other paints. Like the three primaries—magenta, yellow, and cyan—it will have to be purchased, unless you are working in a medium like watercolor in which your paper provides the white you need.
  9. 9
    Plan your strategy. Think about the hue, lightness, and saturation of the color you have and of the color you want, and make the necessary adjustments.
    • For example, green's hue can be changed toward cyan or toward yellow, its neighbors on the color wheel. It can be made lighter by adding white. Or it can be made darker by adding black or green's complement, which will be purple, magenta, or red, depending on the hue of the green. You can make it duller by adding both black and white, or you can make an unsaturated green a little brighter by adding pure (bright) green.
    • Here's another example. You've mixed red and white to make pink, but your pink is too bright and too warm (yellowish). To correct the warm hue, you will have to add some magenta. To dull your bright pink, you will have to add either white, its complement (or black), or both. You need to decide whether you want a darker pink (add only the complement), a grayish pink (add both white and the complement), or just a lighter pink (add white only). If you plan to adjust the hue with magenta and dull your pink with green or cyan (complements of magenta and red), you can try to combine those steps by using a color that is between magenta and cyan, like blue.
  10. 10
    Mix your colors, and get going on that masterpiece! If all this sounds overwhelming, you may just need some practice. Making a color reference booklet can be a good way to practice using the principles of color theory. Even printing one on your computer can provide you with a helpful reference until you have gotten more practice and are starting to find the process more intuitive. How to Make Yourself a Color Reference Booklet


Color Samples & Recipes for Artists

  • Find the color you want and follow the instructions below it. Each color chip represents a whole range of possibilities, and you can adjust the amounts of paint you use to obtain the exact color you are looking for. For example, any light color can be made lighter or darker by adding more or less white. Complements are opposite colors on an accurate RGB/CMY color wheel, 1:1 = Black.
Light Magenta
Dark Magenta
Dull Magenta
  • Magenta: Magenta can't be mixed from other colors. You will have to buy it.
    • Light Magenta Tint: Add white to magenta.
    • Dark Magenta Shade: Add a small amount of black or green to transparent magenta. Green is magenta's complement.
    • Dull Magenta Tone: Add both white and black or green to magenta.
Light Red
Dark Red
Dull Red
  • Red: Add a small amount of yellow or orange to magenta.
    • Light Red Tint (Salmon pink, coral): Add white to red. Use less white and more red for coral.
    • Dark Red Shade: Add a small amount of black or cyan to red. Cyan is red's complement.
    • Dull Red Tone: Add both white and black (or cyan) to red.
Light Orange
Dark Orange
Dull Orange
  • Orange: Mix yellow with magenta or red.
    • Light Orange Tint (Peach): Add white to orange.
    • Dark Orange Shade (Brown): Add a small amount of black to orange, or cobalt blue. Cobalt blue is orange's complement, black will give a green tinge.
    • Dull Orange Tone (Light Brown): Add both white and black (or cobalt blue) to orange.
Light Yellow
Dark Yellow
Dull Yellow
  • Yellow: Yellow can't be mixed from other colors. You will have to buy it.
    • Light Yellow Tint: Add white to yellow.
    • Dark Yellow Shade: Add brown to yellow, brown full is dark yellow. Ultramarine blue is yellow's complement. Blue and brown mix to black.
    • Dull Yellow Tone: Add white and brown to yellow.
    • Yellow darkens to Brown in crystals and nature.
Lime Green
Light Lime
Dark Lime
Dull Lime
  • Lime Green: Add a small amount of green or cyan to yellow.
    • Light Lime Tint: Add white to lime green.
    • Dark Lime Green Shade: Add a small amount of black (or purple) to lime green. Purple is lime green's complement.
    • Dull Lime Green Tone: Add both white and black (or purple) to lime green.
Light Green
Dark Green
  • Green: Mix cyan and yellow.
    • Light Green Tint: Add white to green.
    • Dark Green Shade: Add a small amount of black or magenta to green. Magenta is green's complement.
    • Gray-Green Tone: Add both white and black (or magenta) to green.
Teal Green
Light Teal
Dark Teal
  • Teal Green: Mix cyan with a small amount of yellow or green.
    • Light Teal Tint: Add white to teal green.
    • Dark Teal Shade: Add a small amount of black (or magenta-red) to teal green. Magenta-red, called "scarlet" is teal green's complement.
    • Gray-Teal Tone: Add both white and black (or scarlet) to teal green.
Light Cyan
Dark Cyan
  • Cyan: Cyan can't be mixed from other colors. You will have to buy it.
    • Light Cyan Tint: Add white to cyan.
    • Dark Cyan Shade: Add a small amount of red to cyan. Red is cyan's complement.
    • Gray-Cyan Tone: Add both white and red to cyan.
Light Blue
Dark Blue
  • Blue: Add purple or magenta 1:1 to cyan.
    • Light Blue Tint: Add white to blue.
    • Dark Blue Shade: Add a small amount of black (or yellow's dark color, brown) to blue. Yellow is blue's complement.
    • Gray-Blue Tone: Add both white and black (or brown) to blue.
Light Violet-Blue
Dark Violet-Blue
Grayish Violet-Blue
  • Violet-Blue: Mix magenta with cyan or blue.
    • Light Violet Tint (Lavender): Add white to violet-blue.
    • Dark Violet-Blue Shade: Add a small amount of black (or transparent yellow-green) to violet. Transparent yellow-green is violet's complement.
    • Grayish Violet-Blue Tone: Add both white and black (or transparent yellow-green) to violet-blue.
Light Purple
Dark Purple
Dull Purple
  • Purple: Mix magenta with a small amount of cyan or blue.
    • Light Purple Tint: Add white to purple.
    • Dark Purple Shade: Add a small amount of black (or transparent lime green) to purple. Lime green is purple's complement.
    • Dull Purple: Add both white and black (or white and transparent lime green) to purple.
  • Black: You can make black by mixing any two complements or any three colors spaced evenly around an accurate CMYk/RGB color wheel, such as red & cyan or blue & dark yellow (brown) or magenta and green. If you get a dark color instead of true black, correct it by adding the complement of that color.
  • White: White can't be mixed. You will have to buy it. For a warmer white (such as cream), add a tiny amount of yellow. For a cooler white, add a small amount of cyan.
  • Gray: Gray is black and white mixed, or two complements plus white mixed.

More Tips

  • When mixing paints, add small amounts to adjust a color. You can always add more. This is especially true for black and blue, which tend to be dominant. Add a little at a time until you get the result you want.
  • You can use your eyes to find complementary colors. This is the old trick of staring at the color then looking at a white surface. You will see the opposite color appear due to the “color fatigue” of your eyes.
  • Finding good primary colors to buy can be tricky. Look for magenta that does not contain any white or blue pigments (PW and PB). Violet and Red pigments such as PV19 and PR122 are best as primary. PB15:3 is a good cyan. PB15 and (PG7 which is discontinued), are good as well. If you are looking for craft paint or icing colors, you can try to match the colors in printer ink. Either print a sample from your computer printer to take shopping with you, or look for the primary colors inside the flaps of a box of cereal or cookies.

Things You'll Need

  • Palette — Disposable paper ones are nice.
  • Mixing knife or palette knife (any size will do)
  • Watercolor paper or primed canvas (there are pads available of both at your local art supply store; actual primed canvas is good)
  • Containers of water or paint thinner for cleaning brushes
  • Natural or synthetic brush of your choice (#8 round or #6 flat is good)
  • Spray bottle to keep water-based paint moist
  • Paper towel for blotting and cleaning brush
  • Paints
  • A smock or an old shirt you would not mind getting dirty
  • Gloves

Article Info

Categories: Paint Recipes and Mixes