Blending colors with watercolor can be a bit overwhelming. Where do you even begin? In this post, I’ll walk you through the basics of watercolor mixing.
Mix It Up
Watercolor is an amazing medium for creating beautiful works of art. These paints can create a huge range of effects thanks to their light and transparent nature. But many people are intimidated by watercolors because they mix differently from other painting mediums. But it’s not as hard as you might think! In this post, I’ll show you the basics of watercolor mixing so you can begin creating gorgeous art with confidence.
New to Watercoloring?
If you're new to watercoloring, I highly recommend that you check out my watercolor guide for beginners. This massive free guide includes absolutely everything you need to get started watercoloring.
Even if you're not new to watercoloring, I guarantee you'll find some stuff you love.
Color Mixing Basics
There are a few basic concepts that you need to understand before you can master watercolor mixing. Don’t worry, you don’t need a PhD in color theory to understand the basics. These concepts are super easy to grasp and you’ll be whipping up custom color combos in no time.
If you’re a beginner and you want to know what materials I suggest, head to this post for all my recommendations.
The Color Wheel
First things first: we gotta talk about the color wheel! The color wheel is a chart that shows how different colors interact with each other to create other colors. Everyone should do this at least once with their watercolors to get firsthand experience mixing colors. I even recommend that you create a color chart with every new set of watercolor paints you buy so you can see the unique mixing properties of your palette.
There are three primary colors — red, yellow, and blue. These colors are the building blocks of every other color in the rainbow. Place a dot of each primary color equally away from each other on the circle.
When you mix two primary colors, you create a secondary color. The secondary colors are orange, green, and violet. Create secondary colors on your color wheel by mixing the primary colors closest to each other. Add the secondary color dots in the space between the primary color parents.
The final types of colors you can mix on your color wheel are tertiary colors. These colors are created when you mix a secondary color with a primary color next to it on the wheel. For example, if you mix red and orange, you get red-orange. If you mix blue and green, you get blue-green. In total, there are six tertiary colors. On the color wheel, add tertiary colors in the space between their parent colors.
There are a ton of different color palettes you can create from your color wheel, but one worth mentioning is the complementary color palette. Complementary colors are any colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. The most common combos are red/green, blue/orange, and yellow/violet.
These colors often give the most striking contrast when used near each other in art, but they do not mix well. If you try to mix two complementary colors, you will typically get some variety of brownish-grey. Sometimes this type of color mixing is handy, but it is not fun to find out the hard way. So keep in mind complementary colors when you are experimenting with watercolor mixing!
When you want to create a light color in acrylic or oil paints, you tint the paint by adding white. However, watercolor mixing is a little different. For the most part, you simply need a greater water to pigment ratio for a lighter color. If you want a lighter look, just add more water to your brush or palette to make your color lighter. With watercolors, you can even create layers that are only slightly tinted with pigment. This ability to create subtle colors this way is one of watercolor’s greatest strengths.
However, if you want a bright, bold, pop of color, you want less transparency. That means a greater ratio of pigment to water (meaning a lot of paint on your brush, but not a lot of water). That will help you get a deeper, more pure color.
It’s hard to get a fully opaque look with only one layer of watercolor. If you want something very dark and bold, try adding multiple semi-transparent layers instead of one thick coat of paint.
Creating Dark Colors
Perhaps you want a darker color than what your palette provides, like burgundy, navy, or rusty orange. How do you achieve deep colors? The best way you can do this is by mixing a tiny bit of burnt sienna, warm sepia, Payne’s Grey, or another deep-hued paint. Adding a hint of these darker colors to your color will result in a deeper, more moody shade.
If you want to achieve a warmer dark color, stick with the warmer dark paints like burnt sienna. If you want a cooler hue, try using a cooler additive like Payne’s Grey. If you want a bright color to become a deeper, more grey version of itself, then you can consider adding a dash of its complementary color. For example, a touch of green to your red will take it from a bright crimson to a warm reddish-grey.
The trick to mixing darker watercolors is pure experimentation. The colors you’ll get vary so much by what palette you’re using, your water to pigment ratio, and how much of each color you add to the mix.
Do You Need White Watercolor Paint?
When I first started watercoloring, I thought I would definitely need white paint. So I bought myself a few tubes of white watercolor, expecting I’d use them quickly like I did with acrylics. Now, many years later, I still have those white watercolor tubes. Turns out, most of the lightening I need in watercolors can be achieved by simply adding more water.
That’s not to say white watercolors don’t have a use, though! My palette doesn’t include more pastel hues, and I’ve found that mixing a bit of white into my palette can help me achieve those challenging colors — especially pink. Pink is a distinctive color that can’t readily be created by adding more water to red. Adding a bit of red to a blob of white paint in my palette can help me get a distinctive pink.
At the end of the day, you don’t need white watercolor paint, especially as a beginner. You can opt to grab a tube if you like to use lots of pastel tints. Alternatively, you can just purchase a few tubes of paint in your preferred pastel colors so you don’t need to bother with white at all.
There are a few different ways you can mix your watercolors. No one method is the “right” way. Each has its individual characteristics. You may find over time that one method is your favorite, or that you vary your mixing methods depending on the effect you want to achieve. The best way to find the right watercolor mixing method for you is to experiment!
The method I use for watercolor mixing the most often is in my palette mixing tray. If you flip your palette’s lid back, you have room for mixing right in the lid. If you don’t have a built-in mixing tray like a lid, then you can purchase inexpensive palettes that allow plenty of room for watercolor mixing.
Mixing on the Page
Another way you can mix colors is by painting directly on the page with one color, then adding another color while that layer is wet. For example, if you want a green, you could add a layer of yellow and add green pigment while it’s still wet. This can create some pleasant effects with a more mottled look. Alternatively, you can paint a thin layer of one color, allow it to dry, then add a second layer of another color to achieve a new color entirely.
Mixing Pure Watercolor Paints
Lastly, you can mix the paint straight from the tube or bottle. If you know you’ll use a certain color mix again and again, mixing straight from the source offers a long-term solution. To do this, simply squeeze the paint from your tubes into your palette. Then use a toothpick to swirl and mix the colors until you are satisfied with the color. After you let the paint dry, it can be used for a long time by rehydrating it with a wet brush.
What Watercolor Paint Colors Do You Need?
When you are trying to piece together a watercolor palette, you might wonder what watercolors you actually need for a well-rounded palette. There are so many colors out there that it can be intimidating to shop paint! When it comes down to it, you should buy fewer paints and learn to mix with those colors. If you buy a huge palette with dozens of colors, you won’t learn watercolor mixing properly and you will slow your growth.
Instead, get the basics on the color wheel, like:
- Payne’s Grey (this is the only color I’ll recommend specifically because I use it constantly)
Once you have your basic palette set up, you should be able to build just about every color your heart could desire.
The Trick to Watercolor Mixing
You might be a bit nervous to jump into watercolor mixing, but I promise that you’ll be fine. You need to experiment and play with the colors in your palette to see how they behave with each other. Add more water, build up layers of different colors, and try interesting new combinations. You can enjoy hours of fun doing nothing but mixing colors to see what you make. So go forth with your paints and an explorer’s attitude to see what colors you discover!