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Rules in colour mixing, are there any?

Discussion in 'Painting Techniques' started by Einion, Aug 28, 2009.

  1. Einion Well-Known Member

    Lots of the 'rules' we pick up over the years aren't, usually they're just guidelines, and the problem with believing something is a rule when it's not is that you tend to never go against it. This can be a handicap as most of all mixing is about whatever works - any colour mixed with any other colour is fine, long as it gives the result you want.

    Even some of the "ugly" colours many of us are familiar with from playing around on the palette all yield results that might be dead on for something, they're just not the way to go in other cases - like if you want to mix a good purple you don't use Cad Red Light + a dark blue, since that tends to give a dull, barely-violet colour; fine if that's what you wanted, not if you were looking for an actual purple.

    So, what are some of the rules you've picked up? Let's have a look at them and see if they're worth holding on to.

    I'll start off with a couple of classics that you'll often hear repeated:

    Don't shade yellows with black
    Don't highlight just with white
    Keep the number of colours in a mix down to four or less

    Now while there is a kernel of truth in these there's a lot more to it (I'll go into detail later if there's interest). Would love to hear your thoughts on them as well as any others.

  2. megroot A Fixture

    Einion i really like this.
    As i'm a follower of this rules i can give you one more.
    Always shade with a complementair color.

  3. Einion Well-Known Member

    Thanks for that Marc, that's a great one to start off.

    Always shade with a complementary colour
    What about neutral grey? Mixing complements and greys can yield exactly the same results, so no need to use just one of the methods.

    There's also mixed complements / split complements. One can also use lower-chroma paints of the same hue if available, e.g. a red earth for orange or scarlet, ochre for yellow. And there's also black, which works quite well for dark colours, and can be used in combination with other things too (more on this later).

  4. gothicgeek A Fixture

    Always write down your mixes, even the simple ones.


  5. megroot A Fixture

    Shading with grey helps down the value of the color????
    Is it wrong..i don't know but the value of the color is going down to a muddy grey.
    Maybe i do that wrong
    What is a neutral grey.

    Here is another one:
    Chances are the color will not be as strong as you had thought and will require little or no changing
  6. Jamie Stokes Well-Known Member

    As the scale of the figure goes down, the contrasts needed go up. As the cale size increases, contrasts need to go down.

    Painting nipples; never use bright pink

    Those are about the only two I can think of.

    Looking forward to seeing how this progresses

  7. sirhogr Member

    What colour are they?:D
  8. Jamie Stokes Well-Known Member

    Hmm, bit more thought (And nipples are a slightly reddish brown shade darker then skin tone...it's all very scintific, I had to research hours and hours of female anatomy to get it right;):D:D)

    Dont shade with just black

    I have read some of the Games Workshop magazines, when they interviewed some of their gun painters, and in the same article, you could read hthree different ways of getting similar effects....more then one way to skin a cat, I suppose.....

    I remember doing shades on a red tunic with a brown, and added a bit of magenta to the mix, I think. Highlights were done by adding yellow to get an orange shift. All that I picked up from here, plus some playing.

    Back to the orginal question, no, no hard and fast rules, more guidelines, simply due to the variables involved ((effect desired, materials at hand, experience/ confidence of user, etc etc)

    Still, worth thinking about.....

  9. je_touche Member

    - Never use white for highlighting reds.

    - Use tiny amounts of brown or grey to tone down any colour unless it's a gaudy effect what you are after.

    - Work weathering into your basic colours, don't add weathering effects only after painting has been finished.

    - Use flesh colour for highlighting any colour if you are after a dusty effect.

    - Never-ever use gloss paints for representing wet clothes.

    - Never use pure white to represent white surfaces.

    Otherwise I don't use any rules really.
  10. Einion Well-Known Member

    I'll start off with the ones I mentioned.

    Don't shade yellows with black
    This is basically right, simply because it tends to give the wrong colour - not a dark yellow but a green instead.

    But the problem is this tends to make people avoid using black entirely in mixtures with yellow, when you can. A perfectly good basic shadow mix for most yellows can be mixed from the starting yellow with a small amount of black, a dot of red and maybe a touch of white. The rule should be "Don't shade yellows just with black".

    Don't highlight just with white
    This isn't a rule. This is simply a matter of what you're mixing into (and the white - not all white paints work quite the same) and if white doesn't work by itself try to identify what's wrong with the mix and compensate accordingly.

    White alone works just fine in some cases (e.g. some cad reds, many yellows, plenty of browns and ochres, some blues and greens); it doesn't in others, but you can simply use something as well as white for those. Many of the substitute colours that are widely used in the hobby for highlights contain white, just with other pigments too.

    We'll often see recommendations not to use white to lighten reds for example, well sometimes this is a good recommendation but it's not universal. Just like above, if you try it with a red and the resulting colour basically looks too pink, simply adding a little yellow, orange or ochre will often bring the mix right back to where it looks right. This is because adding white often makes a tint of red move toward magenta when all you're looking for is a lighter version of the starting red - so, mixing in something in the other direction, like yellow, will swing the mix back towards red, where it started.

    Keep the number of colours in a mix down to four or less
    Also not a rule. It is good general advice if you want to keep mixtures vivid and, importantly, if you want them to mix cleanly, but there's no reason you can't mix a basic orange from yellow, red and white for example and then mix it with a neutral grey (made from white, black and umber). This is a pretty standard mix for some people and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the colour that results even though there are six pigments in it as you can see. And more, if you wanted to tweak the mixture by adding a dot of violet or green that's also fine - even though this means there might be eight pigments in the mixture now.

    Also, think about if you have a very brilliant modern pigment like Cadmium Yellow Medium and you want to paint a yellow hussar's uniform. The cad yellow is far too vivid as it is, so you can take it down a bit with a little neutral grey, or some Yellow Ochre and a touch of white. If you then mix the shadow colour from this starting point it's very easy to end up with a mix - still easily identifiable as 'yellow' - that has five or six pigments in it.

  11. Einion Well-Known Member

    Shadows are generally darker (lower in value) and duller (lower in chroma). The drop in chroma is most pronounced before the value drops sharply so a few artists use greys for mixing their duller versions of a starting colour.

    Because of the way we generally paint in the hobby, with only a few basic mixes, we could mix the mid-shadow with the base colour + some grey, with the deep shadow from that mix + black.

    Just to be clear: I'm not recommending neutral greys, just wanted to mention them since they're another way of doing the same basic job that mixing complements are used for.

    Neutral greys aren't "muddy", that's generally a description of something close to grey (near-neutrals) when it's used somewhere it shouldn't be - if you mix a reddish-grey and tried it for the shadows on a scarlet tunic for example it would just look wrong, but on Oxford Mixture trousers the same colour could work just fine.

    Neutral greys can be bought, but they can be mixed fairly easily with white, black and as much umber as necessary to bring the mixture to neutral - most mixes of white and black are noticeably blueish. At the simplest you can use white + black and then adjust colour as needed when you've mixed it into things (as in the yellow example I used at the beginning of the previous post).

    Now that's a good idea, since it's all too easy to forget what was used.

    That's not really about colour mixing but I think it's a truism regardless.

    I'd go along with that too. Skin colours are generally far less vivid than we tend to imagine!

    Very important thing to consider this - say 20 members were all working from exactly the same colour reference, none of us paint exactly alike so regardless of how it actually looks there'd be 20 different interpretations. The results could get a lot closer, but that's another day's discussion.

    See above.

    Mixing complements can be used also for the same thing.

    Except for the highlights?

  12. socko47 Active Member

    Thanks Enion, I always appreciate your knowledge of color and your willingness to share.
  13. Kevin D. Active Member

    Flesh can be used to highlight most anything that used to be alive, i.e. leather (was a cow), furs etc
  14. Einion Well-Known Member

    Anyone have any others? Thoughts, comments? Bueller?

  15. sirhogr Member

    Ok! More or less we cover the basics, now, could we be a little more specific?:D For example, how can we imitate textures as silk, wool, etc?
  16. Einion Well-Known Member

    That's not really about colour mixing, it's a matter of how one paints (finish, placement of highlights/shadows, contrast).

  17. socko47 Active Member

    Enion, I recently came across this article:
    and it raised the following question in my mind - Given recommended color mixes, how much difference in results will there be if different manufacturers are used to make up the mix?
    Is it better to stick with one manufacturer?
    Also, I am assuming from the article that depending on the grade of oil paint, the purity, etc. that modifications of quantity of each paint to make up the required final color will vary.
  18. Einion Well-Known Member

    Wow, small world - I know Jim Harris virtually too and I was looking at some of his photos before lunch today!

    Good question. A little to quite a bit, depending.

    Some pigments are pretty consistent, others vary a bit and some vary a lot; even for the 'same' pigment different manufacturer = different thing, even if chemically they are the same compound.

    So the basic colour of one paint may not match that of another with the same name (and undercolour can vary as well). A good example of this is with a paint labelled Cadmium Red or Cadmium Red Medium, which would generally be expected to be a medium shade of course but can actually be much more scarlet from another maker. So before you even begin to mix it's fairly clear that the results are likely to be different.

    On top of that, with paints that are alike in colour straight from the tube (even when very very similar) differences in the way the pigment is made or ground can result in varied mixtures. For example with versions of Cadmium Red Light it might tint to a sort of salmon colour in one and go pinkish with another, even using the same white.

    Because of this it's vital that people learn to mix by eye as even following a formula you can end up with the wrong colour.


    There are a couple of ways of getting an idea about pigment/paint variation online now for anyone that wants to explore and one of the best is now the Dick Blick site since they have quality photographs of swatches of most or all of the paint that they sell, available in a link off to the left of each listing. These usually show the paint applied heavily, brushed out and tinted 1:1 with white, e.g. here.

    Well this is a judgement call but I don't think so (although it is perfectly possible to use just one brand for an entire painting career).

    Apart from anything it's very easy to come across a paint that you'd like to try in a different brand that the favourite brand doesn't have, or maybe the colour is not quite as nice. I'm sure we've all experienced the "Ooo, that looks nice." thing once or twice, looking at paint on the racks! As well as that, trying other brands is a good idea generally IMO because it exposes you to a range of qualities - some good brands are fine, but if you never try anything else do you know if it's the best for you?

    A single maker's paints would tend to be consistently pigmented up to a point, but in oils there is still a lot of natural variation with lean and fatty paints - lots of oil is needed for some pigments, much less for others - and some pigments are very strong and others are weaker. So using just one brand doesn't necessarily help with tricky mixes (good example being a phthalo blue or green, which have to be added to nearly anything else verrry cautiously because they're so strong).


    Sort of following on from that, one thing that's been suggested a couple of times is that very strong pigments could be deliberately chosen from a cheaper range so as to balance more easily with other colours. And if these cheaper paints are a little duller than in an expensive brand it doesn't really matter to us in the hobby since we don't generally need eye-popping brightness. And on the opposite end, with white especially consider going for the highest pigmentation possible, to get maximum opacity.

    So say your palette is mostly built from W&N Artists' Oils or M. Graham: one could choose to go with Winton or Georgian for Phthalo Blue and Dioxazine Purple to make them easier to handle; and for white Michael Harding, or Williamsburg if want to buy American.

    Yes, even if the exact same batch of pigment given to two makers it could result in paints of slightly different colour.

  19. socko47 Active Member

    Enion, Thanks for the insight.

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