An Artist's color mixing guide to oil paint.

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My color mixing guide and a few pointers on setting up your palette.

Why is color even important?  Did you know that it is the #1 factor in the decision process of an art purchase.  Yep!  If the color aien't right, the buyer moves on!

I almost gave up on developing this color guide because of the availability of so much good information already out here on the web, and in written book form. It’s also one of those subjects where, like the belly button, and opinions, everybody has one!

So without any further delay, please indulge me these few moments as I give you my humble opinions and a few others that do indeed make some sense and will, I believe, give you a better understanding on oil paint color mixing.

Colors have four properties:

  • Value = refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.
  • Intensity = how bright or dull it is.
  • Hue = Hue is just another word for color. Red hue means red color.
  • Temperature = how close to fire, or ice the color is.

Color Mixing Guide Shades and Tints

It’s a general practice to tint a color with white, thus making it lighter. And shading a color with black to darken it.

But this doesn’t work all of the time with oil colors.

See more details below.

The Masters usually used a very limited palette. This was due to many factors, cost, time in grinding their own, or having apprentices doing this, and availability of the raw compounds or their own previous training or preferences.

In today’s world, access to different oil colors is mind boggling. So where do you start?

Well, if you’ve been following some of my lessons here, and you’ve started a work, you’ll know I begin with an imprimatura, (a coated pre-colored toned canvas) of a yellow ochre/olive. Then the first and second Umber underlayer using burnt umber as the only paint. From here we go into the dead or gray layer which uses a prepared black, white, and 3 to 5 midtones.

Here is your color mixing guide list of paints so far:

  • My prepared black will have 2 parts Ivory or Mars Black,
  • 1 part Burnt Umber,
  • and 1/8 part Prussian Blue.

You can experiment with making a very deep rich black using just Prussian blue and burnt umber.  And it will dry faster than when using Ivory Black.

For my Brown Underpainting I usually use these:

  • Prepared Black, (Which is Ivory black, Burnt Umber and Prussian blue)
  • Yellow Ochre,
  • Titanium White,
  • and a touch of Prussian Blue.

The lightness or darkness is depending on the average tone of the entire painting.

I find this by squinting my eyes to get the average tone of the whole subject matter.

I've also found a few other things I'd like to pass along to you.

  • I have found Flake White, and Zinc White will not cover (not enough opacity) during the dead layer. They are however, the brightest whites for highlights.
  • I have also found that Permalba is a very good blend of Titanium and Zinc white that does cover well in the dead layer.

Now back to my palette:

For my other colors, I use these,

  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium (rarely used)
  • Cadmium Red Medium (rarely used)
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Phthalo Blue (rarely used)
  • along with Prussian Blue (already mentioned)

Now remember, from this point on in our color mixing guide, references to the color wheel will be made to the RYB (Mixing Color) Wheel.  (below)

And not the RGB Visual Color Wheel. (below)  You should keep both within your studio, the later being for color schemes and color meaning within your work.  Besides, the color wheel below is geared more for techie's in the television and lighting world. 

 RGB color wheel, visual color wheel

Before we get too far in, you’ll need to start thinking about paint color differently — you must understand that every oil paint manufactured color actually has a main color (the one you see) and another color that is part of a filler and blend.

Color manufacturers will not blend us a true blue, a true yellow, or a true red. (This is no longer true, and paint manufacturers have come up with some very good primary color mixtures)


Could be that they wouldn’t stay in business for long, (because of the ability for us to mix all the rest ourselves) or the manufacturing process just makes it impossible to create, thus preventing them with coming up with the perfect combination.

If all of this is a bit to much, and you need a full understanding of color and a super color mixing guide, read my review of Richard Robinsons Color Course!

It truly is one of the best color mixing guide and explanations of color mixing out there, and I've been doing this a long time, and Richard taught this old dog lots of tricks!

I've recently been informed there are manufacturers that supply us with these 3 colors now!

I will investigate, and get back to you on what I'm able to find. I may even do a painting and demo it for you. Back to our main lesson!

So each of the colors listed above you will find will lean one way or the other towards another color on the Color Wheel.

Color Mixing Guide paint location on the color wheel:

Cadmium Yellow Light leans towards the green/blue (actually has a touch of blue paint)

Cadmium Yellow Medium leans towards the orange/red (because it has a touch of red in it)

Cadmium Red Medium leans towards the orange (because it contains yellow)

Alizarin Crimson leans towards the violet/blue

Phthalo Blue leans towards the green

Prussian Blue leans towards the red

So you ask, Where are your greens? 

They are completely mixable from the above. 

A very true and intense green can be created using Phthalo Blue (leans green) and Cadmium Yellow Light (leans green). 

This green has proven just to intense for my work, and rarely do I see this intense a green in nature, but then again, my eyesight genetically may be different from others and your use of it may be quite satisfactory! 

I put it out there as something you may want to try.  Certainly when you make your color wheel swatch, you will see what to I’m referring. 

Is this the best palette?  Certainly not.  It’s only the palette I use.  As I said earlier, there are volumes of books on color theory.  And this 3 page color mixing guide just scratches the surface of our subject.

There are some artist’s that use much less, some that use much more.  It depends on your level of mixing capability, the style or art, the color scheme you like to work with. 

So, how do you mix these colors without getting mud?

How do we lighten or darken a particular color?

What exercise can I do to help in matching colors I see in my subject matter?

Why do I get a green instead of a dark yellow when I mix black with yellow?  I thought blue and yellow make green.

Click below to get "the rest of the story" or Part II of my color mixing guide.

Maybe this is all a bit complicated?

Maybe you need a whooooole lot of help? Beginners oil painting guide.

Richard has such a great program here. It covers a lot of territory for the beginner!

If you haven’t already, please jump over to the color wheel lesson , as it is a precursor to understanding some of the terms and diagrams of what we've talked about here.

Ever wonder about why certain colors make ya all mad, or the opposite, a bit romantic maybe. Yep, colors can really have that effect.

Have you ever seen a pink public bathroom? No? Would you like to know why?

Pink is one of those "lowers your heart rate" and a relaxing color, to the point where I'm gonna sit here all day and read this magazine kinda color.

The folks in line outside the door aren't gonna appreciate it either. So, more exciting colors (deep burgundy or reds) or just a drab white will be used, 'cause they don't want you in there all day!

Read more about the meaning of color and the psychology of color here.

Then you can sit in that pink parlor and ruminate about how to set up your own color palette.

NOW, are you ready to get into some more color mixing under your belt? 

Lets look exactly at what happens when you mix that yellow and black with oil paints.  Expecting a dark yellow, sorry, you gonna get a big dollop of green on your palette.  Click below to see why.

The rest of the story on Color Mixing Guide part 2!

Did you enjoy, or learn something from this page?  Why not create some good Karma, and pass it on? Face book like us, Pin the images you love, or Google + and let others feel the warmth!

Care to see more of my work?  Click here to head over to my fine art site at

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