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GLAZED OVER: How to mix colours right first time

I hope my simple checklists based on practical application will help any newcomers to oil painting. If nothing else, they serve as a useful revision tool for me!

I love the whole process of mixing colour but rarely get it right first time, often ending up with a miserable shade of mud, probably because I lack a disciplined approach. I’ve picked up a few tips that have made my colour mixing less haphazard. Hopefully they will work for you, too:

1. Mix with a painting knife. You are more likely to make a consistent colour than if you mix with a brush where the colour at the tip may be different to the colour at the ferrule end.

It's easy to wipe a knife clean with a paper towel between mixes, too.

2. Focus on getting the value right first, i.e., the right degree of light or dark, rather than the exact shade of colour. To make a colour darker add blue or brown or both. To make a colour lighter add yellow or white or both.

3. Pre-mix all the basic colours you need before painting including neutral greys. Test them on the canvas under natural light.

4. Don’t be mean with the paint - it’s better to have bigger piles of paint to play with. You can always make a useful neutral grey from left-over mixes (see my blog on how not to waste paint).

5. Always add dark colours to light and opaque colours (such as white and yellow ochre) to transparent colours (such as ultramarine blue and sap green). Add tiny amounts to avoid overpowering.

6. To avoid making mud, start again if you end up with more than two or three colours in the mix. Looks too brown, then colour mix has too much red or orange. Looks too grey, then colour mix is too blue.

7. To make a colour less intense, desaturate (i.e. dirty down) a strong pigment with it’s complementary colour (i.e., it’s opposite colour on the colour wheel). Eg, desaturate blue with a little orange, yellow with a little violet, red with green, blue with brown and vice versa. Then add white as required to lighten but see below.

8. Never add white to a colour you want to be bright and intensive. You could desaturate with white but that will also dull it, make it cooler and make transparent colours more opaque.

9. You could desaturate with black but you may end up with an unattractive mix. Blacks are best mixed from burnt sienna and ultramarine blue rather than taken straight out of the tube.

10. Swatch it! Keep a record of your favourite mixes by creating a colour swatch. I blob paint directly onto a small white business card that I keep in a clear plastic file, noting the approx ratio of colours used.

Sometimes I take a snapshot of my palette, too.

Palette for S13 "Into the Western Mountains"

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