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The Best Artist Guides for Mixing Colours

Updated on November 09, 2015
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Katherine regularly reviews art books and has a very extensive art library (4 bookcases and lots of stacks waiting for the next one!)

How to produce colour - colour mixing and colour charts

You know the principles about mixing colours - but you'd like more help - preferably in pictures.

You want to know a lot more about which colours when mixed together produce another colour.

Lots of colour charts in fact - done by somebody else!

Below is that help! You can choose from all the best books about colour mixes and mixing colours

Also see The Best Art Books - Colour

Image (author's own): This is a chart of neutral colours created by mixing complementary coloured pencils

How to mix colours

The very best way of learning how to mix colours is to mix colours in a systematic way and create a colour chart.

You can mix colours using any media - dry media works just as well as paint. I'd always suggest you use the type of paper or support that you normally work on as the support has a major influence on how a colour reads.

There are a number of approaches to mixing colour. The two main ways are:

PHYSICAL MIXING

This is when the paint is actually mixed with a brush or palette knife (or pastel or pencil) into another colour to create a completely new colour. The mix is determined by the power of each brand/pigment and the relative percentages used eg 75:25 50:50. Such mixes are typically done away from the support.

OPTICAL MIXING

This is when one colour is laid over and/or mixed with another colour. Such mixes are typically created on the support (e.g. when working "wet in wet" in watercolour where colours are allowed to mix in a less controlled fashion). The resulting effect in part depends on the nature of the ground/support, the relative strength of the underpaint and covering paint, the control exercised over the mixing and the extent to which a colour is opaque or transparent. When using dry media there is a potential for all mixes to be optical since all mixing MUST be done on the support.

Here are some examples.

APPROACH #1 The normal approach is to create a grid of squares with the same set of colours in the same order on the x and y axis.

  • create a column of paint for each of the colours - and let it dry
  • repeat the exercise and create a row of paint for each colour - and see what results when one colour is painted over another as a glaze

APPROACH #2 Repeat - but this time create a fresh mix for each square on the palette before bringing it to the chart. Complete one cube at a time. (This will use a lot of paint)

APPROACH #3 To test the possible mixes of two colours on the paper/support you need to have a column (or a row) with a lot of space in between. Have a pure square of the two colours to be mixed at either end and then either develop a continuous strip of colour or fill boxes in between the two colours (see a chart completed in this way below - I used different complementary colours to identify a range of coloured neutrals).

APPROACH #4 Certain artists like to puddle a colour and then drag some colour into a puddle of another colour to see how it mixes. This tends to be done in a haphazard way and works better for artists who have got very good brush control and know how wet the brush needs to be with paint and medium or water. It's fine as a method for testing paint while working but it lacks structure and data for a systematic review. I also very often find such experiments are not labelled with the paints which were mixed - and hence learning after the event can be limited. If you use this method don't forget to label the paints being mixed!

PIN YOUR CHARTS TO YOUR STUDIO WALL AND USE THEM AS A GUIDE WHEN WORKING.

Alternatively file them in a folder and use them as a reference guide for colour mixing. You could try developing charts based on different colour groups.

Pros:

  • You can create colour charts for different projects or environments
  • You can determine whether you want to test out different mixes of the same two colours and/or additions of white or black and/or dilutions and/or variations on which colour is the underpaint and which is the glaze.

Cons:

  • you can spend a lot of money mixing paint to create charts of colours you may never use. Sometimes it's best to start with a guide from another source - and then focus in on the colours which you want to use.

An exercise in mixing neutrals from 12 complementary colours using coloured pencils

An exercise in mixing neutrals from 12 complementary colours using coloured pencils
An exercise in mixing neutrals from 12 complementary colours using coloured pencils

Image: Created by the author - READ my blog post Making A Mark - Complementary Colours and mixing neutral colours to find out more.

Colour Mixing - Tips and Techniques

Below are some links to places online where you can read some more about colour mixing.

The first one is a bit technical - but a lot of them are people talking and showing how they made their own colour charts

Why not take a look?

How to mix colours - a publishing perspective

Colour mixing is both one of the most enjoyable and one of the most frustrating activities known to artists.

  • Enjoyable when you're sat slowly creating a set of colour charts from your preferred palette.
  • Frustrating when you can't work out how on earth it's possible to mix a certain colour!

Good quality artist's paint and artist grade colours in other media are also not cheap and it can be very irritating mixing nice and expensive paint only to end up with mud!

Which is where the publishing industry came to the assistance of artists - from beginners to improvers.

Guides on mixing colour divide between:

  • more general books about colour - which have particularly good sections on mixing colour
  • specific guides on mixing colour - which generally comprise a lot of charts which demonstrate to the artist what happens when you mix one colour with another

Below you'll find both. Some books will be easy to find in art bookshops while others will be not so easy. However they're all available from Amazon.

In addition you'll also find tools and aids for mixing colour - colour wheels and colour charts

Top Recommendations for Watercolour Painting

Colour mixing for Watercolour Painters

One of the first challenges for watercolour painters when mixing colours is understanding the properties and qualities of the watercolour paints that they're using.

  • only transparent colours will produce a transparent glaze
  • only colours which have the capacity to granulate can create this interesting effect.

There are various art books which can help you begin to understand watercolours and what happens if you mix them. However all painters always need to remember that colours are not uniform as to pigmentation and composition and what one paint does in one brand is not the same as what another paint - of the same name - will necessarily do if used in precisely the same way.

Mastering the idiosyncrasies of the paints in your palette is one of the major challenges for any watercolour painter.

Transparent Watercolor Wheel
Transparent Watercolor Wheel

Rated 4.9 out of 5 stars by 20 customer reviews

This is a book which gets results! It's recommended by watercolour painters because it explains which mixes of transparent watercolours work - and which ones don't.

I own this book and I'd certainly agree with the overall assessment it's been given.

Features:

* a detachable fold-out color wheel which organizing pigments into five categories: transparent nonstaining colors; semi-transparents; opaques; semi-opaques; and whitened and blackened colors.

* clear guidelines for why colours behave as they do and how to avoid muddy colours

Paperback: 144 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill (April 1, 2000)

 
Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory
Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Rated 4.7 out of 5 stars by 71 customer reviews

A book which aims to help you develop your own personal your own personal colour sense irrespective of the type of media being used. I certainly found it helpful in developing my own sense of colour and the colours I like to work with.

In this book Stephen Quiller introduces the "Quiller Wheel," (which is a special foldout wheel featuring 68 colors which have been precisely placed according to hue, value and chroma. He then demonstrates how an artist can develop his or her individual approach to achieving a palette of color blends which suit them.

(It also includes a section on the painters regarded as the Master Colorists)

Features

* demonstrations of how to use the wheel to interpret color relationships and mix colors more clearly.

* step by step explanations of how to develop five structured color schemes, apply underlays and overlays, and use color in striking, unusual ways.

Paperback: 144 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; New edition edition (February 1, 2002)

 
Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design
Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED / new 25th anniversary paperback edition - Everybody who has ever read this this best-selling book seems to recommend it.

The fact that ANY book gets to its 25th anniversary of still being in print speaks volumes for how good it is and how popular it is. I know a lot of tutors use this book as a reference book for students.

Rated (this edition) an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars by 32 customer reviews

Rated (previous edition) an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars by 58 customer reviews

I'm including this book in this website because Jeanne Dobie is excellent at teaching house to mix coloured greys - or "mouse colours" as she call them. If you want to master mixing interesting and luminous neutral colours do buy this book.

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; 25 Anv Rep edition (January 11, 2011)

This book has been in print for more than 25 years!

 

Colour charts for watercolour painters

This is being developed to include all the charts for different brands of artist-grade watercolour paint

Top Recommendations for Painters in Oils / Acrylics

Color Mixing Recipes for Oil & Acrylic: Mixing recipes for more than 450 color combinations
Color Mixing Recipes for Oil & Acrylic: Mixing recipes for more than 450 color combinations

This was the first book in this series and proved to be a VERY POPULAR Book about mixing Colours amongst people painting in oils and/or acylics

Currently it's rated 4.4 out of 5 stars by 53 customer reviews and ranks as

#2 in Books about Oil Painting

#5 in Books about painting in Acrylics

#7 in Books about the use of Color

Recipes for more than 450 color combinations - this book is designed as a practical resource for both oil and acrylic artists

Features:

* Concealed wire binding enables the book to flat

* Recipes are bound and hence cannot be lost or filed in the wrong order

* Includes Color Mixing Grid, a guide for accurately measuring out the paint required

Series: Color Mixing Recipes

Hardcover: 48 pages

Publisher: Walter Foster (July 1, 2004)

 

Colour Wheels & Charts

Different perspectives on how colour works in watercolour paint

Jack Richeson Quiller Color Wheel for All Media by Stephen Quiller, 8.5 by 8.5-Inch
Jack Richeson Quiller Color Wheel for All Media by Stephen Quiller, 8.5 by 8.5-Inch

Very useful if you just want the Stephen Quiller's Colour Wheel - which is enormously informative about colours, the value of different colours and colour relationships in terms of complementary and analogous colours!

BUT If you've already got Stephen's Quiller's Book you may well consider you don't need this as well. It's a laminated version of what you can find in the book - so only buy if you want a wipe clean surface which you can use in the studio.

This simple color wheel can be used as an aid in mixing oil, watercolor, and acrylic mediums.

Features:

* Laminated in sturdy plastic - suitable for studios and mucky painting fingers

* Designed with a glossary of color mixing terms on the back.

* Measures 8.5" x 8.5"

* Made In USA

 

VIDEOS: Color Mixing with Stephen Quiller

Color Wheel - a guide to mixing color - by The Color Wheel Company

Color Wheel 9-1/4"-
Color Wheel 9-1/4"-

I've got this colour tool and find it very useful because of how it highlights the colours in terms of relationships and harmonies - plus tints and tones and a grey scale.

So if you want to work out which are complementary colours take a look at this wheel.

There are various sizes and you'll find both the standard size and pocket size (useful for plein air work) available on Amazon. It sells all over the world and demand is such that you can also get it with the text in French or Spanish

Standard wheel is 9.25" in diameter

(The Pocket Wheel is just over 5")

 
Color Mixing Guide - Magic Palette Studio Color Guide - 841 Colors
Color Mixing Guide - Magic Palette Studio Color Guide - 841 Colors

I bought the smaller version of this when starting to paint in oils as I had no feel for the effect of the tonal value of different oil paints.

It shows 841 mixed colors created from 29 essential paint colors. The chart is produced using a high quality printing process for the colours which are printed on a neutral grey background.

Once you've worked out the palette that you prefer working with it's useful to create your own chart - but until then, this is a useful tool for those who come to oils or acrylics from watercolours

Features:

* 24 X 24 inch size

* 841 color combinations

* UV coated for long life

* High quality printing

 

Color Mixing Recipes

Color Mixing Recipe Cards

The series of books which make up William H Powell's "Color Mixing Recipes" are very popular with artists wanting to"get their eye in" when it comes to mixing colours.

After all, while you don't mind working out colour mixes for yourself, paint is not cheap and it's also good to have a guide as to which colours will create that illusive colour that you want to mix.

For the most part, the books assume painters are working with oils or acrylics - although there is one book for watercolour painters

The Color recipe Cards focus on the three elements:

  • Hue - the natural colour of the pigment and how to use pure colours to mix other colours
  • Tone - how to lighten or darken colours by adding white or black
  • Intensity (Chroma) - how to enliven colours by mixing complementary colours across the color wheel

The books all use a colour mixing grid which assumes you are squeezing colour from a tube and shows you how to calculate the number of "parts" to a recipe. It's a notion which is a good way of getting artists started - so long as they're only using one brand of artist-grade paint. A problem arises if artists are mixing brands of paint which have different levels of pigment intensity and saturation - such as mixing student grade with artist-grade paints - or paints from different brands.

You can see his website - and portfolio of paintings on his website http://www.williampowell-artist.com/. Personally I find them a little overhyped in colour terms - proving as always colour is in the eye of the beholder!

1,500 Color Mixing Recipes for Oil, Acrylic & Watercolor: Achieve precise color when painting landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and more
1,500 Color Mixing Recipes for Oil, Acrylic & Watercolor: Achieve precise color when painting landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and more

Rated: 4.3 out of 5 stars by 23 customer reviews

#5 in Books about the Use of Color

Essentially this is everything he's already published in just one book!

It includes recipes from:

* Color Mixing Recipes for Oil and Acrylic,

* Color Mixing Recipes for Watercolor

* Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits,

* Color Mixing Recipes for Landscapes

These books are also identified individually on this site

Series: Color Mixing Recipes

Spiral-bound: 176 pages

Publisher: Walter Foster; Spi edition (August 1, 2012)

 
Color Mixing Recipes for Landscapes: Mixing recipes for more than 400 color combinations
Color Mixing Recipes for Landscapes: Mixing recipes for more than 400 color combinations

Rated 4.2 out of 5 stars by 43 customer reviews

#6 in Books about how to paint Landscapes

One of the challenges when painting landscapes with trees is first to be able see all the different greens in the landscape - and then to learn how to paint them!

This book is very popular with landscape painters faced with mixing lots of different greens.

Plus it also helps people like me who look at skies and clouds at times and go "What colour is that and how do I make it?"

This book has 530 different colour mixes - in two groups - 'Skies and Clouds' and 'Trees and Mountains'. It also discusses how colours of the landscape, when working plein air, are affected by the time of day, the season of the year and the angle of the sun.

Series: Color Mixing Recipes

Spiral-bound: 48 pages

Publisher: Walter Foster; Spiral bound edition (April 30, 2012)

 
Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits: More than 500 Color Combinations for Skin, Eyes, Lips & Hair
Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits: More than 500 Color Combinations for Skin, Eyes, Lips & Hair

RECOMMENDED: Rated 4.6 out of 5 stars by 64 customer reviews

#2 in Books about painting Portraits

#6 in Books about the Use of Color

It's difficult enough getting a likeness of a person in a portrait and working out their skin tone without the complication of not knowing how to mix colours for skin!

This book supports those beginning to paint portraits - or seeking to improve - in mixing realistic skin colours and tones

Features include:

* all the hues for different skin colours and tones eg Caucasian, Latino, Asian

* concealed wire-o bound book means it lies flat so you can review it easily while painting

* plastic color-mixing grid for measuring out paints

* a conversion chart for finding acrylic equivalents of oil paints and vice versa

Series: Color Mixing Recipes

Spiral-bound: 48 pages

Publisher: Walter Foster (November 1, 2006)

 
Color Mixing Recipes for Watercolor
Color Mixing Recipes for Watercolor

Rated: Average 4.3 out of 5 stars by 18 customer reviews

William Powell's books normally assume an artist is painting in oils or acrylics. This book redresses the balance and uses the same approach to watercolour paints.

He divides the book into recipe for colour, value and intensity

 

Colour Mixing Bibles

Colour Mixing Bibles - the last word?

What you need to understand about books called "bibles"

I'm not quite sure why "bible" entered the lexicon of words used to write about art. It's not the most obvious word to use. However I guess if you want a word which suggests that a book is a standard reference work, and/or accepted as both informative and authoritative I guess "bible" is as good a word to use as any.

However simply because the publishers choose to use the word about a book doesn't mean to say that it actually is authoritative and informative - and the "best" there is!

Which is a long winded way of saying regard this word "bible" as a marketing word to sell books and not as literally what any of these books are - because they're not. Some are better than others but all could be improved upon!

The main problem with colour mixing bibles devoted to charts relates to the quality of the printing.

Unless the printing is exceptionally good and the quality control even better than it's unlikely that the printed colour will be the same as the actual colour. Since many of these books are aimed at the leisure painter and the cheaper end of the market it's unlikely that a low priced book will be associated with high quality reproduction values. Which is not to say reproduction values are bad so much as it's not uncommon to find pages where all the mixes on the page look pretty similar!

Colour Mixing Bible: All You'll Ever Need to Know About Mixing Pigments in Oil, Acrylic, Watercolour, Gouache, Soft Pastel, Coloured Pencil and Ink
Colour Mixing Bible: All You'll Ever Need to Know About Mixing Pigments in Oil, Acrylic, Watercolour, Gouache, Soft Pastel, Coloured Pencil and Ink

RECOMMENDED: I own this book by Ian Sidaway - a British artist and author. If I was going to buy one book about mixing colours for the colour charts created by mixing two different colours in different media - I'd buy this one.

Rated 4.3 out of 5 stars by 29 customer reviews

My primary reason for liking this book of colour charts over other books of colour charts is because the colour reproduction quality of this book is superior to other books.

It's published by David & Charles and my personal experience is that I invariably find their books have very good to excellent production values.

He also produces useful notes for each specific colour mix - identifying, for example, colours which are likely to overwhelm others

Paperback: 144 pages

Publisher: David & Charles (February 27, 2004)

 
Watercolor Mixing Directory
Watercolor Mixing Directory

RECOMMENDED FOR BEGINNERS AND IMPROVERS

This Directory includes some features about colour mixing missing from other books of this type

Rated 4.8 out of 5 stars by 6 customer reviews.

Features:

* demonstrates a range of color mixing techniques - mixed on the palette and mixed on the paper

* uses a basic palette and then 50 additional colours to generate c.2,000 color mixing and glazing options

* demonstrates the effect generated by specific colours being under or over the colour they are being mixed with

Spiral-bound: 256 pages - in full colour

Publisher: Walter Foster; 1ST edition (January 1, 2006)

 

The Watercolour Artist's Colour Mixing Bible

The Watercolor Mixing Directory is known as The Watercolour Artist's Colour Mixing Bible in the UK - and looks like this
The Watercolor Mixing Directory is known as The Watercolour Artist's Colour Mixing Bible in the UK - and looks like this | Source
The Colored Pencil Artist's Pocket Palette
The Colored Pencil Artist's Pocket Palette

There is a whole series of Pocket Palette books for different media and different types of artists. I own the ones for Coloured Pencils, Pastels and Watercolour.

They're cheap, they're better than nothing at all for those starting out - however the colour reproduction is not as good as some other publications and they're a bit simple compared to some alternatives.

I actually find the coloured pencils book rather disappointing because the colour mixes have been flattened through the use of too much pressure and there is incredibly little variation between colour swatches on some pages.

That said - for some people they'll work just fine. If you have the cash, I'd recommend trading up.

Hardcover: 64 pages

Publisher: North Light Books (February 1994)

 

© 2013 Katherine Tyrrell

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    • profile image

      Andy 16 months ago

      PLEASE HELP!!!!!!

      I've just got a job as a fine finisher & really need help with colour mixing!! What book do I need please

    • Diana Grant profile image

      Diana Grant 2 years ago from London

      I never realized colour mixing was so complicated, although I have been to a few art classes. So much information here, I'm going to Pin it, to use when needed

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