As a beginner artist, understanding how colors work together is one of the key foundational skills to learn. Mixing paint can seem daunting at first, but knowing the basics will help you create artwork that you feel proud of and give you confidence to move forward with more complex paint mixing.

In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to mix paint when working with a variety of mediums, from acrylic to oil. You’ll also learn about color theory and how to understand which colors to blend to create others. Soon, you’ll find that a whole world of opportunity awaits you and your artistic vision!

How Do You Mix Paint?

Before you begin mixing paint colors, it’s helpful to understand some of the fundamentals of color. Color theory is a set of guidelines and references points that artists use when thinking about their color choices. Some of the phrases you might hear when learning about color theory are:

  • Hue: The shade of a particular color (like blue). 
  • Primary Color: Red, blue, and yellow are the only primary colors. All other colors are created through mixing primary colors in various combinations. Mixing any colors together will never create a primary color.
  • Secondary Color: A color that is made when you mix two primary colors together—orange, green, and purple.
  • Tertiary Color: Colors that are created by combining a secondary and a primary color (like yellow-green). 
  • Complementary Colors: Colors that are opposites on a color wheel (like red and green). These have a significant contrast and can add depth and vibrancy to your paintings.
  • Analogous Colors: Colors that sit next to each other on a color wheel e.g. (like yellow and green or purple and red). 
Skillshare teacher Court McCracken demonstrates how a basic color wheel can be a handy resource for both new and experienced painters.
Skillshare teacher Court McCracken demonstrates how a basic color wheel can be a handy resource for both new and experienced painters.

When you’re learning how to mix paint, keep a color wheel handy to reference. Invented in 1666 by Sir Isaac Newton, the color wheel takes the full color spectrum and maps it onto a circle. Color theory is founded on the principles outlined in the color wheel, showing the relationships between colors and helping artists to visually see which colors will work harmoniously and which are contrasting. Even expert artists frequently consult their color wheel before embarking on a new project. 

What colors do you need to mix to make other colors? If you’re trying to create a secondary color, you’ll need to combine two of your primary colors. Red and blue make purple, red and yellow make orange, and yellow and blue create green. The shade will be determined by the proportions or ratios of each primary color that you use in the mix. From here, you can start mixing secondary and primary colors to make tertiary colors.

Brown can be made by mixing all three primary colors, while adding complementary colors will vary the shade.
Brown can be made by mixing all three primary colors, while adding complementary colors will vary the shade.

If you’re learning how to make brown paint by mixing, start with just your primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and mix all three together. This will give you a darker shade of brown. For lighter shades, work with complementary colors. For example, orange and blue will create a brown that’s tinged with a hint of green. Purple and yellow will create a brighter brown color. There are plenty of different options when it comes to paint mixing, so test out several combinations on a scrap piece of paper until you find the color you’re looking for.

You may also find yourself wondering how to make red paint by mixing colors, but remember, red is a primary color, which means that no other colors can be combined to create it. As you’re mixing paint colors, you can combine secondary colors with red to make deeper shades of red like burgundy or lighter colors like pink, but you won’t be able to create pure red.

Now that you understand the basics of color theory, it’s time to start working with your paint medium of choice and testing how this works in practice! You don’t need to mix all of your paints before you start painting, but be sure to note the ratios of any colors that you do mix so that you can recreate them if you run out.

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How to Mix Acrylic Paint

Mixing acrylic paint is a great starting point for novice painters. Acrylic is a simple medium to work with and will help you to understand how color mixing works on paper.

Acrylic paints are great for beginners to work with, especially when learning how to mix paint colors for the first time.
Acrylic paints are great for beginners to work with, especially when learning how to mix paint colors for the first time.

Start by placing dabs of your primary colors on the outside edges of your palette. This way, you can bring your mixes into the middle of your palette. Acrylic paint is water-based, so it needs water to flow more easily. Make sure to dip your brush in a small amount of water before working with your acrylic paint. As you start blending your paints in the middle of your palette, alternate between mixing paint and water on the end of your brush. The amount of water you use will alter the paint’s opacity (how easy it is to see through).

As you’re mixing acrylic paint, keep in mind that the colors will dry slightly darker than they first appear on your paper or canvas. It may be helpful to add a little white paint to your colors to lighten them ahead of drying.

How to Mix Watercolors

Like acrylic, watercolors are also water-based. However, they are known for their very transparent appearance and, thanks to their high water content, can easily run. This can make mixing paint a little more complicated, but with a few trials, you’ll soon master it!

Watercolors are known for their runny texture, so working with a dipped palette or dish can help you keep control over your color mixing.
Watercolors are known for their runny texture, so working with a dipped palette or dish can help you keep control over your color mixing.

It’s likely that your paint consistency will be quite runny, so mixing on a plastic palette or a plate with different sections will help control your colors. Be sure to clean your brush well between mixing watercolor paints to keep your mixed colors as natural and close to your desired color as possible. If you find that your paint consistency is still too wet, dab your paint brush lightly on a paper towel between mixing cycles to help absorb any excess fluid.

How to Mix Gouache

Gouache paintings have a consistency that sits between watercolors and acrylics. You don’t need to use any water when using gouache paints, as this can dilute the consistency, but you can if that’s the look you’re going for.

Gouache paints can be used with or without water and colors can be mixed at any point in the painting process.
Gouache paints can be used with or without water and colors can be mixed at any point in the painting process.

Since gouache can easily be layered, you don’t need to mix paints in your dish or palette before painting on your canvas or paper. You can also mix colors by painting one on top of another before it dries. When you’re thinking about how to make brown paint by mixing gouache paints, for example, you can layer all three of your primary colors straight onto your paper, or blend blue with orange, and let this dry.

How to Mix Oil Paint

Oil paints are known for their thick, buttery texture and for giving depth that other painting mediums struggle to do. Mixing oil paints can be challenging thanks to this consistency, but once you’ve learned how to mix paints effectively, you’ll soon find yourself creating beautiful art with vibrant colors and textures.

Oil paints are harder to use but produce beautiful results. Skillshare instructor Adele McFarlane Wile demonstrates how to blend and mix these paints effectively.
Oil paints are harder to use but produce beautiful results. Skillshare instructor Adele McFarlane Wile demonstrates how to blend and mix these paints effectively.

As oil paints are so thick, it can be easier to mix them using a palette knife rather than a brush. This will help prevent your brush bristles from being bent and damaged. Also remember that, unlike the other painting mediums, oil and water should never be mixed. If you need to make your oil paints a looser consistency, add a medium such as linseed oil.

There’s a whole world of color out there waiting for you to explore, no matter which painting style or medium you choose to use. Get creative and have fun!

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