Mixing Watercolors with a Limited Color Palette

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Understanding how colors work and how to mix them to get exactly the color you want is a very important skill in painting. Mixing watercolors, or any kind of paint, in the beginning can be a challenge. But, with a little knowledge of the basic color wheel, and a few tips on how to get some common colors, you’ll be much more confident in mixing the paint to get your desired results!

For this exercise you will need:

  • A set of watercolors – You can use whatever you have available, however a set of essential primary colors is recommended; that is at least 1 red, yellow, and blue color. I’ll be using Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Rose, and Hansa Yellow Light Daniel Smith watercolor tubes, which are actually quite close to the Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow colors found in a printer. They’re very flexible when it comes to mixing colors!
  • Watercolor paper – I’m using 9×12″ Arteza watercolor paper that I cut into smaller pieces.
  • A flat brush – you could also use a round brush (and might want to for the color studies later on), but flat ones work best for painting the square swatches for practice.
  • Paint Palette (something white)
  • Container of water
  • Paper towels – to absorb excess water from your brush or the paper.

*More info on what kind of watercolor supplies to get here.

These are the 3 primary colors I used for this tutorial: Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Rose, and Hansa Yellow Light. Notice how close they look to the Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow found in a printer.

Some notes on the paint colors and pigments:

Paint colors are made out of certain minerals to create their pigments. Some are unique, others are a mix of multiple pigments premixed into one tube or pan.

Depending on the colors of paint you have, you may be limited with the pigments. Sometimes it can be very hard or impossible to get certain colors because you don’t have the right pigments. But just do your best! This is a learning experience, and you will improve doing the exercise regardless of the colors used.

Experiment with different color pigments in the future, to see how they interact with one another, you may get more accurate results to what you’re trying to paint.

Why use a limited color palette?

Well, you absolutely can buy that set of 60 unique colors! BUT… most likely you’ll still have to mix here and there to get the exact color you’re looking for. Even with a large set of paints. And if you’re a beginner, it’s good to learn the skill of working with a limited color palette.

Pros to working with a limited color palette:

  • More variety by mixing your own.
  • Creates more uniqueness to a piece.
  • Avoid that obvious “straight out of the tube” look.
  • Teaches you how to work with colors better and develop an understanding for how different shades are made.

Cons:

  • Harder to get the exact same color mixed when you need more of it. If you are going to use a LOT of one specific color in a piece, then I do recommend buying it directly in a tube or pan.
  • Takes longer to have to do a lot of mixing.
  • Can be frustrating starting out if you’re unable to get the color you want.

*Also of note, using a limited color palette doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always be using the same 3 colors. It just means you are limiting yourself to a small amount of colors, and that you may be doing a lot of mixing with your watercolors to get other shades.

Basic Primary Color Mixing

So if you’re a complete beginner to mixing watercolors, I highly suggest starting with the following steps and tutorials:

  1. Create a color swatch chart of all your paints. This is so that you know exactly what your paint colors look like on paper, which is different than in the pans or tubes.
  2. Next, create a simple color wheel using your primary colors. This will show you how these basic colors blend together. You don’t have to make any fancy color wheels, although you can certain get creative if you want! But for this exercise, all that’s important is to see how these colors interact with each other. You can keep the color wheels very simple, you don’t have to draw any lines…in fact they don’t even have to be perfect circles! 🙂
simple color wheels
Examples of some simple color wheels that I made to see the interaction of different reds, yellows, and blues with each other.

Different reds, blues, and yellows will create different different secondary colors. You won’t always get the same purple by combining different reds and blues! As you can see from the example I posted above, Quinacridone Rose and Phthalo Blue created a nice, traditional purple; while Pyrrol Scarlet and Phthalo Blue created more of a brownish purple.

Doing this color wheel exercise will teach you how to get all the vibrant secondary and tertiary colors of the rainbow. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple.

Mixing Desaturated colors

What about brown? Or grey? Or ….dull, desaturated colors? So they’re a bit trickier! To get any type of “desaturated” colors, you’ll have to mix certain amounts of all 3 primary colors.

You might have heard people say that their colors get “muddy”, if they don’t clean their palettes or brushes off that often. Well it’s because that all the paints they put there start to get a little mixed..and it starts to look like mud–or brownish. This is what happens when you mix all 3 primary colors. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you want to get that color. What’s important is that you learn how to control it, and create that color purposefully.

One thing you have to be aware of is that each color tends towards either more warm, or cool values. Every color has a percentage of Red, Yellow, and/or Blue in it.

Browns

We’ll start with brown as an example.

Brown is a duller form of orange. So your first step in creating brown would be to mix red and yellow. How much of each of those depends on if it’s a reddish or yellowish brown. Ask yourself, “Is this brown reddish? Or more blue? Does it have a lot of yellow in it?”.

These are some browns I mixed. The 2 colors on the very left are red & yellow with no blue mixed at all. The top colors have more red in them, the bottoms have more yellow. More blue is added the further to the right the colors get. The colors at the very end at the right hand side create nice blacks.

To make brown colors:

  • Mix red and yellow together to create orange.
  • Next, add a touch of blue to it. Just a little! Blue can easily take over and over power the other colors. Don’t worry though if you do add too much of any one color. You can always balance it back out by adding more of the other colors.
  • Play around with adding different amounts of each color to create a range of browns.

Other Desaturated Colors

As far as duller, desaturated reds, greens, blues etc.. colors go, they still contain a certain amount of each primary in them, just like with creating brown, only you put more of whatever color you want to be dominate in it.

Some examples of desaturated colors, from left to right: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.
  • If it’s a desaturated blue? Mix yellow, red, and blue; but put more blue paint than the others.
  • If it’s a desaturated purple? Mix all 3 colors again, but predominately red & blue.
  • Desaturated yellow? You’ll only need a tiny amount of red & blue, the main color will be yellow. And so on…

Greys

Greys are the most neutral of colors. I’m sure you’ll have black paint in your palette, but know that you can get a convincing grey color from mixing red, yellow, and blue! And greys can be warm or cool too, so it can add more life to your piece if you do mix it yourself, instead of just watering down your black paint.

Warmer greys on the left with more red in them, yellows towards the middle, and cooler greys with blue being dominate on the right.

So to create a grey, start the same way you created brown or any duller color.

  • Take all 3 primary colors and mix them together.
  • Is it looking too brown? Then add more blue. This will neutralize it to become more grey.
  • Is it too red? Add more blue, and maybe some more yellow.
  • Just how much of each color is a balancing skill that you’ll need to learn by doing.

Of course, you can refer to color charts on percentages of each color you need to mix in order to get a certain color. But if you can see the difference in values with your eyes, it will be so much more valuable to you! Especially with watercolors where you may be glazing colors over each other or mixing directly on paper sometimes.

Color Studies

After you’ve experimented with mixing a bunch of color swatches, it’s time to try mixing colors from a photo, or from life. You can use objects you have around the house if you want to set up a still life. I do recommend that to start with you use artificial lights if you’re a beginner however, because the sunlight will move pretty quickly, changing the colors of things in a landscape or even through a window, which can make things a bit difficult until you get used to it.

An example color study I did from a photo. These are only about 2.5 x 3 inches in size.

I suggest doing these on small pieces of watercolor paper. That’s so you don’t focus on details. These are just “color studies”, meant to learn more about mixing watercolors, and trying to get the colors you want. Don’t worry about anything else!

Steps in order from top left to bottom right:

  1. The photo I was referencing. I chose this because it has all muted colors, good practice for mixing! The elements (sky/mountains/trees) are all nicely separated too, good for a practice piece.
  2. In watercolors it’s good to work light to dark. So I started here on the pinks and oranges of the sky by mixing red & yellow, and a tiny bit of blue into it.
  3. I added more blue to the mixture I created in step 1, to cover the rest of the sky.
  4. Next for the mountains, I mixed more blue into the red and yellow. On the right side of the mountains it gets a little bit lighter and a little bit more yellow because of the sun.
  5. The trees were very dark, so I used more concentrations of the pigments(less water), mixing all 3 colors. There are some green bushes showing at the very bottom, so I mixed some green paint there and left it lighter.
  6. To finish, I wanted the sky to be a bit more blue so I took put a little blue on my brush with enough water to create a wash on top of what I already had.
  1. This photo has a bit more saturated colors than the last one.
  2. I started with the sky, painting it with just blue, no mixing.
  3. For the greens I did mix in all 3 colors-using predominately yellow, and it gave it a more olive green appearance. I added more yellow in the center near where those trees are more saturated.
  4. Starting on the rocks with a lot more red paint and some yellow, dulling it down somewhat with a little blue.
  5. More orange colors added to the surrounding rocks.
  6. I needed to dull those orange rocks down a bit, especially as they go off into the distance, so I added some blues and reds to create that purple atmospheric effect. I also added more green to the foreground.

I hope this tutorial helps you out some! If you have any questions, feel free to leave comments below and I’ll answer as soon as I can 🙂


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