Nuancier saturé

Mixing watercolors : some thoughts

Watercolor is a treatcherous technique ; one of its many caveheats is about mixing colours. As a result, it is common to end up with muddy colors ; more generally, the result will lack luminosity. In this article I present you with finding that might as well solve these issues.

Hot and cold

During school art classes, we are being taught a tradition repartition of color temperature, as illustrated below :

Traditional reparition of hue temperature
Traditional reparition of hue temperature

To put it in a nutshell :

  • Colors shifting towards yellow and red are “warm”
  • Colors shifting towards green and blue are “cold”

This point of view is way too simplistic, sadly. How about brown and purple, for instance ?

Actually, I found out that warm and cold hues exist for each color. Take a simple watercolor kit :

Basic watercolor kit
Okay, this one is getting old …

(For the ones who ask, you can find this low-entry kits at Rougié et Plé, at least in France)

When I foirst started, I thought these provided two versions of a color : a light one and a dark one. Little did I know that in fact it is a warm hue and a cold one for each color. Therefore, here is a more intersting take on hues temperature :

Each color has warm and cold hues
Each color has warm and cold hues.

Now that was have set up this base, let us look at the color mixing part I promised.

How to avoid muddy watercolor mixes

A muddy color is the outcome of a mix which is going to shift towards grey, brown, or military green. More specifically, it is a muted and de-saturated tone. Here is a color wheel featuring muddy mixes :

Muddy color mixes
Muddy color mixes

Let us be clear : muddy colours are not a bad thing. What is, is obtaining them unwillingly. I witnessed a general rule : whenever mixing a color with another, which shifts towards the complementary color of the first one, the outcome will be muddy. Here are two examples :

  • Warm red, shifting towards yellow-orange + cold purple shifting towards blue
  • Warm blue, shifting towards purple + warm green, shifting towards yellow

This is all very interetsing, you say, but how do we get bright colors ? Here is another rule I witnessed : mixing a color which shifts towards the color you are mixing it with, which shifts towards the first color. I know it sounds a bit confusing that way, that why I laid down a couple examples :

  • Turquoise blue, shifting towards green + viridian, which shifts towards blue
  • Lemon yellow, shifting towards green + sap green, which shifts towards yellow
  • Carmine red, shifting towards purple + warm pruple, shifting towards red

On a color wheel, here is the outcome :

Bright color wheel
Bright color wheel

As I said earlier though, muddy colors are not a bad thing ; therefore, I am going to tell you about how they may be used.

Fifty shades darker

Bright colors are very good to picture areas bathed in light. Muted colors are, on the other hand, perfect to work on shadows, especially when trying to replace black. The overall render gets more subtle and gains depth. Surprisingly, shadows look less muddy !

That is not all. I just mentionned replacing black. This goes for the whole grey range. Indeed, a muted, well-dosed mix allows  for a whole de-saturated color panel ; if you are still with me, you know that these greys may be either warm or cold. Here is a sample of colorful greys that may be crafted :

Colorful greys swatch
Colorful greys swatch

Colorful greys may be used in all kinds of effects, my favourite being atmospheric renders. By the way, you may see them in my gallery.

Color knowledge in your practice

Did this article help you with your own color mixes ? Are your colors now brighter, and your shadows deeper ? Do tell us in the comments !

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