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Watercolor, Mixing Your Colors On the Paper

Updated: Aug 20, 2018

Watercolor is such an interesting medium. A few characteristics that make watercolor so enjoyable is how light glows through transparent colors so beautifully, and the unique way water and color can flow together and dry with a dreamy, wet look.  

Another trait of watercolor that makes it fun to work with is the ability to mix colors on the paper. Of course some mixing on the palette is necessary but some times I find myself doing most of my mixing on the paper itself.

As you see below, My palette doesn't have a lot of mixing room. My colors tend to stay pretty clean because I mix on the paper so much. It is helpful to have a tray though for times when I need to mix more neutrals.

This photo shows mixing on the paper a nice subtle variation, not over blending but blending enough so the colors don't contrast too much with each other..

Mixing on your watercolor palette will give you a flat, solid color which at times is appropriate and it tends to be more still and flat than when you have subtle variations of colors showing through within a color. There is a balance, some areas on a painting will need to be more flat, calm, and dull but some areas need a little more life, movement, and excitement to them. Just being aware as you paint to get the right balance is important, if you don't blend enough there may be too much contrast between the colors and it will create too much activity and demand too much attention but if you overblend, then it's dull and lifeless and oftentimes too still and empty. But there seems to be more of a tendancy to overblend than to not blend enough.

In the mix in this photo there are the same colors as in the photo above but they are totally mixed together.

This watercolor technique is something I use in all my paintings and it is a pleasure using it for skin tones on portraits even. You can see that demonstrated in the Portrait of Harper video in my Online Watercolor Classes.

In the close up of my watercolor portrait below, "Token of Honor," you can see the greens and reds that make up the skin tones, the variations of colors give the portrait more life and realism. Green and red make the browns. 

Another fun thing about mixing colors like this is the many different ways you can make the same color. For example, if you want a Burnt Sienna color you can of course use Burnt Sienna but you can also make a similar color by mixing two colors together.

Such as Orange and Ultramarine Blue, or Red and Green, or Magenta and Warm Green.

You may have to work a little bit to get the precise colors to end up with a Burnt Sienna brown. A helpful way to find out what two colors will make the color you want is to take a color wheel, put a straight line on top of your desired color, say Burnt Sienna for example, and any colors the two ends of your straight line points to should have the potential to make a color similar to Burnt Sienna. It doesn't work perfect all the time, but it will get you close and you may need to work with it a little to figure it out.

The good thing about this is that you can make colors harmonize well in your painting and make your colors more effective at evoking the feeling you want the viewer to sense. For example If the dominant color of your painting is green, you may want to use red and green together to make your browns, but if your dominant color is blue you may want to use blue and orange to make your browns, or if your dominant color is magenta you may want to use yellow and magenta to get your browns. Or you could use Burnt Sienna effectively too but by making brown out of the colors in your painting it will harmonize and give subtle variety of color which adds beauty to a painting!  


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