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Color Mixing and Theory in Oil Painting

While learning about the various brushes and mediums was a bit confusing, the biggest challenge for me was how to accurately depict nature and other real life objects on canvas using color.

How do I make a color lighter or darker? What about making realistic shadows or highlights? This article will shed some colorful light on the situation, and with practice, working with color in your oil paintings will become easier and more enjoyable.

Thank God for the beautiful Sun, for without it, we would not see color. Everything would appear dark and colorless.

Thankfully, the light from the Sun also travels in a straight line. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have the wonderful variety of light and shadow that makes everything so enjoyable to paint.

If you take an apple for instance, and put it outside in the grass in the sunlight, you will notice several different values that the light creates when shining on the apple.

You have the main overall tone of the apple, the shadow on the apple, the cast shadow, reflection from nearby objects like the green grass and the sky, and highlights. Our job as painters is to accurately depict these values on canvas using color.

There are so many different oil colors on the market today. All of these different colors come from the six colors that make up the spectrum – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.

Colors have four main properties – value, intensity, temperature and hue. The value of a color refers to how light or dark a color is. The intensity of a color refers to how bright or dull it is – also known as a colors saturation or purity. If you used yellow straight from the tube, it would have a higher intensity then if you mixed it with white. The temperature refers to how warm or cool a color is. Colors range in temperature from warm yellows and oranges to cool blues and violets. Finally, the hue is just another word for color. An apple and a cherry are both hues of red.

Color mixing is not an exact science. Artists have different formulas and methods for mixing and applying paint, so the following tips are general guidelines and not necessarily rules that must be followed.

When mixing colors don’t over mix. Over mixing a color will take the life out of it.

To create highlights in your paintings, use white with a touch of the objects complimentary color. There are some exceptions however. When painting highlights on certain objects like brass for instance, which can be depicted on canvas using yellow, making a lighter yellow tinted with white can create a convincing highlight.

Cast shadows of objects are complimentary to the color that the shadow is cast upon. For instance, the cast shadow of a red apple on a blue tablecloth would be orange.

To get any desired color, try to mix as few colors as possible.

Try to keep the theme of your painting either all warm or all cool in temperature.

Again, color mixing is not an exact science. If you survey 10 artists and ask them various questions about mixing oil paint, you will likely get many different answers. My advice is to keep painting and practicing until you develop your own formulas and techniques that you are comfortable with. Happy Painting and God Bless!