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Oil Painting: Color Mixing, Mixing wonderful Grays

Mixing those Wonderful Grays


Colors in nature are rarely straight out of the tube. Your primary and secondary colors are too intense to look natural. When painting, you are constantly modifying your colors and graying their intensity to create paintings that are harmonious.

First, let’s look at the definitions of color.

Primary Colors – These colors cannot be mixed. They are the colors from which all other colors are made. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary Colors – These colors are mixed from the primary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary Colors – These colors are the steps between the primary and secondary colors. The tertiary colors are red-orange, yellow-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, yellow-green, and blue-green.

Complementary Colors – Colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel. The complement of red is green. The complement of blue is orange.

Analogous Colors – Colors near one another on the color wheel. The analogous colors of red are purple and orange. The analogous colors of green are yellow and blue.

Each color has three characteristics.

Hue- The hue of a color is what color family the color belongs to. Is it red, yellow, blue, green, orange, or purple?

Value – How dark or light a color is.

Chroma – Is the intensity of a color, how bright or dull a color is.

Grays are essential to give your painting structure and depth. Grays are more than those neutral battleship grays. Every color has its highest saturation point or intensity. As the intensity of a color drops, it is referred to as being “grayed down”. Browns are actually dark reds or oranges, where the intensity and value have been lowered.

Anytime you want to knock down the intensity of a color, in other words, create “grayed color”, add the color’s complementary color. For instance, if you want to make a red less intense add green and you will get grayed reds. Continue adding green and you will get brown, which is also a grayed red. The opposite is also true adding red to green will give you more subdued greens.

Neutral Gray

Pushing a color more towards neutral gray is a multi-step process (and can be tricky for beginners). First add the color’s complement (such as green added to red), which will give you a red-brown or green-brown. Next add its analogous color (in this example, blue or violet will work). Adding the analogous color will neutralize your mixture’s intensity even more. Then add white to lighten the color, because most neutral grays are a middle to light value. To simplify:

Primary + compliment = brown.

Brown + analogous color = more grayed, less intense color. Add white to change its value (lighten).

This takes practice and experience. In our example above, where we grayed a red by adding green (its complement) we can push it more towards neutral gray, by adding an analogous color, such as blue, and white. Again, with white, you change the mixture’s value, with the analogous color (blue in this example) you change the color’s hue slightly. Keep going and eventually, you will get a neutral gray, but notice the range of color between red and neutral gray. Use this technique to achieve colors in that range.

Get out your paints and practice mixing color with their complementary colors. See the variations of color you can make. The possibilities are endless.

Video on Mixing Grays

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