Mixing watercolors guide for beginners

Mixing watercolors guide for beginners

Mixing Watercolors Guide

As a teacher of watercolor I often see beginner students struggle mixing watercolors. This is one of the things that you can quickly correct. Firstly, I'll give you 12 important points that will improve your mixing and then we'll do some fun but simple mixing watercolors exercises.

12 important points before we begin mixing watercolors

So perhaps what I am going to write here is too obvious. In that case please skip ahead to the actual mixing exercises. But having seen beginner students not do these things and suffer as a result made me decide to mention them here. 

Point 1 Get a really good palette.

Point 2 Good paints

Point 3 A good set up (and waterproof surface)

Point 4 Don’t  be a scrooge with the paint

Point 5 Make a puddle

Point 6 Don’t make the puddle all the same color

Point 7 If you grab too much paint scenario

Point 8 If your mix goes way wrong

Point 9 Use your rag

Point 10 Scrap paper

Point 11 Tubes versus pans

Point 12 Use a limited palette (also a limited number of brushes)

Point 1  Get a really good palette.

Don’t worry about the price because it will probably cost about only $25 and last for years.

Having a good palette is going to make mixing paint so much easier.

These are the 4 characteristics of a good palette:

1 Plastic versus metal.

2 Just a few, deep mixing areas (e.g. 3).

3 No more than about 10 to 15 painting slots.

4 A lid

Here are my reasons:

1 Plastic versus metal

I recommend a plastic palette rather than a metal one. Metal ones get very hot outside in summer and burn your hand. They also dint easily.

2 Just a few, deep mixing areas

My palette has just 3 mixing areas. If your palette has a lot of wells it means there is little space for creating a big puddle and you often need to create a big puddle of paint. Also the mixing spaces need to be deep so you can create a super big mix if necessary. 

3 No more than 10 to 15 painting slots 

You really don’t need more than 10 slots for landscape painting.

I normally use about 7 colors for all my paintings. If you click here you can see how much color you can achieve with just 3 colors so don’t over complicate things and make it more likely that you will fail.

4 A lid

And ideally you want a plastic palette with a lid so that when you finish painting you don’t have to clean your palette. It also means you can use that paint again the next time you paint. If it has dried simply wet it with the brush or spray it with your water bottle. 

Of course, if you have a big runny mix you have to soak up the excess liquid with a tissue.

The lid also prevents my paint from drying out quickly. I could put some moist tissue in there to keep it mosit even longer but I never do.

My recommend palette

Here is an Amazon link to the type of palette I use and recommend.

The other advantage of my palette is that it has a tray which I can put my rag and water bottle on.

Point 2 Good paints

Hopefully it goes without saying that you need to buy artist quality paints and not student quality paints. Don’t handicap yourself by using poor quality paints. I use Holbein because they are great quality but also one of the cheapest brands - I also live in Japan and they are made in Japan which is one reason they are cheaper.

Point 3  A good set up for mixing

I talk about this in the first video. But it is so important that I will mention it again.

It sounds so simple but many beginner students don’t think about the layout of their materials. As a result they are often distracted from focusing on their painting because they are searching for their water bucket which is sometimes quite far from them and they are even having to stretch over the paper which increases the chance of spilling paint on your work of art. And often they are not even using their rag.

When you set up to paint, always layout your paper, palette, rag and water bucket in the most easy to navigate way possibly and then stick to the arrangement. My arrangement above is for a right handed person, a left handed person just has to do it the opposite way).

Point 4  Don’t  be a scrooge with the paint

I see students squeeze out these minuscule amounts of paint onto their palette. Normally they squeeze them into the mixing area and not the painting slots.

Then with these tiny amounts of paint they make washed out paintings. They are washed out because there is almost no color in them. This should be called water painting rather than watercolor painting.

No doubt being a scrooge with the paint will save you some money. But if you end up with washed out looking paintings then what are you really doing, you’re just wasting your time and money.

So you need to squeeze out a big dollop into the paint niches. You can use this paint again for future painting. Yes, after painting, it will dry. But when you go to use it again simply spray it and it will soften or use a moist brush. 

In truth, you should fill these paint slots so that you don’t waste time by continually having to reach for the paint tube - which is disastrous to do if you are in the middle of mixing paint. It’s something you do before you start painting - so make that a habit.

Also the order you put your paint in on the palette is very important as it makes looking for colors easy and thus allows you to focus on the more essential act of mixing and painting. Often in watercolor painting you have to paint things quickly and any delays can lead to a failed painting.

The ordering of my paints in the palette is first browns, then bright colors (e.g. yellow, orange and red) and then cools (e.g. blues and green).

Point 5  Make a puddle not a smear

When you make a mix don’t make a tiny mix in the mixing area. Have a big puddle of paint. This is because you don’t want to have to make a new mix when you are painting something as the time it takes to do that means your paint on the paper is drying out. Once you paint has dried out too much it is game over. 

So you need a ready supply. It’s okay to add more color to the mix but have something there rather than be starting again from scratch.

Point 6  Don’t make the puddle all the same color

I know that I mentioned this already when talking about the basics of mixing but it is such an important point.

And this is a mistake I see students make time and time again. Say for example, they want to make green. They get some yellow and make a puddle of yellow by adding some water. Then they add some blue. Normally putting it right in the middle of the yellow and then they mix the whole thing until it is all the same color.

What you should do is add the blue paint NEXT to the puddle of yellow and not in the middle. Then slowly add some of the yellow to the blue until you get the desired green you wish.

If your mix is not enough then simply go through the same process again. So make the puddle of yellow, then get the blue and add it next to the yellow.

Point 7  If you grab too much paint scenario

Again I already mentioned this, but it is important and often a big worry of students.

Often I see students grab too much paint, then they look unsure. I guess they are thinking I don’t want to waste this. And yes you can just put some of it back into the paint slot. 

But you can also wipe it off in a clean space of your mixing well and even use it later. 

But what most students do is decide to just stick it into what they are mixing and then end up with a color they didn’t want to get. 

You can even wipe the paint off on your rag. 

But the important thing is to not stick all of it into your mix if it is too much.

Point 8  If your mix goes way wrong

If your mix goes way wrong then you can just wipe it off with a tissue and start again.

Point 9  Use your rag

I often see students not using their rag. It is essential to use the rag. 

Your rag often acts like a brake. For example, if your brush is too wet then dab it on the rag. 

And if you are making a mix of two colors and you don’t want to dirty the second color then you need to wash out your brush and dab it on the rag. I see many students though who wash their brush out but don’t use the rag. This leads to messy paint slots.

Also when beginners are making their mix because they don’t use the rag to remove excess water their mixes often become too watery. Sometimes you want a thick mix and so you need to wipe the brush on the rag.

Also there are many times when before putting the brush to the paper you want to just dab it on the rag because it is carrying a little too much water - this is especially true if you are painting wet-in-wet.

Also when you make mixes it is essential to use the rag as this allows you to control the wateriness of the mix. I am often playing with dipping my brush in the water, wiping a little or a lot on my rag and then picking up paint and adding it to the mix.

If my mix gets too watery I might even soak a lot of it up with my brush and dump it onto my rag. 

Point 10  Scrap paper

Always have some scrap paper next to your painting so that you can test out your colors and see how they will really look. I use multi-media paper that is suitable for light watercolor painting and is half the price of watercolor paper. Sometimes I use scrap watercolor paper too.

Point 11  Tubes versus pans

So I always recommend tubes. They are just easier to use as they are already in liquid form. With pans you have to wet them and it takes longer to build up a big puddle. And if you have to suddenly use another color then with tube paint this is not a problem but with pans you have to soften them - it simply takes too long and becomes a hassle.

Point 12  Use a limited palette

In the picture below you can see how I made 12 new colors from mixing just 3 colors. So when we start mixing with 6 or more colors the range of colors we can achieve becomes huge. It also becomes too complicated. As a beginner learning the basics of watercolor painting, such as mixing, using first just one color, then two, and then three is the best way to begin. When you hit 3 colors you will be amazed at the variety of colors you can create. Also there will be more harmony between the colors with a limited palette. Just look at the painting below to see how many colors you can produce with three. And in the video below you can see 12 paintings of different scenes done with just 3 colors.

Once you’ve mastered mixing and gotten very familiar with a few paints then gradually start adding a new one and then you won’t get overwhelmed and frustrated and also you’ll know your colors better. All the colors have a unique character and it is essential if you want to be a good watercolor artist to know the character of each color.

Now we are ready to mix some paint.

Mixing one color

It may sound silly to say mixing one color but of course you are mixing two ingredients, namely: pigment and water. So even though it’s only one color we are still mixing.

Here is a step-by-step description of how to mix one color.

1   Thoroughly wet your brush with clean water

Put your brush deep into the water bucket and swish it around so that the water permeates all the hairs and makes all the hairs come together. The hairs coming together will give your brush a nice point or edge which is essential for painting nice lines. (Note: now and again keep checking that your brush hairs are slightly wet and together rather than looking like a worn out toothbrush.)

2  Create a puddle of water

Put your water heavy brush into a mixing well of your palette and then tap your brush against the palette to knock water off and into the palette where it begins to create a puddle. You can repeat this a few times if you are making a really big or a really water mix.

3  Picking up paint with a moist brush

Then it’s time to pick up some pigment. Before you do this, though, dab your brush on the rag to remove excess water. But don’t dab or wipe too much as you still want the brush to be moist. 

4  Picking up paint with a hake versus a mop

Then pick up some paint from the palette. I find it easier to pick up paint with a hake (a flat brush) than a mop.

5  Decide on how much pigment you need to pick up 

Then you put this in the watery puddle. If you want a weak mix then pick up just a little pigment and if you want a thick mix then pick up a lot more paint. It sounds simple but in practice it is tricky at first.

6  What to do if you pick up too much pigment

If you pick up too much paint then either wipe it off in a clean area of your palette where you can use it again later or if there are no clean spaces simply wipe it off on your rag (you can also try to put it back in the slot where you keep the paint - just scrape along the top edge of the slot).

7  What to do if your mix is too watery

Keep adding pigment if your mix is too watery. If, though, it is way too watery then soak up some of the mix with your brush and wipe it off on your rag which will absorb the water. And then start adding pigment. Or just start a new mix in another part of the palette. Or just wipe up the whole watery mix with a tissue and begin again.

Mixing one color video exercise.

Here is a video exercise to help you practice at mixing one color with different degrees of intensity. The one color is Yellow Ocher by Holbein.

Mixing two colors

When you mix two colors you are basically doing the same as above. But there are a few more important points.

1     Begin mixing with the lighter color

When you make a mix of two colors, it is best to start with the lighter color and then use the darker one. For example, if you are mixing a green from yellow and blue, then it is best to start with yellow and then use green. The reason is that the blue will soon contaminate the yellow and make it “dirty”.

2 Pick up paint with a moist brush 

When you have created a mix of one color and are going to add another color some artists will just directly pick up the next color. I sometimes do this. But if my brush is very water heavy then I will wipe it on the rag first before picking up some more paint. It is true that I am wasting some pigment in doing this but that is what I often do.

3 Don’t discolor your lighter colors

If I have mixed my green in the example in point 1 but now want to add more yellow because the green is too dark then I will wash my brush out, dab it on the rag, and then pick up yellow paint with my clean brush. Again, I am losing some pigment in doing this but I dislike dirtying my lighter colors e.g. yellow ocher and yellows. With other colors, especially strong blues and reds, I am not so bothered as these colors don’t contaminate so easily.

4 Don’t mix the 2 colors completely at first

This final point is in my opinion the most essential one to be made here. When I pick up my second color and add it to the mix with my first color I don’t normally stick the second color slap bang in the middle of the mix. Instead, I put it next to the mix. This allows me in a controlled way to slowly mix the colors together until I get exactly the color I want. Many beginners just mix the whole thing together. If I get the color I want and there is enough mixture then I won’t mix anymore. If I don’t have enough of the mix then I will repeat the whole process again but in larger amounts. Of course, I will wash out my brush thoroughly and dab it on the rag and then begin. And I will still use the mix I have created.

Mixing two colors video exercise.

Here is a video exercise to practice mixing two colors with different degrees of intensity. The two colors are Phthalo blue (red shade) and Alizarin Crimson Permanent by Holbein.

Mixing three colors

When you mix three colors you are basically doing the same as mixing two.

However, with 3 primary colors you are able to create in theory every color, so only shades of red, blue and yellow but also purple, orange and green as well as brown, gray and black. And all kinds of color in between.

1 Always add a new color NEXT To your main mix

As with mixing two colors I always add the new color next to the main mix and gradually mix the two colors together in a controlled way. This means I will sometimes have a puddle that is red on one side, blue on another and yellowish on another side and somewhat gray or purple in the middle.

2 Have a special place on your palette for your lightest colors and your darkest

The most important point in this part is how you use the mixing space of your palette. I have three spaces in my palette, two are small and one is big. In one of the two small spaces I mix my lightest colors: basically yellow. In the second of the two small spaces, I mix oranges and reds. In the big space, I mix my light colors, such as yellow, and my oranges and reds, with blue - this is where my dark colors get made. The reason for this is that it is so easy to contaminate the lighter mixes and so I keep them separate.

3 Warm and cool browns and grays

The second most important point is that when you mix all three colors you can make a huge number of brownish and grayish colors. These colors are interesting because they can be warmish grays that lean more towards having a lot of red in them, or bluish grays which have more blue in them. With browns you can have more yellowish brown, redder browns or bluer browns.

Mixing three colors video exercise

Here is a video exercise to practice mixing three colors to create many different colors. The three colors are Phthalo blue (red shade) Alizarin Crimson Permanent and Yellow ocher.

The importance of mixing with just a few colors

To begin with I recommend that you only practice mixing with a few colors. In this way, you will really understand well about the character of your colors and also how to mix them to get your desired color. It will also be a quicker way to learn as you won't be over-complicating things. Then as you get familiar with 3 colors begin adding an extra one. I would recommend adding the following colors one by one: aureolin (a yellow), pyrrole red and cerulean blue.

 You will be surprised by what you can paint with only 3 colors. Below is a painting done with just 3 colors. You can see many more paintings done with 3 colors here.

Simple painting of figures on a beach

Happy watercolor adventures,


Gareth Naylor 

I am an Englishman living and painting in Japan. I have now been here for over 17 years and have been painting for all that time. I love to travel around the Japanese countryside and find beautiful places to paint.

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