As a very messy oil painter, I’m always looking for tips that might help me keep my palette better-organized and also keep it a bit cleaner. When I paint even the smallest canvas, I invariably end up with blobs of paints in a variety of shades and tints, and that paint is all over my palette, all over my brushes, and all over me!
Time after time, I clean my palette — and my brushes as best I can — and I vow to be more careful in the future, to be more mindful of where I’m putting my paints and how I’m mixing them. And then, time after time, I find myself with another big mess despite my good intentions.
Mixing oil paint sounds like a simple enough process, right? Well, that depends on whether you’re considering the basic techniques of mixing paint or whether you’re exploring the color wheel, learning about the properties of various pigments, and getting a grasp on the science of color theory. The first is simple; the latter is daunting.
I’ve studied color theory, and I know the basics plus maybe a little more. I’m coming to terms with warm colors, cool colors, and the idea of color relativity — which means that a warm color can have cool undertones or conversely a cool color can have warm undertones. But I’m not going into all of that today. You can find a lot of information online. Let me repeat that with a bit of emphasis. You can find a lot of information online. Maybe more than you want or need.
For starters, if you really want to understand all those important points of light-fastness, the different terminology of pigment naming, and why you should probably just buy your own earth tones instead of mixing them, you might want to check out this Oil Paint Mixing Guide.
In case you’re curious, the reason it’s better to buy earth tones and browns rather than mixing them is because those pre-mixed pigments are usually less expensive than the pure primary hues. so it can be more costly to mix your own.
And another thing I learned from the article… did you know that “lake” means that a solid dye was used, therefore the color might not be quite so lightfast? I had no idea. All this time I thought “Green Lake” was just a lovely, uh, yeah, green lake.
Who knew? Obviously, I didn’t.
But I’ll be honest here. A lot of that technical and scientific information goes over my head. I suppose that a truly dedicated artist would spend time reading, studying, and getting a good understanding of all those facts. Well, you know me… not exactly the best art student in the world. I read and study enough to give me a general understanding. That’s enough for me. Maybe a time will come when I want to know more and if and when that time comes, I’ll be able to quickly go online and find the information.
What I’m more interested in right now, and what is most helpful for me, is simply looking at mixing paint from the physical standpoint. How to mix oil paint might seem obvious to some of you. You put one color down on the palette, you squeeze out another color, and you mix them together. Well, yes, that’s what you do. I really needed more of the how than the what, and so I went looking for some very basic information.
Fortunately, I found it! Along with all that highly-detailed, overly technical information about pigment specifications and color properties, I did come across a few simple explanations on the process of mixing one oil paint into another.
Tip #1 – MIXING PAINT WILL BE MESSY
It’s good to remember this. Oil paint is messy, even the water-soluble paints that I’m using. Instead of trying to not make a mess, I can prepare for the inevitable. That means having cleaning solvents and rags close at hand. It means having a large palette to work on.
By squeezing out a line of paint — rather than just having a daub of it on the palette — it’s easier to mix and easier to keep the colors clean. Always work from the bottom edge. Pick up a small amount of paint and move it to the mixing area. If you do, however, end up accidentally introducing a second color into your line, it’s easy to scrape it away, leaving the rest of the line untouched and still pure in color.
Tip #3 – HAVE A LARGE MIXING AREA
I have a bad habit of crowding my color mixes together. I put a glob of paint down and attempt mixing a second color right into it. All of which is wrong, wrong, wrong. I need a large mixing area where I can pick up a small amount of the first color, pick up a small amount of the second color, and mix them together. I need to remember to have a separate area for the colors I’m using on my palette and another area for mixing.
Tip #4 – USE ENOUGH PAINT
When picking paint up and mixing it, be sure you’re getting enough paint. I have a tendency to be skimpy — which is why I so often just mix right into the colors I’ve squeezed out on my palette rather than picking up paint and mixing it in a separate area. I’m working on this. I need to squeeze out larger lines of paint on my palette and then pick up enough paint for proper mixing.
Tip #5 – DON’T MIX WITH PAINT STRAIGHT FROM THE TUBE
Now that you’ve squeezed out those lines of paint, you’ll also want to have a bit of oil painting medium on your palette. Even with the water-soluble paints I use, having a medium is a must for proper mixing. I like to use Liquin. A medium will make it easier to mix paints because it improves the consistency, making the paints a bit more fluid and therefore more mixable.
Tip #6 – USE A PALETTE KNIFE
Seriously, folks, what’s a palette knife for if not for mixing colors on your palette? Well, yes, I know there are lots of answers to that question, but this is a post about paint mixing, so let’s just stay with that. Palette knives are designed for picking up colors and mixing them together. You can use a brush, too, but it’s better to use a palette knife. Here’s why. When you pick paint up with a brush, it’s easy to get paint too far up into the bristles. This makes it difficult to clean the brush. You can also damage the hairs of the brush by getting too rough with it when picking up and mixing paint. A palette knife makes the mixing process much easier, and clean-up is simple. Just take a rag or kitchen towel and give the knife a couple good wipes. Presto! It’s clean again and ready to pick up the next color.
Tip #7 – KEEP YOUR TOOLS CLEAN
Common sense here. Clean your knife after each “pick-up” or mix. Just like with potato chips and French onion dip, avoid double-dipping! Whether you choose to mix with a brush or a palette knife, be sure to clean it between colors.
Tip #8 – START WITH THE LIGHTER COLOR
Many times we’re mixing because we need a lighter tint of a particular hue. Instead of trying to add white, it’s better to start with white and add the second color. Darker colors can be more powerful than we realize. If we start with white, we can gradually add the darker hue until we have exactly what we need. If we start with the darker hue and try to add white, we’ll probably end up wasting a lot of paint because we’ll have to add such a large amount of white to create the light tint we’re looking for.
Tip #9 – MIX OR MARBLE
There are two ways to mix oil paints. You can mix them thoroughly so that you have a single new color blend, or you can mix them less thoroughly and create a “marbled” paint. Sometimes those marbled paints are fun. They can add interesting effects to our paintings. If that’s what you want, that’s how you should mix. But if you’re really wanting to mix a color, then be sure you’re mixing it well enough to create an even hue. Here again, you’ll want to use your palette knife, not a brush.
Tip #10 – MIX TOWARD THE CENTER
As you’re mixing, use your knife to scrape paint from the outside toward the inside. Remember to have enough paint. Keep mixing until you have either the smooth color blend you want or the marbled effect you’re looking for.
Mixing oil paints is always fun, but it’s always been problematic for me. I am messy. I do get careless. I tend to skimp on paints, and I usually pick up a brush rather than a palette knife. I’ve got a lot of bad habits that I need to break!
I think today I’ll set aside a little time just for color mixing. I have lots of old canvas panels around the studio that are great for doing quick studies and practices. I’m going to go through all of these tips and have a little fun with my paints.