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Hints, Tips & Techniques for Colour Mixing

The Practical Applications of Colour Theory

The objective of colour mixing in painting is to create the largest number of options from the minimum number of colours and to be able to mix the colour you want. The ability to succeed depends initially on the quality of the colour. Winsor & Newton was founded in 1832 by two artists determined to improve the range of colours available to painters and provide colours of greater permanence.

Serving these aims decade after decade requires the understanding and application of colour theory by Winsor & Newton to their ranges.

In this section, the practical applications of colour theory are discussed, with reference to the colour names and characteristics of the different media.

Basic Colour Theory

Basic colour gridFor reasons of simplicity, we are taught when young that the three primary colours - red, blue and yellow - are all that are required for colour mixing. In fact, in pigment form every colour has both a masstone and an undertone which is different to the next colour.

Looking at the illustration below, for example, a blue pigment will have either a red undertone or a green undertone in comparison to another blue pigment. French Ultramarine is a red shade blue whilst Prussian blue is a green shade blue.

Green shade blues

The undertone or bias of each colour however, is relative to the next one. For example, Indanthrene Blue, is red shade in comparison to Prussian Blue, but both would be classed as green shade blues. The colour bias is often most easily seen in a tint.

So, red, blue and yellow alone are not the whole story and in fact six colours provide a wider base for colour mixing: a red with a yellow bias, a red with a blue bias, a blue with a green bias, a blue with a red bias, a yellow with a red bias and a yellow with a green bias.



Applying This In Practice

The hue and undertone of each colour are best seen on the Hand Painted Colour Charts produced by Winsor & Newton. Printed tint cards can only indicate hue and undertone as closely as is possible within the limitations of the printing process. 

So, in practice: if an artist wants to mix green; blue and yellow are used. Using the colour grid diagram (see above right), the greenest or cleanest green is made by using a green shade blue and a green shade yellow.

For example, in Artists’ Water Colour, Ultramarine (Green Shade) and Cadmium Lemon. If a red shade blue, French Ultramarine and a red shade yellow, Cadmium Yellow Deep were used instead, a dirty green would result.

Mixing ultramarine (green shade) with cadmium lemon  Mixing french ultramarine with cadmium yellow deep 
Artists Water Colour:
Green made from Ultramarine (green
shade) and Cadmium Lemon
Artists Water Colour:
Green made from French Ultramarine and
Cadmium Yellow Deep

Three Primary Colours

Of course, the use of three primary colours alone remains a good learning exercise. In this case, it is necessary to choose the red, blue and yellow which are the purest, eg. the red which is as far as possible mid way between a blue shade and yellow shade. This ensures the cleanest violets and the cleanest oranges when using only one red.

Theoretically, the three primaries are magenta, cyan and yellow. But, remember that each artists’ colour has a masstone and an undertone; that artists require a package of handling properties and that permanence is also important. The recommended primaries therefore offer the best practical mixing properties combined with permanence wherever possible.

Listed below are the recommended primaries for each Winsor & Newton range:

Artists’ Oil Colour:
Transparent Yellow, Winsor Blue
(red shade) and Permanent Rose.

Artists’ Water Colour:
Winsor Lemon, Winsor Blue
(red shade) and Permanent Rose.

Artists’ Acrylic Colour:
Azo Yellow Medium, Phthalo Blue
Red Shade and Permanent Rose.

Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour:
Lemon Yellow, Phthalo Blue (Red Shade) and Permanent Rose.

Artists’ Oilbar:
Cadmium Lemon, French
Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson.

Griffin Fast Drying Oil Colour:
Winsor Yellow, Phthalo Blue
and Permanent Rose.

Designers’ Gouache:
Primary Yellow, Primary
Blue and Primary Red.

Winton Oil Colour:
Cadmium Lemon Hue, Phthalo
Blue and Permanent Rose.

Cotman Water Colour:
Lemon Yellow Hue, Intense
Blue and Permanent Rose.

Galeria Acrylic Colour:
Lemon Yellow, Winsor Blue and Permanent Rose.

Note; It is often a surprise to artists that Cadmium Red is not recommended as primary red in a three colour selection. Permanent Rose produces much cleaner and brighter violets and oranges, because it is closer to magenta.

Primary coloursArtists' Water Colour primary colours: Permanent Rose, Winsor Blue (red shade), Winsor Lemon

The Six Colour System

A broader spectrum can be mixed with six colours as discussed under Basic Colour Theory earlier. As a learning exercise, the move from three colours to six also begins to  introduce other variables like opacity, tinting strength, drying rate, and granulation, depending on the type of colour used. Here are the recommended six colour palettes:

Artists’ Oil Colour:
Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (green shade), Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red.

Artists’ Water Colour:
Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), Permanent Rose and Scarlet Lake.

Artists’ Acrylic Colour:
Lemon Yellow, Azo Yellow Medium, Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Blue Green Shade, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Light.

Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour:
Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Hue, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue (Red Shade), Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Hue.

Artists’ Oilbar:
Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Pale, French Ultramarine, Manganese Blue Hue, Permanent Magenta and Cadmium Red.

Griffin Fast Drying Oil Colour:
Cadmium Lemon, Winsor Yellow, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Medium.

Designers’ Gouache:
Lemon Yellow, Permanent Yellow Deep, Phthalo Blue, Ultramarine, Scarlet Lake and Alizarin Crimson.

Winton Oil Colour:
Cadmium Lemon Hue, Cadmium Yellow Hue, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Hue.

Cotman Water Colour:
Lemon Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, Ultramarine, Intense Blue, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Hue.

Galeria Acrylic Colour:
Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow
Deep Hue, Ultramarine, Winsor Blue, Permanent Rose and Vermilion Hue.

Other Palettes

Other palettes can be created by individual artists choosing a different selection of six colours. For example, both Winsor Blues rather than an Ultramarine and a Winsor Blue. The variations are endless!

Six colour systems give clean, bright secondary colours but of course this is not enough. The remainder of this section looks at some of the many other reasons why artists will still use more than six colours.

Across The Range Of Hue

Hand painted colour chart of blues
Looking at a Hand Painted Colour Chart, or for example, the range of printed blues from Artists’ Oil Colour above, the relative nature in hue and undertone of each colour is obvious.

In practice, the artist may already have Winsor Blue (Green Shade), yet might use another green shade blue, Prussian Blue, for its lower tinting strength.

The Winsor & Newton range must also offer all artists the opportunity to select the palette of their choice, whatever that may be. Some may prefer to use only a Cerulean Blue in their palette.

Additional colours within the same hue may also be used due to variations in opacity, tinting strength, drying rate, granulation etc. Manganese Blue Hue may be used for its transparency and Cerulean for its opacity, although they are both light blues. Equally, there are greens, violets and oranges which are unique within the spectrum and so artists will supplement their palette with those greens and violets, etc.

Different Names

The names of colours can vary from range to range, for example, Winsor Blue in Galeria Acrylics and Phthalo Blue in Winton Oil Colour are both made from phthalocyanine blue. This is principally for historical reasons; colours were known by different names in different decades. The pigment content of each colour is usually detailed on the tube and can be found on this site on each colour page, in the Composition and Permanence for each range or in the Winsor & Newton catalogue.

Single Pigments

The common understanding that mixing too many colours together results in muddy browns is due to the subtractive nature of colour mixing with paints.

The use of single pigments wherever possible by Winsor & Newton in manufacturing is therefore an important benefit. For example, in Artists’ Water Colour, Scarlet Lake and Winsor Red are included in the range because Scarlet Lake is very yellow whilst Winsor Red is very blue.

The result is two distinct colour positions, each being brighter than an equivalent hue made from more than one pigment. The use of both colours will produce a wider range of mixtures, each being clean and bright.

Scarlet Lake and Winsor Red washes   Scarlet Lake & Winsor Red 

The same principle applies to single pigments in the green, orange and violet areas of the spectrum. These are usually known as secondary colours, however Winsor & Newton ensure that there are also as many single pigment ‘secondaries’ available to the artist as possible.  A single pigment green will provide a more intense (ie. further away from black) colour than if the artist were to try to mix that same green made from blue and yellow.

Winsor Green - blue shade vs. green shadeColours left to right: Winsor Green (blue shade) and Winsor Blue (green shade) mixed with Transparent Yellow

Retaining Intensity

As a general statement the more colours in a mixture, the nearer to black (muddiness) the mixture will become. When mixing you cannot obtain a colour of greater intensity by using a mixture of others.

For example, no colour can be added to a mixture of Davy’s Gray and Cadmium Lemon to regain the intensity of Cadmium Lemon alone.

Illustration of intensity of colourDavy's Grey mixed with Cadmium Lemon cannot retain the intensity of Cadmium Lemon 

Tinting Strength

Every pigment varies in strength. Winsor Blue, for example, has a high tinting strength whilst Terre Verte has a low tinting strength. In other words Winsor Blue will have a dominant effect on any mixtures whilst Terre Verte will not have a significant effect in mixtures. Care is required in colour mixing to avoid the strong colours over-dominating the paint surface. Strong colours can be controlled by adding small amounts to the mixture repeatedly until the required hue is reached.

Example of tinting strengths of coloursLeft to right: 1st mix contains Winsor Blue (green shade) and Transparent Yellow, 2nd mix contains Ultramarine (green shade) and Transparent Yellow 

Alternatively, some artists may choose colours with lower tinting strength, for example, Ultramarine (Green Shade) in preference to Winsor Blue (Green Shade) as it has a lower tinting strength. High tinting strength colours are often high key whilst low tinting strength colours are often low key. As a general guide the following colours tend to have a high tinting strength, relative to other colours of similar hue:

Benzimidazolones: Cadmium Yellows, Oranges & Reds; Winsor (Phthalo) colours; colours pre-fixed with ‘Permanent’ eg. Permanent Alizarin Crimson; Perylenes;

Quinacridone colours: Prussian Blue; Mars colours; Burnt Sienna; Lamp Black and Titanium White.

N.B. Artists’ quality colours generally have higher tinting strength than the equivalent colour in the more moderately priced second quality ranges.  Although this does of course have an effect on colour mixing, providing stronger mixtures, it should not be confused with the relative strength of each pigment. For example, Prussian Blue has a high tinting strength in all ranges.

Value and Chroma - 'High Key and Low Key Colour'

Each pigment has a relative ability to reflect or absorb light (value) and each colour has a relative intensity (chroma). Those which reflect a greater quantity of light or have a high intensity make ‘high key’ colours, for example Cadmium Yellow. Those which absorb less light or have a low intensity make ‘low key’ colours, for example Yellow Ochre.

Although many artists will balance high and low key colour across their paintings, successful works can exploit high key or low key colour throughout.

High key picture    Low key picture 
High Key picture (Alun Foster)    Low Key picture (Wendell Upchurch) 


Every colour is relatively transparent or opaque and this also affects colour mixing. Colours can be optically mixed by layers of transparent colours on the surface rather than directly on the palette. Depth is built up in paintings by this method, it is called ‘glazing’.

Flat areas of colour are achieved by using opaque colours such as cadmiums. The relative transparency or opacity of Winsor & Newton colours is noted on the colour charts.

Using glazing techniques    Using opaque colours 
Using glazing techniques (Stephen Godson)   Using opaque colours (Emma Pearce)

The thickness of the paint film will of course affect the relative transparency. Thin films of colour will tend to be transparent either because they are physically thin or because the colour has been substantially diluted with medium before application. Thick films will always tend to be opaque because of the density of pigment on the surface.

Thin film of paintThin film of French Ultramarine            Thick filmThick film of French Ultramarine

Thick films of transparent colours will actually appear almost black in masstone. Transparent colours can only be seen when light is reflected back through the paint film from the support. In thick films, the light is absorbed and the colour appears dark.

Thick film of Permanent Alizarin CrimsonThick film of Permanent Alizarin Crimson 

When used thinly on black or dark backgrounds, transparent colours will not show as the light is absorbed by the dark surface - typically, a water colour on black paper.  Transparent colours therefore appear brightest on white.

Permanent Alizarin Crimson on blackPermanent Alizarin Crimson on black  Permanent Alizarin Crimson on whitePermanent Alizarin Crimson on white 

In comparison, opaque colours reflect the light from the colour itself and appear bright on any surface. Opaque colours will also appear very bright when surrounded by black because the light is being reflected by the colour and absorbed by the black.

Cadmium Red Deep in whiteCadmium Red Deep on white           Cadmium Red Deep on blackCadmium Red Deep on black 


The temperature of a colour is a term used by artists which refers to the general undertone in terms of red (warm) and blue (cold). The use of temperature descriptions in painting may be useful generally but it is not accurate in the more complex applications of colour mixing.

Complementary colour wheelComplementary Colours

Complementary colours are used in colour mixing for intense darks. Mixing red with green, blue with orange or yellow with violet will all give deep, dark colours. These intense darks would not be achieved simply by the addition of black.

For example, mixing Burnt Umber with Ultramarine (Green Shade) in water colour will give a very deep dark. In addition, complementary colours are useful for toning down mixtures without dirtying them.

Burnt Umber mixed with Ultramarine (green shade)Burnt umber mixed with Ultramarine (green shade) 

Complementary colours can also be used close together to produce particularly vibrant colours and can result in a picture which visually shimmers, as in the example below.

Red and Green complementary colours

The Use of Black, Grey and White

In general, the addition of black will dirty a colour. If the artist wishes to tone down a colour, Davy’s Gray will achieve this. For example, Cadmium Lemon and black will tend to an olive green whilst Cadmium Lemon and Davy’s Gray will tend towards a citrus green.

Using black, grey and whiteUsing Black and Davy's Grey to tone down colour

When using black as a colour, you can avoid ‘dirtiness’ to some degree by taking note of the colour bias and tinting strength. Ivory Black has a brown undertone and a low tinting strength, most suitable for tinting landscape colours.

Lamp Black has bluer undertone, more suitable for tinting skies and has a higher tinting strength. Mars Black is the densest, most opaque black, ideal for large areas of black and where the blackest black is required.

The addition of white to colours produces tints. Tints will be imperative for many artists to alter tone, produce shadows and highlights. However, a common mistake with beginners is the reliance on white to lighten all colours rather than develop colour mixing skills to produce hues of varying intensity.

For opacity and high tinting strength, Titanium White is best. For toning down a colour the lower tinting strength of Zinc White (in oils) is excellent. The equivalent in Finity Artists’ Acrylics is called Mixing White and in water colour, Chinese White.

 Effects of Titanium White vs Mixing WhiteFrom left-right: Pyrrole Red and Titanium White, Pyrrole Red and Mixing White 

Effects of Mixtures On Lightfastness And Permanence

On lightfastness
A mixture can never be more permanent than the original two colours. If a fugitive pink is used with a blue to make violet, the pink will fade over the years, leaving the blue.  Fortunately, more and more permanent colours are becoming available, so concerns regarding permanence are lessened. Those colours which are rated AA, or A are recommended as permanent for artists’ use.

On permanence
Almost all Winsor & Newton colours can now be safely intermixed without affecting permanence. However there remain three colours which are not compatible with Flake White (or other lead whites), Vermilion Hue in Winton and Griffin and Winsor Red in Griffin.