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Toolkit Oil Paint Mixing Guide

Ardak Kassenova

Color Mixtures and Materials | Use Of Solvents, Mediums, and Diluents | Fat Over Lean | Various Tips and Healthcare Protection

If you haven’t gotten the chance yet, head over to our previous article – Creating Fabulous Colors With Oils, for various techniques and tips to color mixing and color harmony that would be a helpful guide when employing the other materials and processes that you will be reading here.

Creating Fabulous Colours With Oils (4) - COLOUR MIXING GUIDE

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Color Mixing

Mixing Oil Paints Tips and Techniques

#1 Mix from light to dark

#2 Use a palette knife for mixing

#3 Use only two to three colors in a mixture

#4 Prepare an eco-friendly solvent and a rag

#5 Change brushes when painting

#6 Keep a color journal

#7 Assess your canvas area

#8 Experiment with your mixtures

#9 Don’t mix substances!

#10 Remember the fat over lean rule

#11 Use mediums and diluents gradually

#12 Protect your health


Color Mixing

Traditionally, many of the old masters and artists used a very limited oil color palette to create their beautiful works of art. Mainly because pigments back in the day were harder to come by and thus made them quite limited, this in turn made artists learn to be more innovative and make use of what was then available. They continuously mixed different pigments together in varying amounts, and greatly explored the seemingly endless possibilities of achieving new colors! 

This practice slowly lost its momentum when the rise of industrialization began, modern factories started manufacturing pigments of countless shades imaginable, and it now seemed like there were no longer new colors left to discover. However, knowing how to mix your own colors will instill a deeper understanding of color mixing and give you a greater and more organic instruction on the uses of color harmony. Exploring it gives you the perfect opportunity to experiment and find out the different properties of the colors for yourself, and discover your own style and preferences along the way. Working with a limited palette also makes it easier for you to create visually harmonious paintings with colors that seamlessly work well with each other.

Color analysis of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Pink Orchard” reveals the following: Zinc White, Lead White, Prussian Blue, Viridian Green, Emerald Green, Chrome Yellow, and Vermillion. Not counting the whites, as little as five oil colors were used to create this brilliant work of art.

There’s nothing to fear! As the Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr once said, “You will have to experiment and try things out for yourself and you will not be sure of what you are doing. That’s all right, you are feeling your way into the thing.” It perfectly sums up our initial feelings of apprehension and uncertainty when exploring new things, but oh how the joys of self discovery washes them all away. Here are a few of my artist’s tips to inspire and help you begin your creative experimentation with colors!

Mixing Oil Paints Tips and Techniques

#1 Mix from Light to Dark

First, choose a light color (i.e. Titanium White, Zinc-Titanium White or Naples Yellow) and then a darker one (Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber). Start out with a generous quantity for your light, and just a small amount for your dark. The reasoning behind this is that darker hues in oil paint usually have much greater tinting powers than the lighter ones. Now you can begin mixing them, gradually add just very small amounts of the darker hue to the lighter one. It is a much harder problem to fix if you put in too much of the darker color at once, you will also end up using more paint than you intended to. Slow and steady is the key. Continue doing this color mixing process until you reach your desired shade. 

A little note about Naples Yellow. I suggest using Naples Yellow especially for mixing the reds – to achieve a lighter value of red, as using pure white will shift the hue and will create pink instead of a lighter red. At the same time, note that the same color might not be the best for blue mixtures, as it’ll shift the hue of blues to the greener side, which might not be the effect that you want to achieve. So, be mindful about that when using this interesting color, which we’ve included into our latest addition to the Infinity series of oil paints – Box of Whites.

For every shade that you come up with, it helps to document each one by getting a tiny amount of the paint mixture and dabbing or swatching it on a piece of paper. Then, you can label them accordingly and write your notes on how you achieved each and every one of them so that you’ll have a future reference for the next time you want to mix, especially for certain shades that you’ve already mixed to your taste! (See more on no. 5)

Colour Mixing for Oil - ZenART Portrait Oil Paint Palette
Burnt Umber, Zinc-Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, and Vermillion oil colors from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes prepped for color mixing. As shown above, on the left: A small amount of Burnt Umber is mixed with a substantial amount of Zinc-White to create a lighter brown color. More white is added at the bottom of the mixture to create an even lighter shade that can be used for highlights. On the right: Some of the light brown mixtures have been transferred on the next row in preparation for mixing it with Yellow Ochre.
Colour Mixing for Oil - ZenART Portrait Oil Paint Palette
Yellow Ochre is added to the brown mixture that was created by mixing Burnt Umber and Zinc-Titanium White. A deeper and less saturated Yellow Ochre color is obtained. Additional white is added to the bottom part of the mixture to create a lighter shade as well.

#2 Use a palette knife for mixing

Using palette knives for mixing will certainly save your brushes from a lot of wear and tear particularly when mixing great amounts of paint. If you only need a tiny dab of paint, then you can most certainly use your brush to mix it up, but be very careful not to overload the oil paint brush with it. One of the rules of thumb in brush care: The paint should never go past the ferrule. The deeper the paint goes into the ferrule of your brush, the harder it is to clean after. However, it is also worth noting that old, worn out oil paint brushes can be useful for color mixing. If you have a few of those lying around, give them a second life and repurpose them into mixing brushes instead of throwing them away!

Colour Mixing for Oil - ZenART Portrait Oil Paint Palette
Palette knife from our Renoir Collection, a 14-piece set of oil paint brushes and a palette knife designed for oil and acrylic use that comes in a handy roll-up case, making it easy to bring along for plein air painting or when travelling.

#3 Use only two to three colors in a mixture

When working on a single paint mixture, try to stick to a maximum of three colors as much as possible, but don’t worry that’s not counting the whites of course. Mixing too many different colors together can result into a muddied, dull and lifeless hue. It is more advisable to use as fewer colors as you possibly can, especially when it comes to working with dark colors. And remember to gradually add in small amounts so you can easily control the levels of tint, shade or tone of your mixture.

#4 Prepare an eco-friendly solvent and a rag

After mixing a particular color to your heart’s content, you should clean the paint brush or the palette knife used thoroughly to prevent color contamination in the next color mixtures you plan to make. If you used a palette knife, you can simply wipe away the paint by using a rag. You can use old dishcloths, T-shirts, or other old cloth/clothing by cutting them up into smaller sized pieces that are suitable for your painting needs. It’s also another great way of reducing waste in your household. If you used a paint brush, thankfully there are now eco-friendly solvents available for your brush cleaning. But before you dunk your brush in the solvent, carefully wipe off as much of the paint as you can using your rag. This will help you from dirtying your solvent too fast and too soon.

A rag cut out from an old T-shirt that I use for cleaning my palette knife and for wiping excess oil paint on while painting.
Colour Mixing for Oil - ZenART founder and creative director, Ardak Kassenova
Here I am with my eco-friendly solvents, brush cleaners, and reconditioner. Left to right: Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner, a small jar I use to transfer some of the solvent/cleaner I’ll be using, Brush Cleaning Soap Bar, Now Solutions’ Liquid Lanolin (optional), and Zest-it Dilutant and Brush Cleaner.
A closer look at the products that I personally use to clean and recondition my brushes. Clockwise from top left: Zest-it Painting Medium, Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner, Now Solutions’ Liquid Lanolin (optional), and Brush Cleaning Soap Bar (or other household/baby/vegetable-based soap bar).

Plus tip for extending your solvent’s use: Once your jar of solvent becomes too dirty, set it aside and use another jar of it. After some time, the oil crud will settle at the bottom and you can slowly pour out the cleaner solvent liquid into another jar for re-using. 

Another way of cleaning your brushes is by following the footsteps of the old masters, such as Rembrandt who used walnut oil to clean his brushes. Similarly, we can still use this method nowadays, you can wash your brushes with walnut oil or other vegetable oils (granted that you already wiped off as much of the paint as you could with a rag). Swirl your brush around the oil, blot off the oil on a rag and keep repeating until you no longer see any paint coming out of the brush, and then follow it with a soap and water cleaning. Any soap is acceptable, but try to choose a non-stripping kind like an olive oil soap if possible, to help preserve the natural oils and to keep your oil paint brushes properly conditioned. For my brushes that need the extra conditioning, I use Liquid Lanolin as like a leave-in conditioner to help return them to their former glory – or as near as they can be. Just a small drop is more than enough for a medium-sized brush.

From the left: Liquid Lanolin was first spread on the palm of my hand before thoroughly working it into the brush. Then I use my fingertips to reshape the brush to its original form.

#5 Change brushes when painting

When working on a painting, it’s not surprising to end up having to use numerous brushes for quite a number of your colors. In order to achieve a fresher and purer color each time you work, it is important to frequently change brushes or clean the one you’re using intensively.  A clean one will give you crisp brushstrokes and won’t accidentally muddy up your colors. Some professional artists use as many as 20-30 oil paint brushes during a day’s work, with practically each brush dedicated to a specific color.

A good number of brushes ready for a day’s work of painting, this set of oil paint brushes are all from our Renoir Collection of artist brushes for oil and acrylic.
Creating Colours With Oils (2) - COLOUR MIXING GUIDE

#6 Keep a color journal

Having a sketchbook with heavyweight paper that is suitable for oil paint application is ideal to have onhand and ready while painting. When you mix a color you like (or even don’t like) – dab or swatch some of it on a page of your journal and write down the process of how you achieved it. List down your mixture’s formula, the respective amounts that were used, and any other details that are worth noting of. When working on a specific painting or project, keeping a collection of dabs/swatches of all of the color mixes you used can be quite helpful to have on record as a future color mixing guide. I usually remove the page and let it fully dry somewhere unreachable by others (my children for example), before adding it back to the journal/folder with color-mixing swatches.

Colour Mixing for Oil using ZenART Oil Paint Sets
Color mixing samples I made and kept as part of my color journal for future reference. It’s very useful when trying to recall a particular mixture previously made in mind, and makes for an easier and time-saving color duplication.

#7 Assess your canvas area

Check the areas of your painting that need the color you will be using or mixing. If you are mixing your own color for a large area (i.e. painting the sky) mix more paint – trust me on this – than you think you might need. You’ll thank yourself, it might be difficult to reproduce the exact same color when you suddenly run out of it – gasp! If you are worried about leftover paint, you can still use it as an underpainting for a new work, or do some oil sketching along with your other leftover paints, or even just experimenting what you can create with it through a small abstract painting. Nothing is wasted and you get to have some more fun!

#8 Experiment with your mixtures

When you have two different colors, mixing them thoroughly produces a solid third color. (i.e. If you mix blue and yellow, you get green).

On the other hand, if you only mix them ever so slightly, it can also bring an interesting touch and look to your paint. You will create a third color, but with the two original colors still somewhat visible, and all three existing in beautiful textures of streaks and swirls. This will give your painting a non-flat dimensional look which you can totally use to play around the different values with. Don’t be afraid to experiment when mixing oil paints, you might be surprised with the beautiful colors you can create!

Colour Mixing for Oil using ZenART Oil Paint Palette in Essential
Color mixing samples of the primary colors to create the secondaries, but only mixing them slightly to create the textural streaks with three visible colors that can give your painting a very tactile effect. First horizontal row are the primaries, the second row are the secondaries slightly mixed using a palette knife, and the last row are how they look like applied on a surface using a palette knife. Oil colors used are Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow, and Cadmium Red from the Essential Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.

#9 Don’t mix substances!

Never dilute traditional oil paint using water or mix it with water-soluble paint, such as acrylics – they are not compatible with one another and will not mix well. However, you can use acrylic as an underpainting or imprimatura of your oil painting, and other layers after that as well, as long as they are all done before any oil color application. Remember, the acrylic must be completely dry before you use oil paint on top of it. When changing your oil paint’s consistency, use mineral spirits and oils that are specifically made for it like linseed oil, walnut oil, poppy oil, gamsol, and turpentine.

Creating Fabulous Colours With Oils (1) - COLOUR MIXING GUIDE

#10 Remember the fat over lean rule

Oil paints are composed of fat, while acrylic, gouache, and watercolor paints are water-soluble. The general principle when painting with layers is this: fatter layers must always be on top of the leaner (or thinner) ones. This is due to the drying process of having multiple layers – the first and thinner layers dry faster than the fatter and top ones. The higher the oil content of a paint is, the more flexible it will be while also allowing for better paint adhesion as the layers progress. With each top layer being fatter than the last, future peeling and cracking can be avoided. In other words, oil paints should always be your outermost or topmost layer, while acrylics are for underpainting.

#11 Use mediums and diluents gradually

The foremost thing to keep in mind is it’s best if you don’t use too many mediums, especially if you’re not yet quite familiar with how each one performs. Working with mediums, diluents, and solvents is a tricky and delicate matter. One has to know just the right amount to use because the use of such additives will definitely affect the outcome of your painting. To be on the safe side, use these substances conservatively and in small increments, add only as you think needed. Combining an excessive amount of thinning agent (like diluents) to the paint may result in an underbound paint film that is usually prone to flaking and may also result in a dull finish.

Colour Mixing for Oil using ZenART Essential Oil Paint Palette
Sample of oil color gradually diluted using linseed oil as the diluent. From the left, the first one is undiluted and was squeezed out straight from the tube. The following rows have an increasing amount of linseed oil mixed in the farther they go to the right. This color is called Alizarin Crimson from the Essential Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes. The great thing about our paints is they’re already a perfectly pigmented and buttery consistency, you hardly need to use any mediums with it if at all any.

#12 Protect your health

When not handled properly, mediums and solvents that are used for oil paints can be extremely harmful to your health and the environment. Breathing in the vapours that the solvents give off can cause irritation to the eyes and the respiratory tract, prolonged skin contact and exposure can cause skin problems and may also be absorbed through the skin and enter the blood circulation causing various serious long term effects to your health. Because of the health hazards associated with them, I strongly recommend that you use solvent-free mediums or non-toxic and eco-friendly alternatives. We’re lucky to have a lot of great options to choose from nowadays, but some of the better alternatives are Citrus Oil Thinners like, Turpenoid Natural, and Bristle Magic, as they also double as brush cleaners that you can use to clean and recondition your brushes.

Here I am again, but now surrounded with all kinds of mediums, diluents and solvents. I personally don’t recommend having as many as shown above, a lot of them I actually never even used at all. I trust that you’ll heed my advice and opt for the non-toxic solvents, your choice of oils, and perhaps one or two other mediums that are solvent free.
Here’s a closer look at the ones I actually use. Now, you can mix and create your own mediums yourself for your own personal preference. For example: A mixture of 65-70% solvent + 25-30% oil + acrylic-styrene or Dammar varnish = makes a leaner medium. To create fatter ones, just make sure that there’s more oil in it. Like, 80% linseed oil + 20% Acrylic-styrene varnish. This creates a beautiful uniform sheen and prevents colors from “sinking in.”

Though it seems like there’s so many things to consider, don’t worry and just keep on going, it will be second nature to you before you know it. The sooner you start mixing oil paints, the easier it gets. Now it’s time for you to make use of these basic tips for oils that will help you start your oil color mixing and oil painting journey! Just keep on exploring and experimenting to create and discover the color mixes that will work best for your style and your work. And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun with it!

What colors are consistently used in your own mixing palette? Do you also like keeping a color mixing journal? Check out our previous article – Creating Fabulous Colors With Oils for a deep dive into color mixing, color temperature, and color harmony! Now back to my other questions – What solvents and diluents do you usually prefer to use? How many oil paint brushes do you usually end up using in a painting session? What future content would you like to see from us? Let us know what you think, we’d love to hear back from you. Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll be happy to answer any queries you have.
Thinking of venturing into painting the human form and other figurative subjects? Watch out for our next article – Oil Color Mixing: Figurative Painting and Skin Tones. See you on the next one and have a wonderful time exploring and painting!

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— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova, ZenART Supplies co-founder, @ardak_zenart

Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.

My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.” 

Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!

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