Color Mixing Made Easy

Over the years, I have played around with a lot of store-bought colors (I have dozens and dozens of unused old paint tubes in a box in the basement), but I had a lot of trouble making them do the things I wanted them to. And I had a lot of trouble getting my colors to “pop” off the paper. That was, until I got a copy of Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by Michael Wilcox.

Wilcox taught me that less is more. In fact, you only need six colors to mix just about any color you could ever want.

Hey, wait a minute, you might be thinking. I thought you needed only three colors to mix all the others – red, yellow and blue.

Well, that’s true. Kind of.

But if you follow that philosophy, you will quickly find that you really can’t mix all the colors you need. That’s where Wilcox’s system comes in. He points out that colors have different biases – for example, some shades of red tend toward orange, and some tend toward blue/violet. Understanding that there are actually different kinds of reds, and different kinds of blues, and different kinds of yellows, that is the key. Wilcox picks out two shades of each primary color that, when mixed, allow you to achieve virtually unlimited results. After all, he points out, the great masters achieved amazing effects with just a few colors – so why can’t you?

So Wilcox recommends these six colors.

  • Cadmium Red
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • French Ultramarine
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Pale

He points out that manufacturers are inconsistent in the way they label their paints, too. The shade of Lemon Yellow for one manufacturer may be different from that of another manufacturer. But in the fine print on the back of the tubes are code numbers that indicate exactly what pigments are in the paint. These numbers are uniform across manufacturers, so you always know that you are getting the correct hue. For example, for Lemon Yellow, you should look for the code “PY3” or “Pigment Yellow 3” on the tube.

Wilcox then provides dozens of examples of the combinations available with this simple palette. This is one of the best features of this book. Just look through the pages of color swatches, find the color you are looking for, and he’ll tell exactly which basic colors you will need to achieve it. And when you mix colors on the paper or on your palette, you will always get a more vibrant, luminous, interesting hue than if you bought the same color in a tube.

The one color that’s a little tricky to get with this palette is a nice brown, so Wilcox thoughtfully provides a section on using manufactured browns.

This is a fine, book, but it’s biggest drawback is that it is really designed for watercolorists. That works great for me, since I prefer water-based media. But his information on color mixing for other media, like oils, acrylics and pencils, is not as comprehensive. So if you not a watercolorist, you might be better served getting a book that is specifically geared toward your medium. And there is a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo at the beginning of the book. Skip over it, it’s irrelevant. The good stuff starts in Chapter 5, where he presents his system.

There are plenty of books on color theory out there. But if you paint in watercolors, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green is quite good. His color system is simple, and he provides pages and pages of color swatches to illustrate its potential.