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Color Theory for Absolute Beginners



As a beginning artist you probably don’t have a wide variety of colors in your paint box so you try and mix the color you need from what you have. For most beginners, myself included, you end up with a lovely shade of “after – the – rain – mud”. Don’t let it bother you, it’s part of the learning process. The more you paint, the more comfortable you will become with colors and how they interact with each other. Here are some of the basics of color mixing.

painting palette with text overlay color theory for beginners



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Color Mixing and The Color Wheel

A color wheel is basically a wheel divided into the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, and their secondary and tertiary colors. It is used to show the relationship between colors.

Studying the color wheel and understanding how different colors mix is a must for an artist. Color wheels are relatively inexpensive to buy and are a great tool to help with color mixing. I use this one.

Don’t be afraid of color. As and artist you paint what you see or feel, not necessarily what others see. Learning to mix the right shade will give you much more freedom and flow in your artwork.

Below I have outlined the very basics without all the technical jargon. You will learn the more technical theory as you progress, but this should give you a good start to expand your color pallet without creating mud. 



Primary Colors

There are three basic colors, called primary colors …red, blue and yellow. They cannot be made by mixing other colors, hence the term primary.  From these three colors all other colors are made. 


Primary color wheel


Secondary Colors

Mixing any two of the primary colors together will give you a secondary color.  Mixing all three primary colors together will give you a muddy, murky grey. The chart below explains the primary color mixes.

red + blue = violet               

red + yellow = orange

blue + yellow = green

Secondary color wheel



So now you have six colors, red, blue, yellow, green, orange and violet.


Tertiary Colors

If you mix a primary color with an equal amount of a  secondary color , you get a tertiary color. There are six tertiary colors. 

For example:

red + violet =red violet          yellow + green = yellow green

blue + green =  blue green    red + orange =  red orange


Tertiary color wheel




Variations in Color Mixing

So this is the very basics of color mixing.  Since the color tints and pigment concentrations can vary by brand and medium, you may get slightly different hues when mixing.

The best way to be certain is to make yourself a color mixing sheet and experiment with the colors you have. Make note of the colors you used and the ratio of paint. Keep the sheet for reference and add to it as you learn more about color.

Making color swatches of the paint you have is a good idea. Acrylic paint usually dries slightly darker and does not always match the color on the tube.

Having a sheet that shows what the color looks like when dry can help you when deciding what colors to use. You can add to the sheet whenever you buy a new tube of paint.

I like to use acrylic paper for making swatches since it holds the paint better.


painting pad with blue and black cover and white lettering



Next I will talk about complimentary colors and how you can use them to enhance or tone down primary colors. Sign up for my emails so you can be notified when I post and click the links below to read about complimentary colors.


Further reading: Understanding Complementary Colors 

     Warm and Cool Colors


Thanks for reading.

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly





4 thoughts on “Color Theory for Absolute Beginners”

  1. I purchased Barn Red premixed paint. It’s a bit too orange for me. How can I turn it a little more burgundy?

    1. Hi Linda: You can try adding a deeper red to the color to move the bias away from yellow and make it more red. If that doesn’t give you the color you want try adding a very tiny amount of Dioxazine Purple to tone down the color slightly and give it that earthier burgundy color. If you don’t have purple, try using a blue that has a purple bias such as Ultramarine Blue. Experiment on some scrap paper until you get the color you are looking for. Hope this helps. 🙂

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