Tools for Thinking About Mixing Colors

Oh, sure: you don’t need tools to think about color. Step outside and look up at the sky. Look down at the ground. Those two little movements of your head will give you enough hues and shades and tints  to think about for days. Or, if you want something more, you can spring for a box of crayons, the one with *all* the colors. Or splurge and get the really BIG set of Prismacolor pencils. Or, if you don’t want to spend any money, you can go online and check out various color sample sites, like this one at Color Schemer or this one at Html Color Codes.

Because color is such a big part of what I do, I like to have some familiar tools on hand, things that can help me 1) figure out what color something will come out when I overdye it and 2) find a color of floss that will work well with a garment. Turns out these tools are useful for all sorts of other color work, too.

For the former–for thinking about color mixing and tints (colors mixed with white), tones (colors mixed with gray or with their complement) and shades (colors mixed with black), I have two color wheels. The first is a CMY (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) Primary Mixing Wheel, which I got from on their advice: it’s based on the primaries of cyan, magenta, and yellow, which are their mixing colors for dye, and it’s good with transparent colors, like dye:

Freeman-Zachery color 5 Freeman-Zachery color 4

You can figure out things like complementary colors, triads, 20% shades. Because I’ve been mixing colors for decades, I often know what to use to get the color I want. Sometimes, though, a color is so odd to me that I need a little help pulling apart its components and figuring out how it will mix with another color. I have trouble with browns, for instance. Is that red in there? Is there more yellow, giving it an orange undertone? Or no yellow, so it’s more pinkish?


Then there’s the pocket color wheel, which is based on the more familiar red, blue, and yellow, and is intended for mixing opaque colors. A full-sized one is available here. I especially like it because it shows you what will happen if you mix two colors, something that’s really useful when I’m over dyeing a garment. Because it’s meant for opaque paints, it’s not exact with dye, but it gives me a good idea when I can’t quite visualize the outcome, and it’s what you need if you’re mixing your own paints.

Freeman-Zachery color 3 Freeman-Zachery color 2

Last, there’s my all-time favorite, the tool I use constantly. I shouldn’t even show it to you because you can’t buy them any more; now, instead of having actual floss inside, there are just images of the floss, which isn’t nearly as useful. No matter how close an image is in color, it’s not the same as having a snippet of the actual thing. I bought this years ago and use it almost every day, even for stuff that has nothing to do with floss. If I have a garment and want to see what color buttons would make it pop, I can hold the fabric up against the samples. If you ever come across one with actual floss samples, snatch it up lickety-split.

Freeman-Zachery color 6

Freeman-Zachery color  81 Freeman-Zachery color 7

Those three are my go-to-all-the-time staples, the things I use when I need to *see* something, rather than just see it in my head. Of course, nothing takes the place of practice when it comes to mixing color: whatever media you use, it will be immensely useful to you to work and experiment and see how the colors work together. A good place to start? Buy five tubes/bottles of cheap acrylic paint: red, blue, and yellow, plus black and white. Mix, test, make notes. Keep a record of everything in your journal, and once you’re comfortable, buy those colors in whatever media you use and try to duplicate the results you got with the cheap stuff. Can you get a deep goldish rusty orange? How about a pinkish lavender? That orangey chili pepper red you love? Try mixing colors to match fabric or parts of a painting you love. Matching something that already exists is great practice in learning to think about color.  Once you’re comfortable mixing your own colors, you won’t ever have to rely on a limited palette of someone else’s idea of The Necessary Colors. If your favorite color is a blue you can’t ever find, knowing how to mix it yourself–with paints, dyes, watercolor, crayons–will give you access to it whenever you want. And that’s a skill worth cultivating.


Go–make color!


Get a color wheel here, go here to find resources for color theory, and be SURE to check out this Magic Palette Studio Mixing Guide. Wow!

Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


* Find great books, DVDs, downloads & more for mixed media artists!
* Sign up for your FREE email newsletter for great tips, projects & more…
* Download free mixed media desktop wallpapers!

You may also like these articles:

This entry was posted in The Creative Life: A Mixed Media Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.