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Colour mixing does not seem to have a great importance to many artists who use Coloured Pencils, but an understanding of colour and how it works is vital if we are to handle colour properly.  My own experience of this area is based on working with a variety of media - including Watercolour, Acrylics and Oils and not totally based on theory.  A little knowledge is very useful, though, and will help your understanding of the way you use colour.

There are many books available that go into the technicalities of colour and a good Internet place to look for very detailed explanations of Colour Theory is the web site built by Bruce MacEvoy, www.handprint.com . Bruce guided me in my early explorations of watercolour many years ago, and his site now sees over 2,500 visitors a day.  The Handprint web site specialises in Watercolour, but the theory part is very valuable for any artist

I have not copied Bruce’s work, but I have written up a page here that provides what I hope will be a simple explanation of how colour works and why we need to understand it to present satisfactory artwork in CP.

As with all freshly written topics, it could well be that the content will be revised and refreshed over the next few months as I read and re-read it and refine what it says.    Please bear in mind that my explanation takes the subject simply. It is intended for beginners as a basic guide to understanding - not  a thesis for experts !  To explain things a simply as possible, I need to ignore some complications…. Please bear with me.


White light falls on white paper and we see white paper.

All the light which falls on the paper is reflected - and we see the paper as white

White light is made up of a whole collection of coloured light - such as we see in a rainbow - with a spectrum of colours ranging from Red through Orange -  Yellow - Green - Blue - Indigo - to Violet.  There are a host of variations of these of colours in between and in addition Infra Red at one end and Ultra Violet at the other, which exist, but can’t be seen by the naked eye.

Pigments are natural ( inorganic - made from rocks and stone) and manufactured ( organic - often dyes from chemical processes). These materials affect the way light is absorbed and reflected from a surface.  They may be pure pigments but they are not pure colours.

A ‘White’ pigment ( like Titanium Dioxide ) allows all the light to reflect, the blend of colours making up white light are unchanged.

The eye sees White paper

If that ‘bundle’ of coloured light we see as ‘white’ falls on a surface that has been treated with colour, we see the surface as ‘coloured’


Because the pigment absorbs some of those colours from the white light and only allows some colours to reflect and be seen by the eye.

If it only absorbs a small amount of the light we see the colour as light or bright.

If the surface absorbs a lot of the light and a only small amount is reflected, we see the colour of the surface as dark.


That image alongside to the right, shows green paper and red light - how come ?

What I am showing here is that the pigmented material is absorbing all the yellow and blue light from the white light ( making green) and only showing reflected red light


If you add coloured lights together you get white ( or progressively reach white as you add more and more colours )

This is known as additive colour

If you add pigments together, you get nearer and nearer to black.

This is known as Subtractive colour

When we mix colours with paint we need to think in terms of

Subtractive colour

But at the same time we need to be aware that

Coloured light handles differently and this will have an effect on how we see Coloured Pencil work which relies on layers of colour and filtered light through those layers

I am assuming that you know the three primary colours

Yellow - at the top of this colour wheel

Blue  - at 8 o’clock

and Red -  at 4 o’clock

Mixing pure Yellow and pure Blue ( which don’t exist in life) would produce the pure Green shown in between them.   Similarly mixing the Red and Blue should produce Purple and mixing the Yellow and Red should produce Orange

This would be so in a perfect world, but this isn’t a perfect world.

If you look again at that wheel, you will see that Red lies on the exact opposite side of the wheel from the blue and yellow mixture of Green.


In the same way, Blue is the Complementary of  Orange

and Yellow is the Complementary of Violet.

But this is the real world and colours in real life don’t quite behave like this.

We don’t have ‘Pure’ colours - we have colours made from materials that are close to - but not quite the same as pure colours.

We have yellows that are green-ish,  we have reds that are purple-ish

Colours in a tube of paint or a Coloured Pencil are a blend of colours so they will not always behave as we would expect.

Some pigments are strong and will provide strong blends

( e.g. Phthalo Green and Blue ),

Other colours are light on tinting strength

( many Yellows )

So equal amounts of different pigments do not have the same effect when mixed

If you want a dark mixture, you will have to have a balance of tinting strengths and the darkest possible colours in the mix.

A regular mix in watercolour for a very dark grey/ black is a mix of Ultramarine Blue ( a dark blue with purple in it) and either Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber ( dark red with some orange ). By adding a little more of one or the other colour in the mix, you can get a whole raft of shades or dark blues, blacks greys and browns

Let us get back to pencils for a moment

 With Wax type Coloured Pencils, we are layering colour to build up the exact tint and depth of colour we want.

If we use a complementary colour in a layer, it will have the effect of darkening the later layer.

The white natural light passing through a green top layer will become filtered to become green light and suddenly find itself being absorbed by the ‘red’  layer underneath.  

We will see a much darker colour as so much light is being absorbed.

Depending on the strength of the pigment you will see differing results.

A strong pencil blue over a weak pencil yellow will have little effect in making a green,

just as mixing a equal amount of light lemon yellow paint with  Phthalo blue will not produce a mid green - if you are lucky it might just achieve a slightly greenish blue.  You need to know that colours need to be balanced in mixing or blending.

Always start with your weakest colour when mixing paint, and add small amounts of a strong colour to make your mixture.

Try doing it in reverse and you will need a bucket to put your mixture in !

With Coloured Pencils on white paper, we have an extra factor to consider.

The first colour to be put down on the fresh white paper will have a 70% effect on the final colour ( provided later layers are transparent )

Later layers will have progressively less and less an effect as the wax begins to acquire a polish and less and less colour is taken up by the surface. If we use a weak colour as the foundation colour, this will give it greater power in any blended colour - though a lot will still depend on the strength of later colours applied!

If we under paint Coloured Pencil with watercolour - or use another medium underneath - we can use complementaries to get very useful darks ( Reds under Greens are a case in point for landscape artists ).  If we use a wash of dark red underneath areas that will be green later,  we gain very vibrant greens once the Green Coloured Pencil is applied.

Complementary colours also have a great effect when they are used with the two colours not mixed, but in close proximity. Here the effect is to have the colours vibrate together in the eye and become a point of focus in the picture.  

There is short item on page 131 on using colour to provide a focus point ( about two thirds down the page ). When I get more time, I will extend that item and add it here.

So taking it at it’s most basic,

If you shine a green light at a piece of paper that appears to have  red colouring, all the green light will be absorbed by the pigment and the coloured parts of the paper will appear to be black or dark

This darkening effect is the effect of using complementary colours.


I  am not sure this illustration of a red fish with a green filter over part of the image is an ideal example, but it is the best I can come up with for the moment. This was done on the computer . I think for the purposes of the Coloured Pencil examples, it would be better if I did an actual example in CP and photographed it, but I don’t have time at the moment - a better example will follow.

Anyway, the idea is to show how the original red is killed by a later layer of green transparent colour over the top.

The lower slices of colour in the example enable you to see more clearly how a thin layer of the transparent green makes a dramatic difference to the original red colour, and produces a darker version of the green by using the complementary colour below.

When I look at the pigment colour in a coloured pencil, or colour in a tube or block of paint and have to decide whether to use it on its own  or mix another colour with it, what factors influence my decisions ?

First of all the colours in the pigments we buy are not pure colour. They are mixtures which arise naturally from the chemicals involved - either naturally  (if the colours come from natural sources) - like Umber , Sienna or Ochre,

or ‘organically’ if they are manufactured as part of a chemical process, which many modern lightfast and permanent colours are.

Examples of organic colours are the Phthalo blues and greens, the Arylide yellows and the Quinacridone oranges and rose colours.

Look at a range of colours available in a manufacturers collection.

There are many different yellows and reds, a range of blues and greens, and many other colours that are ‘not quite ‘ the same but very close to each other.




Leaving RED to be REFLECTED

Thank about the colours that you are planning to put into your mixture.  

WHAT colours are available to you  and what colours are in the make-up of those possible choices

What colour is the colour we are trying to achieve?

Which colours would be likely to make the best mixture ?

I know that I am mostly thinking in terms of mixing paint colours like watercolour or acrylic, but the same rules apply when thinking of layering Coloured Pencil colours.

A good rule in deciding what colours to mix, is to avoid mixing too many  colours together, or the impurities and peripheral colours in your components will add together to produce a ddirty result rather than a clean  bright colour.

Watch out for ‘Earth’ colours like Yellow Ochre, Raw and Burnt Sienna and Umber etc. These are generally ground pigment from natural earths. Blending colours with them is speeding up the process to coloured mud - the Earth colours are virtual mud anyway !

These can make any watercolour process tricky and watercolour pencil users are not immune from mud.

Some colours are made with only one pigment.  

One pigment is usually best.  

Pencil manufacturers rarely tell you what pigments they use.  

Any paint manufacturer selling in the USA has to label the product with the ingredients which is a great help.

Try not to mix more than three colours together.  Too many pigments often introduce a load of extra colour impurities

If a single ingredient colour is made from several pigments ( Paynes Grey, Hookers Green for example), your colour is already bordering on the limit and adding more pigments may well give rise to problems.

You don’t have this mixing problem with dry pencil colour as the colours are not actually blended. They are simply laying side by side and your eye does the mixing ( It is called Optical Mixing ).  

You do have the problem if you use watercolour pencils and introduce water.

The three pairs of primary colours referred to above.

There is a ‘cold’ and a ‘warm’ variant of each colour

Mixing effect of using different yellows and blues.

Lemon yellow above

Orange yellow below

The bottom pair is a cadmium yellow which has a red content and ultramarine blue which also contains red.

Red is the complementary of green so we have a dark dirty greenish mixture as the green content of the yellow and blue is low. The brown appearance of this mixture

( from the red) is closer to tree foliage green than the purer, brighter green in the mixture above

You will see that in most recommended palettes of watercolours there may be two reds, two yellows and two blues suggested.

These will be a warm and a cold version of each primary colour  ( e.g. a ‘cool’ greenish lemon yellow and a ‘warm’ reddish or orange yellow etc).

LET US JUST THINK OF GREEN FOR A START ( the same rules apply for mixing other colours though)

If we wish to produce the purest and brightest green mixture from yellow and blue, the best places to start are the greenish yellow and the greenish blue, as both these colours have a good ‘green’ content.  

If we select the orange yellow with the purpleish blue, the green content of the colours we are mixing is low and we will get a dark or ‘dirty’ green ….which may well be exactly what we want.

If we select one ideal and one less suitable colour to mix - by mixing -say -our orange yellow ( with a poor green content ) with a greenish blue ( like cerulean blue) we may well get a green that is closer to olive green - with a higher brown content.   

This is the colour range from Staedtler, Manufacturers of the karat Aquarelle pencils which come in a full set of 60 colours.

I have chosen this colour set as an example as it covers the basic range of colours in a convenient shade card.

 See the difference between the lemon yellow No 12 ( 6th colour in the first row on the left) which has a high green content

and the bright yellow 110 (1st column  5th colour ) which has a higher red content.

You don’t need 60 colours, 30 are usually enough in pencils to give you a working set.  12 watercolours or other tube media are usually a good basic range

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