I'm only just now learning how to best estimate less or more vibrant colours and a large part of this seems to be to see what colours make up the secondary colours being used to mix.

I'm finding it very difficult to tell which colours are made by which primaries. I would like to learn to tell how certain colours were mixed.

I'm only using acrylic paint. Mostly these paints are for miniature painting, though I am sure the colour theories are the same as canvas painting ;)

  • This answer can help. – Danielillo Jun 20 '19 at 15:46
  • "Learning how to best"? Do you mean mix? Guess? Am I right in guessing that you would like to learn how to "reverse engineer" colors into the composite paints/pigments used to make them? – user24 Jun 20 '19 at 16:49
  • Sorry web :) Yes, this is about mixing colours for painting. – Jamie Hutber Jun 20 '19 at 16:50
  • 3
    Awesome! Could you edit your question to include that, and maybe even mention the type of paints you're using? I'm not painting expert, but I do know that color selection and application varies between types, especially like water color compared to acrylic. – user24 Jun 20 '19 at 16:53
  • Hi Jamie, I've edited your post somewhat: does this reflect your intention? – Joachim Jun 20 '19 at 20:14

If you are looking to identify how a color is mixed first and foremost you need a color wheel which will show you where the color you want lands relative to the primaries. Second, read up on color theory which will help you understand what is going on with that color wheel and how colors behave in general.

Once you have that down, here are some tips for keeping your mixed colors vibrant (or not):

First... for any two colors you are mixing, be sure their value/lightness/tone are similar. Use white to bring up the darker color to match the lightness of the lighter color.

Second... there are cool and warm versions of the primaries (Red, Yellow, Blue). Cool colors tend towards blue, warm toward red. If you mix a cool color with a warm color it will lose intensity, so mix cool with cool and warm with warm.

If you keep that in mind your mixtures will be cleaner. As far as which colors produce which, look for a color wheel. But you probably know the basic idea: Primaries lead to secondaries: Red+Yellow = Orange, Red+Blue = Purple/Violet, Yellow+Blue = Green. A secondary color mixed with its "opposite" (the primary -not- used to form it) will desaturate the color, eventually leading to a chromatic grey.

You should be able to get most any color you want using warm and cold primaries and white. However if you know the secondary color you want to use start with that as a base pigment and "customize it" using small amounts of other colors. That is where experimentation and experience come it.

Finally the concept of relative color comes in. That is how one color is affected by the colors adjacent to it. A color next to its complement will appear more intense as the contrast is greater. Look up Joseph Albers who did extensive research into this.

The paint binder (acrylic, oil, ...) and scale of the work do not effect the color theory, however cheaper paints will have less pure pigments and therefore will have less intensity and will not handle mixing as well as professional grade paints.


The best way to learn how to mix complex colours is trial-and-error (in my opinion) - you see how colours turn out when you mix them while painting. Keep in mind that acrylic does not support mixing as well as oil, tempera, watercolours and the like.

You could also analyse colours digitally - most graphic applications show what is the value of each primary colour a particular colour consists of. It sounds like what you are looking for but I don't think it will actually be very useful in practice.

  • Why do you think acrylics support mixing less well than other paints? – Joachim Jul 6 '19 at 7:49
  • Digital colors are produced differently than pigmented ones (emissive versus reflective) and have different primaries (Red Green Blue instead of Red Blue Yellow) so that won't work. – rebusB Aug 20 '19 at 21:23

The mixing is the first. But a detailed color wheel would be very helpful in your process. Ends by the means.

Color indexing is a science in itself. One for paints, one for monitors, one for printing, inkjet, laser, 8+ color lithographic press.

Press Operations Markup departments have very sophisticated tools. They must intermittently index their monitors to the pallets of the colors used by the print department (I've worked in this world).

Search for a color wheel, more details are better. You will have something you can use as a reference.

  • Could you expand this answer? How does a colour wheel practically fit in to tell what way a colour is leaning? Also, the digression on color calibration seems a little off-topic. – Joachim Oct 9 '19 at 15:26

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