How to Mix Colors for Color Matching

A few weeks back, I answered a reader question about knowing how to choose colors for layering. That reader wanted to know how to create color depth by layering. Today’s reader is asking a similar question, but wants to know how to mix colors for color matching.

Here’s her question.

Dear Carrie,

I am taking some drawing and painting classes online through the Continuing Education for older adults. In the portrait class, I try to use colored pencils.

Should I use an available color according to the area of the skin tone, or mix the colors as a wet paint artists do? To mix or not to mix, that is the question!

Thank you for your very helpful emails, which I enjoy reading like short novels.

Your invisible student, Natalka

In a perfect world, every line of pencils would include perfect color matches for whatever you want to draw.

In the real world, however, that’s simply not possible. There are so many variations in every color that exact matches are impossible.

Even the color white has so many nuances based on surface texture, lighting, and other things that you could have a full set of pencils of nothing but shades of white, and still have to mix colors.

Most colored pencil artists have to mix most of the colors they need to create their art work.

But don’t let that scare you. Here’s what to do.

How to Mix Colors for Color Matching

This is a potentially complex subject. For the best results, you need a basic understanding of the nature of colored pencils and of color theory. For good information on that, I recommend Amy Lindenberger’s excellent book, Colors: A Workbook.

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I bought the book when it first came out, did the exercises, and learned a lot about color mixing with colored pencils. I still have the tools from those exercises, and I still use them.

The principles Amy discusses in this book apply to every subject. Yes. Even portraits!

So this is a great first step in understanding how better to mix colors for color matching, no matter what your favorite subject is.

Now, back to the post….

How to Mix Colors for Color Matching in Three Steps

I recently wrote a tutorial describing a three-step process for choosing colors that I learned as an oil painter. You can read that tutorial here. In short, it goes something like this:

Find the Color that Matches Your Subject the Best

Determine the main (or base) color of the area.

For example, what is the main color of the skin in your portrait? Is it more pink or does it lean toward brown? Maybe it’s more cream-colored or even some other color.

Consider the overall face, not the differences between light and dark. Most of the time, when you’re beginning, you’re not drawing a subject with complex lighting. The light is usually pretty direct from one light source, like the lighting on this plaster bust.

how to mix colors for color matching

For most subjects that are lighted with one light source, you’ll be able to create the differences in light and shadow by choosing the influencing color (step 2.)

Later, after you’ve learned how to choose colors to mix, you’ll be able to refine the color selection method for specific areas.

Find the Influencing Color

Now decide what color you need to add to the main color to get closer to the colors on your model or in the reference photo. On a skin tone, this could be a brown, a pink, some shade of red, or even a hint of green or blue.

You may have to do a little experimenting to get the best influencing color. If so, use the same kind of paper you’re drawing on, and make color swatches. Each swatch should start with the main color, then layer other colors over it.

I rested my left hand beside a piece of white paper and did a color matching exercise.

First, I determined that the closest match of the colors I had with me was Beige, so I made three boxes with Beige across the top.

Next, I compared my skin color with the beige boxes and selected two other colors as possible influencing colors. They were Raw Umber and Ice Blue. The first box in the second row shows Raw Umber layered over Beige. The middle box shows Ice Blue layered over Beige.

Then I added Pink to the third box in the bottom row, just to see what it looked like and because most people think skin tones have to have pink in them.

Some skin tones do, but the closest match to my skin tone was Beige mixed with Raw Umber.

Find the Tinting Color

Most of the time, you’ll also need one or two other colors to tint each area. These colors will be the subtle colors that give your portrait life.

Make more color swatches and test the colors you think will tint your layers to right shade.

I described this process in more detail here. The sample in that post is a rose, but this color selection and mixing process works the same for anything you want to draw.

Learning how to Mix Colors for Color Matching is an On-going Process

Since it’s impossible to find exact matches for all the colors you’re likely to draw, you will be doing a lot of color mixing. That’s just the nature of the drawing (or painting) process.

And it will never end. You’ll always find a need for a subtle color shift that’s unique to a project.

So be prepared to practice, experiment, and, yes, make mistakes.

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