View Full Version : Question about complementary colors & color mixing????

12-28-2007, 11:34 PM
I have a friend who is working in watercolor and she stated that the reason colors get muddy is because you are using colors that are not the same temperature. Mixing a warm red with a cool blue for instance will give you a muddy purple, but if you use a cool red with the cool blue you will get a more vibrant purple.

:confused: So here's my question, when you do a complimentary underpainting, do you keep the complementary color in the same temperature as the color you intend to lay over it, use the exact opposite the temperature of the overlaying color, or does it even matter?

Someone (I don't remember who - may very well have been Deborah) said if you really want your greens to pop, to add red underneath. I did this on a painting recently, but I felt like I got the opposite result - like I had dulled out my greens. Did I use the wrong color of red? Should it have been more of an orange-red as opposed to a violet-red?

Thanks for any help,


Deborah Secor
12-29-2007, 12:18 AM
Yep, I said that! There's a problem, you see, in that if you MIX green and red you get mud. But if you lay down a red and put green on top with no mixing, allowing some of that red to pop through, it makes the green lively and fun! If you ever need to mute a green mix a bit of red into it.

For instance, I put down these colors, then sprayed the pastels with alcohol (though you don't have to spray it, at first I think it helps build confidence.):


And then I painted this on top:

No blending, no mud. Just sparkly color. Eventually I got to where I was confident enough to just put down the red and add the green over the top for fun color. I don't do a lot of blended strokes of any kind in work like this.

Does that help?


12-29-2007, 02:39 AM

Yes it does help immensely! I think part of my problem was I blended my green area, plus I did it on Canson so I didn't have much tooth to hold the bottom layer where it should stay - hence I got MUD! :)

Thanks for clarifying this for me. I'm really trying to get my head around utilizing complimentary colors and also seeing the colors in reflected light. I swear the more I paint the more inadequate I feel. :eek: I absolutely love this forum, it's like winning the lottery when you consider the wealth of knowledge one gets from their fellow members.

Thanks again for the help, you're a peach! :angel:


12-29-2007, 04:00 AM
Hi Mandy. I am going to give you a link to a thread where there is lots of info on complimentary underpainting. http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=453438

I hope this worked.


12-29-2007, 05:47 AM
Doug, THANKS! This should help alot. Lots and lots of info there. I can't wait to try this again. Now what to paint...


Donna T
12-29-2007, 09:43 AM
Hi Mandy, I had exactly the same problem you are describing until I used rubbing alcohol like Deborah suggests. I use a little atomizer intended for perfume so I get a real fine mist. Just enough to set the pigment into the paper ( not for Canson, too much warping). If you use mainly strokes of pastel you can get away without fixing the underpainting and just let the strokes of colors lay next to each other and do the optical mixing thing. Sooner or later, I end up using a pastel on its side and if I haven't fiixed the bottom layers and the values don't match or the temperatures are too different I get mud. :rolleyes: I usually rub in the underpainting a little before I mist it to get a nice even look, kind of like a watercolor wash.


12-29-2007, 10:09 AM
You can also just start out with red Canson paper - no mixing dangers!

12-29-2007, 02:19 PM
Donna, I definitely am going to try the alcohol. I've since set my Canson aside (although that's all I've ever used) and am currently working on a piece of Colorfix for the first time in my life! I wasn't sure how I was going to like it but I think I'm getting the hang of it. It's very different compared to working on Canson. I am so used to not layering on lots of pastel, so I don't lose the tooth on the Canson, that I was a little frustrated with the sanded paper when I first started. Once I got past the fear of adding more layers, I finally saw what everyone raves about. I'm really starting to fall in love with this kind of paper. Once I get a couple on the Colorfix under my belt, I'll invest in some Wallis. :)

Doe, what a great idea! I have always purchased neutrals when I buy paper. Maybe I need to get brave and buy some colors.

Thanks for the great suggestions. I can't say enough good things about this wonderful forum and everyone who contributes!


12-29-2007, 05:02 PM
amandanator wrote: I have a friend who is working in watercolor and she stated that the reason colors get muddy is because you are using colors that are not the same temperature. Mixing a warm red with a cool blue for instance will give you a muddy purple, but if you use a cool red with the cool blue you will get a more vibrant purple.
The trouble with this kind of instruction is that different art books (and artists) don't always agree on what cool and warm blues are. Some say blues leaning toward green are warm, others say cool. The key to understanding when mixes are vibrant and when mixes are grayed (not necessarily mud) is how many of the primaries are in the mix. If all three primaries are in the mix - your mixture is grayed.

For example, to mix bright greens from a blue and yellow, you would want to use both blues and yellows that have no red in them. Red is the complimentary of green so it would neutralize and gray the mixture. So a greenish yellow (yellow and blue primaries) and a greenish blue (yellow and blue primaries) would give you the brighter green (no red in the mix). Mixing a green with a greenish yellow (yellow and blue primaries) and a reddish blue (blue and red primaries) will give you a duller green because of the presence of some complimentary red in the mix. A warmer yellow (leaning towards orange) will also give you a grayer green when mixed with a greenish blue because of the presence of red in the warmer yellow. And since not all colors are bright, you will have to gray down colors and mix warm and cool colors together at some time.

So if you are like me, and never really grasped the mix warms with warms and cools with cools instruction, maybe looking at it in terms of how many primaries are in the mix will make things clearer. It did for me.


12-29-2007, 10:47 PM
Don, thanks for this insight. I don't know if it was a matter of grasping so much as I don't thinking I was paying attention in class that day. :lol: Either way I had times when things have worked out beautifully when mixing colors (I got it right that time) and times when everything looked like mud or at best dull (I got it wrong). I kind of had a hit or miss attitude when it came to color theory - I am now comprehending the error of my ways. :)

Going by how many primaries are used in the mix however, seems an excellent way to double check oneself if you are unsure how the colors you are going to mix will react to each other.

Thanks again,


01-03-2008, 03:28 PM
Also a watercolorist, I get irritated by the overuse of the term "mud". I guess people use "mud" to describe a color result they don't like. If you look around your world, there aren't a lot of of pure high intensity colors in nature or life. I don't see anything wrong with a dulled or less intense color, the kind created from mixing a warm & a cool, and many times this is exactly what I want to create. Muted colors are beautiful to me.

That said, if you do want a pure high intensity purple or green, and are stuggling to achieve it, then the issue may be the temperature of the primaries you are using.

Thank you also for the information on how to achieve this with pastels which are brand new to me!