Updated: Feb 19
In winter 2021 I set out to create myself a custom oil painting mixing guide to help eliminate the in-the-moment guesswork that seemed to have always plagued me since beginning alla prima oil painting many moons ago. Now that my mixing guide is complete I can just hold my palette knife up the color I wanted to mix to see how far off I am, and what color I need to add to get it where I want.
A mixing guide is basically a quick reference guide to mixing colors. The most famous and readily available guide is the Magic Palette which you can purchase at most art stores. You can find two colors on the guide and see what they would create (similar to a punnet square in freshman bio). Alternative types of guides show what the mixed colors are like after adding white and/or black. Some artists prefer a more personalized approach to their mixing, and instead of buying the Magic Palette opt to create their own custom mixing guide using their mediums.
What are the benefits of creating your own custom guide?
1) Not all paints are the same. Each brand of paint has a different viscosity, and sometimes hue even if the two brands both say Mars Black. Meanwhile, Acrylics look and act different than oils: the color when wet, might look different when dry.
2) You want to work with the paints you actually use in your color palette. The pre-made chart is massive and might not be relevant to your painting needs. And lets be real, studio space is always a little crowded. Why not only have what you use on your guide?
3) You become intimate with mixing your paints. The artist's most powerful weapon.
Here is a quick guide to color theory basics, as well as a very detailed how-to recipe that I modeled my own color mixing guide on. Side note: If you are new to oil painting, Delmus Phelps shares sooooo many resources and tips on his site and they are free. You can also get amazing art technique tips from the blogs created by Winsor & Newton, and many other websites for free.
You can watch the quick recap of my stages of creating a Custom Mixing Guide for my studio on Tiktok.
I used four 12"x12" wood panels with cradles which had an Alizarin Crimson toned ground. You don't need to do that - mixed media paper is sufficient and cheaper. I wanted my mixing guide to be a work of art, and last longer than paper tacked to a wall, hence the cradles. Looking back, I wish I had just painted directly on white gesso to get a more pure color, though it did help me understand what the colors (tube and mixed) would look like on a toned ground. Your choice. I drew the grid in pencil, and then outlined it with a black oil paint pen. My grid included a border around the entire outside which I would later fill in with black.
It took me over 27 total hours to fill in all the squares. It is not even one of my actual paintings and I probably spent more time on it than I have on any single one of my works in the past couple of years. Perspective.
For the base colors (raw colors straight out of the tube) when they met in the middle of the guide, the middle of the square was the base color, meanwhile I added a triangle mixed with white to the top left corner, and a triangle mixed with black to the bottom right corner. This is not necessary, especially if you plan to create the color chart exercise that I shared at the end of this post, but I thought it kicked my guide up a notch in regards to style. Maybe one day I will use continue the pattern throughout the guide - you know, just double the work for more personal jollies.
My guide is not 100% completed yet. Once the oils are dry to the touch I plan to go in and label the base colors to make the guide even more effective and easy to use. I believe I will experiment with white Sharpie Pens for that. Hanging underneath my custom mixing guide is my color wheel, and a medium mixing guide that I made years ago that shows the affects of linseed oil, thinner, and water on water mixable oils and their separate drip factors.
Update (2/16/21): Guide is now 100% complete. I used black, silver, and gold metallic sharpies for the labeling.
Another color theory exercise that I am excited to explore, but have yet to begin is the Color Chart Exercise. This is very similar to the custom mixing guide, except it includes mixing with white in varying percentages. I will share my results once I am done.
Update (1/24/21): I made a separate custom mixing guide for just my whites, blacks, and grays. It was interesting to see what undertones each color had which I was not aware of and how they mixed with each other.