Mixing and Blending Paint

I like to have a lot of colors on hand to use in my paintings. I mix paint by adding white glue and water to what comes out of the paint tube. I use the ratio of 1 part paint, 1.5 parts white glue and 1 part water. I use the word “mix” to mean combining the different kinds of things like paint, water and glue. I use the word “blend” to talk about combinations of colors. I blend colors before mixing the ingredients together to make a final quantity of ready-to-use paint.

To make new colors I like to blend different paints before adding glue. Some of my favorite colors are made by blending two colors in a 10:1 ratio. Usually I start with iridescent white or a light color like primary yellow and then add 1/10th or even 1/30th as much of the second color to the first color. I mix them together and then add white glue and water in proportion to the total weight of both of the colors blended together.

With iridescent white the colors look like glistening, fresh cotton candy.

With yellow I’ll add a light hue cadmium red and get a rich yellow that still isn’t orange, like an egg yolk.

With iridescent graphite I’ll add 1 part graphite to 5 or 10 parts of some other color.

I’ve found that a 10:1 ratio is a good place to start mixing colors. Whichever color is darker will need to be 1/10th the concentration of the lighter color. But, it can vary and sometimes it isn’t clear which color is going to take over when you blend them. If I don’t already have a good idea of how they will look when blended, I start by using tiny amounts of each using a toothpick or a scrap of paper to see how they respond with each other. I might try a 1:1 ratio and see which color it ends up looking like. It is funny how one color affects the other so strongly but not vice versa. If you mix primary yellow and Prussian blue as 10:1 respectively, you’ll get an amazing bright greenish yellowish color. If you reverse them you get Prussian blue that is slightly greened but mostly still very dark blue. The yellow barely influenced the blue, but the blue overwhelms the yellow. You can predict this after a while just by looking at the colors. Darkness prevails in the color wheel, but your choices will preserve the lightness.

I use primarily Liquitex Basics Acrylic paints which I buy online from Blick Art Materials. They come in a variety of sizes but often the 250ml size is the best bargain in terms of cost/ml of paint. Of course larger containers generally imply less plastic waste. And smaller containers might allow you to have a wider variety of colors. So, you have to choose what matters most to you when selecting the size you buy.

I use white glue, either Elmer’s White Glue or the Amazon Basics white glue. I use a lot of it so I buy it by the gallon. The consistency is consistent. That helps me get repeatable results when I mix paints at different times but use them in the same painting.

I use reverse osmosis water, which is like bottled water without the bottle. Indeed, some bottled water is just reverse osmosis filtered tap water. Other bottled water comes from springs. In any case, I try to use pure water. It probably doesn’t matter at all.

When I started mixing paints I used 2oz bottles, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t enough paint. So, I use mostly 4oz bottles, but I use 8oz bottles for the colors I use most: blacks, whites, gold and graphite. When I use 4oz bottles I usually mix one ounce of paint with 1.5 ounces of glue and one ounce of water, which adds up to 3.5oz of finished, mixed paint. That fits nicely into a 4oz bottle. I refill the bottles when there’s about 1/2 ounce left or less.

If you blend your own colors, write the formula on the bottles. Include the names of the colors and their ratio. If they rub off the bottle you can cover the writing with clear packing tape.

I currently have over 80 colors mixed and ready to use. It certainly isn’t necessary to have that many colors. But, I like to make paintings with a lot of colors in them. What I call a “filled zone” painting can have 20-30 colors in it. I also make paintings with only just a few colors. For example, I might cover the canvas with back and then put two colors into a cup alternating with each other and make a dirty pour painting with that cup. The whole painting might have only three colors in it.

When blending colors I think about the color wheel and the relationship between the colors. I wrote about how I think about the color space in a blog posting called Traveling in Colorspace.

I like having a whole set of 10:1 iridescent white + other colors. This works with almost any color, so however many tubes of different colored paint I have are how many colors could potentially be in my light iridescent paint set. But, I only have about a dozen of my colors mixed that way. Colors can start to look too similar when they are lightened up 10:1 with white. I have several based on primary yellow, using 10:1 or 30:1 ratios with some other color. ,And I have a few colors that I darken with iridescent graphite. But when using a dark color like graphite it ends up being 1 part and the other color ends up being 10 parts (or sometimes 5 parts depending on how dark I want the result).

I’ve experimented with mixing fluorescent paints together and the effect is not what I expected at all. If you bend two colors of fluorescent acrylic paint the result looks different under white light vs. under black light. The white light color is probably about what you’d expect. The black light seldom is. It’s kind of fun and worth exploring if you like making black-light sensitive paintings. But, I wasn’t too happy with some of them. I did like the 1:1 blue/green combination and the 1:1 yellow/green combination. Blending fluorescent and non-fluorescent paints generally doesn’t work as planned. It has the effect of terribly dimming the fluorescent paint under blacklight. The white light illuminated blend will look nothing like the black light illuminated blend.

I’m pretty careful with the ratio of paint to glue to water, but in the end I am looking for some chaos. My paints do not all have identical consistency. A little too much water matters a lot. A little more or less paint probably not so much. I used to start a pour painting by covering the entire canvas with a thinned coat of some color. To thin the paint I’d mix in a little water right before applying it to the canvas. I don’t usually do that anymore because it can have a big effect on how the painting evolves. I do sometimes add pure water on top of a painting, which I wrote about in my Waterworks blog post.

I like to mix paint ahead of time, when I’m too tired to do anything else. When I do have time to paint I can dive right in and begin painting. When I have the time and energy to paint, that’s exactly when I don’t want to sit down and mix a lot of paint.

One of the reasons I like to have a lot of colors is so that I can choose a set of related colors for a painting. If I want a lot of purples I can choose from light ones and dark ones and iridescent ones. But, I only have two different tubes of purple paint. I got those other colors through blending. if I start with Prism Violet I can add various ratios of iridescent white or iridescent graphite to make an entire family of different lightnesses of Prism Violet. They work together by sharing a common position on the color wheel. Juxtaposing this family with a contrasting color creates a mesh of color relationships that is much more complex and interesting (to me) than two contrasting colors next to each other.

Another reasons I like to have a lot of colors is that I can combine similarly blended colors and they fit together nicely. For example, all of the 10:1 iridescent white + some other color blends have a similarity to each other. They have similar lightness levels even though they are in various positions around the color wheel. They’re siblings. They work well together.

Finally, some paints are opaque, some are semi-transparent and some are transparent. A transparent color is like a stain that you can see through to the colors below. Imaging looking through a lighting gel or a colors but clear piece of plastic. Like looking through rose colored glasses everything is shifted toward that color on the color wheel. But, it doesn’t become that color, it just moves toward it sort of the way colors blend to form a new color that isn’t either of the original colors.

You can tell how opaque paint is by looking for a small square on the paint container near where the color name is. If the square is filled in, it is an opaque color. If it is half filled it is semi-transparent. If the square is empty (just a border) then it is transparent.

You can of course blend any colors you want together, but opacity is like darkness - it takes over. A 1:1 blend of opaque paint to transparent paint will end up being pretty opaque. Two transparent paints blended together will remain transparent. I really don’t worry about this much when blending paints - I’m mostly concerned with getting the color I want.

Where opacity matters most is where transparent colors are on top of other colors. In the kinds of paintings I make using pours and swipes the paints are dragged or flow over each other forming many layers of different colors. If I put a transparent color on top the colors below will be slightly visible. If I put an opaque color on top they won’t. I tried mixing in mica powder into opaque paint and it completely disappeared! That doesn’t happen in transparent paint. I found that transparent paints don’t retain their brightness when they dry as well as opaque paints. As a consequence, I don’t pick many transparent colors.

Whatever colors you choose and however you blend them, they’ll become your palette for painting. They’ll reflect your values and preferences. There are an infinite number of colors, so picking 5 or 10 or 20 or 100 is still a tiny drop in the bucket of how many colors there are. Sometimes adding some new colors to your palette can open up some new ideas for you or lead you in a direction you didn’t expect. It’s one thing to add a few squirts of turquoise to a cup and then pour. It’s quite another to cover the entire canvas in turquoise before pouring. Sometimes starting with a new color will make you see the others in a new light.

Filled Zones

I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent this, so perhaps it is known by other names. In any case, I call it the “filled zones” technique.

I start with an empty canvas.

I choose one or a small number of typically darker colors, or black, and I squirt lines randomly all over the canvas. I try to get close to all the edges. I keep adding curved and looping lines over the canvas until it has been divided into irregular shapes about 1 to 3 square inches in area each. I don’t want squares, of course. I want weird shapes. These are the zones in the filled zone technique. More zones means fewer opportunities to place colors, which is neither good nor bad in itself. It is merely under your control. Lots of tiny zones takes a long time to fill. Too few zones and you’re probably doing what might be called a clean pour.

To fill the zones I choose a palette of colors I think will look good together. I like using a lot of colors. I squirt them inside the zones with enough paint to touch at least one of the dark lines that define the zone. When there is enough paint surface tension spreads the contact point until the paint fills the entire zone. Sometimes I go back and add more paint if it didn’t seal itself against the edges of the zone.

I squirt what I think is enough paint into one zone, and then the same color in other zones some distance away. I usually want to separate where the same color appears on the canvas. Two adjacent zones with the same color is just like a bigger zone of that one color. Sometimes I’ll put all the blues toward one side and the greens toward the other, for example. Any pattern is fine, of course. Sometimes I’ll put more than one color into the same zone because why not?

When I’m done filling all of the zones I usually add paint along the outside edges, so the entire canvas is covered. This is especially important if the next steps will include a swipe.

This is the point at which I make sure that all of the sides of the painting (the vertical edges of the canvas) are covered with paint as well. I always cover the edges on my paintings, but you don’t need to if you don’t want to.

I usually will use a swipe after filling all the zones and adding paint around the edges. I like using colors from far away on the color wheel when choosing the color to swipe over all the paint already on the canvas. For example, if I laid down blues and greens I might swipe with orange or red. And, of course, you can always swipe with black or white or any kind of gray. I add whatever swipe colors I want along the starting edge for the swipe.

I lay down the swipe color all along one edge, in lines one after another usually. But, really, any pattern will do as long as you add more paint. It needs to sweep over the top of the cells. I might add the thickets layers of paint possible for about 10-15% of the canvas on one side and then swipe that pile across the whole painting.

I use a piece of laminated poster to swipe over the painting. I found that a laminated poster can be cut Into widths suitable for different sized canvases. Mine had a natural curve from when it was stored in a tube. I cut a piece about 8” long and it formed a curve with a radius similar to a soccer ball.

I drag the curved piece of laminated poster across the paint, ensuring that I have good contact along the entire width of the canvas. I usually try to swipe all the way to the other side of the painting. If you run out of paint and the swipe runs dry it sometimes looks good too, so don’t fret if that happens. It probably means you needed more paint along the starting edge before you began the swipe.

Once I’ve completed the swipe I try not to hold the plastic sheet across the painting again because it will drip. I’ve tried dripping it on areas with too little paint, but I prefer to use enough paint because I think the results are better. You can add more paint, for example by swiping from the other direction and stopping in the middle. I might add a bunch of new swipe colors on the side the original swipe didn’t reach. Swiping back toward the middle from second side can yield really nice results! But stopping in the middle without dripping can be a challenge.

After the swipe or swipes are done I look at the painting and decide what kind of cells I might want to create, if any.

If I want to stimulate cells I take the tip of a pointy palette knife and wet it with a tiny amount of pure silicon oil. Much less than a drop. Then I touch the point to the painting wherever I want. I look for places where there are many layers of color on top of each other. Those make the best looking cells. If I touch the painting near to another cell both cells will find each other. If I touch a lot of places in the same area it takes on a biological look because all the cell walls touch each other and look like a cross section microphotograph of some kind of living thing. If I touch the painting far from other cells the cells can grow to a large size depending on how much paint is there and how viscous it is.

I also like to spray tiny droplets of silicon oil onto the painting using a toothbrush. I put a drop of oil on the toothbrush and use my thumb dragged across the bristles to send tiny droplets flying in all directions. When I don’t want the spray in all directions I control it by holding a piece of paper close to the painting, blocking where I don’t want the spray to go. It is really difficult to control this kind of spray. If you are painting with others you will probably hit their paintings if they are within a few feet. But, the results can be stunning, looking like a spider web or sponge or less zoomed in photomicrograph of some living thing.

The advantages of the filled zone technique include:
  • Automatic scaling of the amount of paint to the size of the canvas
  • Leads to many layers of colors, which leads to fabulous cells
  • Lets you control color distribution before any panning takes place
  • Limits or eliminates color mixing until you swipe or pan
  • You retain control of the first color to stain the canvas

Of these, the first is one of the most important to me. I had a hard time knowing how much paint to use with other techniques like the flip cup and dirty pour. When working on larger canvases I had problems: I’d use too much or too little paint.

Too little paint rarely looks good in my experience. If the painting needs more paint, I add more paint somehow.

Too much paint is a waste at best. At worst, your lovely painting slides off the canvas onto whatever shelf it is drying on. Even if the shelf is exactly level (is yours?), too much paint will mean it slides off all the sides of the painting, not just one side. You might end up with a masterpiece. Or you might wonder what happened to the painting you put there last night. The more viscous the paint the thicker it can be; however, at the viscosity I use I find that I really don’t want too much paint on there and the filled zone technique helps me avoid that.

The second advantage is lots of layered colors. When you swipe over a filled zone painting the colors overlap as the ones on one side end up on top of all the colors further along in the swipe. While at the beginning it is only the swipe color(s) over the underlying zone color, once the swipe reaches the next zone the swipe colors cover two zone colors. As the swipe reaches each zone the swipe colors cover one more and one more color, and so on toward the other end of the canvas, until you run out of zones. Multiple swipe colors on top help ensure that even the first part of the painting has several layers. But, the cells might be better closer to the middle and the end of the swipe where there are going to be more layers.

The rest of the advantages are all about retaining control of the paint. Of course, I want chaos in my paintings - that’s why I use one or two swipes after laying out the paint in filled zones. But I want to choose when the chaos begins.

If I use a cup technique like a dirty pour, kiss pour or flip cup then when I work on a larger canvas I want to use enough paint to cover it. The colors mix and interact a lot before they cover the whole canvas, and I’ll have to pan the painting to get the paint near the edges and corners. I sometimes coat a canvas with paint first so that the cup pour doesn’t need to reach the edges or corners. I like negative space. But, if I want the paint to reach the corners I have to use a lot of paint and pan it around or use another technique to help the paint reach the entire canvas. By the time that happens, the colors have mixed or interacted a lot.

By comparison, you retain control of the colors for much longer through the process of covering the canvas. In fact, if the background lines are thick enough the colors in different zones won’t mix at all. But, they might mix with the background lines themselves, which is a nice effect sometimes.

You can do a lot of different things after using the filled zone technique. For example:
  • A swipe from one or two directions
  • A circular swipe
  • Pan to shift and mix colors
  • Blow on the paint with a straw or hair dryer, as with a dutch pour
  • Use balloons (or those air pillows they use instead of packing peanuts when shipping packages) and press them onto the painting and then remove them
  • Do nothing at all and let the painting proceed on its on

Filled Zone Gallery at Captured Chaos Art
This painting:

This painting:

This painting: