Colours change in relation to each other

This post is about how to mix a range of neutral printmaking colours to accompany the bright stars in your work.

Colours are like people, in that they exist in relation to each other. If someone is shining brightly, for instance a performer on stage, there will most likely be a team of supporters behind them, enabling them to dazzle the audience.

Similar to a star performer the visual effect of bright colours changes according their surroundings – the support of neutral colours enables them to shine, whereas too many equally bright colours together can become overwhelming as they fight each other for attention.

Colour panic

Printmaking inks tend to be intense colours, and when faced with a selection of these it can be hard to decide where to begin.

At this decision point I often see students fall back on familiar tried and tested colour combinations, or else ignore the riot of colours and go for monochrome.
Alternatively, some may panic, grabbing the first bright pots that come to hand, and hoping for the best.

Don’t panic – help is at hand!

mixing neutral colours on a slab for printmaking

A helpful structure to begin mixing neutral colours for printmaking

To help you get started this post outlines a structure for exploring colours; using the idea of stars and supporters to create a range of hues and tones that enable the stars to sing and don’t dazzle the viewer.

What you need here are not the safe old familiar friends (boring?) or a motley crew of colourful strangers (risky?) but a conscious choice of a couple of stars and a hard-working support team.

a simple colour wheel with primary and secondary colours

Start with the colour wheel

No doubt you are familiar with the colour wheel as a starting point for colour theory. To avoid complicating things we will begin with a simple colour wheel showing primaries (red, yellow and blue) and secondaries, (green, purple and orange). This is all the info you need to begin mixing a range of neutral colours for printmaking.

Complementary colours are directly opposite each other on the wheel. These opposites are pairs consisting of one primary colour and one secondary colour:
Red and Green
Yellow and Purple
Blue and Orange

Printmaking inks have their own unique properties

Printmaking inks are finely ground dense pigments, so a little goes a long way. They don’t always behave in the same way as paint, (particularly water colour), and the naming of the colours can also follow a different pattern from conventional artists paints. This means a fair bit experimentation is needed, and this is what makes it fun.

Process colours are the ones used in commercial printmaking – cyan, magenta and process yellow – using these will give you more predictable results. If you choose subtle complementary colours e.g. Cadmium orange and French blue you will find more surprises….

Structured colour mixing

The stars here will be primary and secondary colours.

They will be opposite each other on the colour wheel so they zing when they are together. The flipside of this is that they also neutralise each other.

The neutralising effect of mixing two complementary colours is what produces the support team of neutral colours.

First select two complementary colours
In these examples I use lemon yellow and purple, and then turquoise and vermillion. These are Hawthorn Printmaker Inks, other brands may produce different, equally interesting neutral colours when mixed.

colour chart showing yellow and purple colour mixes
Yellow ink and purple ink on the mixing slab, and the neutral colour they produce

Mix your first neutral colour

Put a blob of each ‘star’ colour straight out of the pot, with a space between them on a glass slab.

Use a palette knife to mix a bit of each of these 2 colours together in the central space. There is no recipe for this – just keep fiddling with the balance of colour till you arrive at a colour that you feel is in the middle of the two and is neither more towards one or the other. This is your first neutral colour.

The colour you get may be not at all what you expect – be prepared for surprises!

mixing more neutral colours from yellow and purple printmaking ink

Make more neutral colours

Take a small blob of the neutral colour in the middle and a small blob of the first colour (eg yellow); mix them together to get a neutral colour that is nearer to the first colour (yellow).

Do the same with the second colour.The mix may not be 50/50 as some colours are more intense than others; adjust it till it looks right to you.

Now you have five colours; two brights and three neutrals.

These are straight out of the pot so will all be quite intense. In these examples I scraped the colours onto paper with a palette knife to create the colour chart above.

yellow and purple ink with their supporting neutrals

Play around with the stars and supporters

Try putting them next to each other in different combinations.
How about a big area of one of the supporting neutrals with a little dot of a bright colour….
Or leave some out and limit your palette to neutrals….

just neutrals without the bright colours
turquoise dan vermillion printmaking ink mixed to create a neutral colour

Try two different complementary colours

Here I am using Turquoise and Vermillion (a greeny blue and an orangey red; how would a yellowy blue and pinky red work I wonder….)

Repeat the process of mixing the two complementaries together till you find the centre point which is the first neutral colour.

I got a surprise when these two bright colours produced a lovely very dark grey. Even when you have done this many times it is always a thrill.

Turquoise and vermillion printmaking ink mixed to create neutral colours

Record your mixes on a colour chart

Once you have mixed the first neutral, take a bit of this and mix with each complementary to get two more colours, as in the purple and yellow demo above.

Use a palette knife to put samples of the five colours in a line like a spine across the middle of the paper to create a colour chart.

adding white and transparent ink to the neutral colours

Add white to the neutral colours

White is opaque and creates lighter, chalky pastel shades.

Put a blob of white under each of the 3 neutrals on the glass slab, the add a tiny bit of each neutral to the white.

Keep adding more neutral to the white till it looks good to you. Also consider it in relation to its fellow opaque shades on either side, as well as to the row of neutrals above. When you are happy with the new neutral colours add them to the paper chart.

Adding white nearly always produces a set of lovely subtle coloured printmaking inks. This post has more info about mixing tonal colours just using white and grey.

Add transparent to the neutral colours

Regular readers will know that I love transparent ink and use loads of it.

This time you will swap the white ink for transparent – put a blob of transparent (or extender) above each of the neutral colours on the slab. Now add a tiny bit of the neutrals to the transparent and mix well.

Transparent ink is basically ink base with no pigment in it.  This thins the colour, reducing the density that comes straight from the pot, and producing lovely translucent colours.
When you are happy with the transparent colours on the slab add them to the paper chart as well.

combining neutrals with bright colours

The structure helps you experiment with confidence

Congratulations – you have created a palette of 11 colours.

The variety of brights, softer neutrals, darks, lights and transparents mixed from the two original inks will all go together in various combinations as they are all from the same ‘family’.

With this structure for mixing neutral colours in place, I hope you will start to overcome your sense of colour panic!

a small area of bright colour with lots of neutral

Testing out colour combinations and relationships

Roll a patch of each of your new colours on paper – once dry, tear or cut it up to try out different arrangements. If you have made yourself a magnetic exhibition wall this will help you to consider the colour combinations from a distance.

Try some quick mono prints using your mixes to get the feel of how they work together

Or what about a relief print with several layers of colour from the palette?

Colours are not static

I hope this deceptively simple colour mixing exercise will give you confidence and prompt new ways of thinking about, and using, colour in your prints.

As you get to know the bright stars and their supporters in action together, and become more aware of how they change and influence each other interesting conversations can start to happen between the colours in your work.

 Nb the colours here have been photographed and then translated through a computer screen – this changes how they appear, but hopefully you will get the general idea and be inspired to try it for yourself.

I would love to hear about the particular pairs of complementaries you try and what you discover – please leave comments below.

mixing neutral colours for printmaking on a slab