How to Create Unified Color Schemes

It is possible to create a beautifully unified color palette by adopting any (or all) of these three techniques:

  • Use a limited palette
  • Otherwise, give each color something in common (I’ll elaborate below)
  • Once you’ve got your basic color palette, mix them all together in every 70/30 ratio possible to expand your color palette (tutorial below)

Having recently moved half-way across the world (again), I had the opportunity to buy a whole new set of acrylic paints. Much research into color mixing theory ensued, but this post is more concerned with the practical techniques I picked up.

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I’m so enamoured with these techniques that for my current painting-in-progress, I mocked up 4 separate color swatches, giving me a total of 64 colors to choose from. Of those colours, 16 of them are various shades of grey. I hope this excites you too.

On a Side Note

For those of you who’ve been wondering where I’ve been these past 2.5 months, I do intend to write a blog post dedicated entirely to this topic. I know, it would make more sense to write that post first but I’m not quite ready to delve into that epic tale. Suffice to say, we’re currently back home in Australia, sans Nettle, and happily ensconced in the spectacular Dandenong Ranges, reconnecting with much-loved people.

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Technique #1: Use a limited palette

Using a limited palette virtually guarantees that every one of your hues will have something in common because you will have to mix most colors yourself and will be doing so with a limited range of paints. For example, I used the same red and the same blue when mixing these shades of purple and grey below:

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If I had used a different red and a different blue for the purple and the grey I would have followed the step below to give them something in common and thereby “unify” them.

Technique #2: Give your colours something in common

If you’d prefer not to spend as much time mixing paints as a limited palette necessitates, or simply don’t want to feel constrained, you’ll find that giving each hue something in common will harmonise your color scheme. Sometimes I’ll add natural iron oxide paints (raw and burnt sienna and umbers) to each of my color mixes because there’s nothing they don’t go with and they temper the saturation of synthetic organic pigments. Because I use a limited palette I’ve not experimented a great deal in this area but I would be interested to see the results of using other hues, such as yellow ochre, chromium green oxide, or Davy’s grey, to name a few.

Technique #3: Expand your color scheme with a mixing grid

Color mixing grid

If you’re like me and know which three or four colors you want to be dominant in your painting before you begin, but get a bit stuck on fleshing out the rest, this is going to rock your world. This color mixing grid system will help you to expand your palette without introducing new, potentially clashing, hues.

Essentially, we’re mixing each color with the others in every 70/30 ratio possible. Laying our colours out in a grid will make this super easy.

Step 1… Draw a grid

There are four colours in my color scheme, so I’ve drawn up a grid with four rows and four columns.

Step 2… Paint the first row and column

Until you get used to using this system, you’ll want to paint the first box in the first row and and the first column with the first color and the second box in the second row and column with the second color and so forth.

Step 3… Mix in 70/30 ratios

Working your way across horizontally, mix your horizontal color with the vertical color in a 70/30 ratio. So in this example, the top row of colours are all variations on dark grey because dark grey constituted 70% of each of those mixtures. The vertical from top left to bottom right will repeat your original colours because you’re mixing them with each other.

We now have 16 beautifully harmonious colors with which to flesh out our painting.

You can elaborate further on this grid of colors by making others which increase or decrease the saturation, the value, or add another color entirely!

For example, with this grid I found the colours turned a bit dark and too saturated for my tastes so I made three more grids:

A lighter value grid:

color palette

A de-saturated grid:

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As you can see, the way I de-saturated my colors shifted the hue of my purples too far to blue, so next time I’ll try something neutral, like adding Golden’s neutral grey.

And a lighter value, de-saturated grid:

color swatches

I’ll be sharing images of the painting I mocked up this color scheme for in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

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