Darkening Light Colors

Four Methods – Four Effects

It can be a challenge to darken any light color while still retaining its character.  Think of the paintings which have a subject with a light “local” color, yet also has areas of shade and shadow.  There are several ways to handle these areas sensitively and effectively. When you look at your palette, you probably see a lot of light colors. In fact most watercolor paints available are on the light end of the value scale. This is particularly true with the warm colors – yellows, oranges and reds.

 The Method Depends On The Effect

There are four ways to darken a light color while retaining its character. Each method involves mixing the original light color with another color and creates a different result from the others.

In each case, the original light color is mixed with:

  • Black or gray (Ivory black preferred)
  • The complement of the original color
  • A similar (or analogous) color
  • A similar earth color (burnt or raw sienna; burnt or raw umber)

Each of these mixtures will create a darkened version of the original color. Each will also create a different visual effect that may work better in some situations than in others.

In general, mixing a color with black or with it’s complement tends to simply create a lower-intensity version of the  original. This will work fine in almost every situation, since the combination of value and intensity change creates of shade or shadow.

Mixing the original with a similar – analogous – color or with one of the earth tones results in a somewhat more colorful effect that is appropriate in situations where we want to show the effect of light bounce into the shade or shadow.

 Exploring Color Mixing Possibilities

It is easy to explore the possibilities with each of these methods by creating a simple set of mixtures.  Organizing the explorations in the form of a chart is easy and logical.  As an added bonus, the chart can be kept handy for easy reference when needed.

The chart we’ll make in this lesson has five light colors from the palette placed in the left-most column. In each column to the right, the original color has been mixed with another color,  to match one of the possibilities from the list above.

The mixing color used in each color swatch is noted below the swatch itself.

The colors used on this chart are those found on my palette. No matter what colors are found on yours, find the light ones and create a color chart like this to explore the effect and to use for future reference.

 What You’ll Need:

  • Color mixing chart – download the layout below
  • a small sheet of watercolor paper, approx. 8″ x 10″  or so – as always, Arches 140lb Cold Press is recommended
  • Paint – find the lightest colors on your palette and start with those.  Usually it’s the yellows, oranges and reds.


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