As a primary color, you can’t just whip up blue from scratch. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of fun with it, however, and that’s going to be the subject of our article today. In this article I’ll teach you what colors make blue and how to make it dance and sing with a little practical mixing. We’ll talk about muted blues, light and dark blues, turquoise blues, and more.
Prepare yourself for the irony of catching a case of the GOOD blues!
The joys of muting your blues
Muted colors are so much fun to work with. You can take that vibrant blue down a notch, make it somber, and if you add the tiniest bit of color nearby then it practically shines. Muted blues are good for more than contrast, however. You can use them in many different ways, both over and subtle. A little muted blue here and there can really balance out what’s around it. It’s all a matter of learning how to do it and practicing what you’ve learned.
In case I’ve lost you there, muting a color is when you dull it a bit. Think of it as being the opposite of vibrant and you are on the right track. So, how is it done? Let’s dive in and see!
When you are muting colors then you need to have an understanding of complimentary colors. These are colors which are opposite of each other on your color wheel. For blue, that color just happens to be orange, so if we want to mute blue up a bit then why don’t we just mix it with orange?
Try mixing your Ultramarine Blue with a nice Cadmium Orange and check out what you get. Your blue has effectively become… well, less blue. It works the opposite way too, just in case you want to mute your orange. Adding a little Ultramarine Blue to a Cadmium Orange will make it less Orange.
You can also make a sort of brownish-blue by combining Burnt Umber along with a Ultramarine or a Cobalt Blue and it makes a rich and interesting sort of blue that I think you will like. Try experimenting with muting different blues with different oranges so that you can see the range that you have to work with. It looks amazing and let’s face it, it’s fun!
Mixing up light blues
Lightening up the sky is easier than you think. You are probably thinking to yourself ‘yes, just add white’, but there is a little more to it than that. For one thing, you want to switch up your blues. Adding white to an Ultramarine Blue and to a Cobalt Blue will produce 2 different blues. Take it a step further by taking advantage of the muted blue trick which we previously discussed.
Mix in a little orange.
A little bit of Cadmium Orange mixes with your selected blue and some white will yield some lovely light blue that you can be proud of. With a little experimentation you’ll also start noticing that some of your light blues are cold and others are quite warm. Take notice as you are playing with the colors and you’ll have some excellent light blue recipes ready to mix up when you need them.
Making turquoise blues
Mixing up a basic Turquoise is pretty easy, it’s basically just a blue, green, and a white, but where’s the fun in that? Specific mixes such as Ultramarine Blue and Veronese Green, for instance, will get you a darker Turquoise once you’ve added that final white. Mix that same Veronese Green with a Cobalt Blue, however, and when the white goes in then you’ve got a rich and vibrant bright Turquoise color.
Cadmium Green plus Ultramarine Blue and just a little touch of white give you a nice ‘dusk turquoise’ that you can get a lot of fun with as well.
Try experimenting with your different blues and greens to see the various shades which you can create and with a little or a lot of white you can really tweak them up nicely. The next time that you are painting an ocean scene or a lovely sky then you’re going to have a lot of fun with your new homemade Turquoise.
Darkening up your blues
Blue darkens up oh so nicely and knowing a few basics can empower you to take advantage of this and to incorporate it into your work. For some simple 2-part darkening, Try taking your Ultramarine Blue and mixing it with Burnt Umber or with Dioxazine Purple. The Burnt Umber actually makes a dark blue with some noticeable purple to it that I really like. The Dioxazine Purple, by contrast, gives you a dark blue with just the subtlest hint of purple.
You can also try some 3-part combinations to great effect. Try mixing together some Ultramarine Blue with some Pthalo Green and Alizarin Crimson. Next, mix together some Ultramarine Blue with Pthalo Green and Dioxazine Purple. Both of these combinations will produce some serious dark blues that you
“Both of these combinations will produce some serious dark blues”
can enjoy and with a little experimentation you are sure to find some favorites.
Warming up your cold, cold blues
Blues are already considered to be on the cool side, but every now and again you want to warm those blues up so that you can play a little on that canvas. As it turns out, you can certainly do so with a little clever mixing and experimentation.
Some blues, like Cobalt Blue and Ultramarine Blue are already a little warm to begin with, but we can certainly make them warmer. As an exercise, take each of these blues and try mixing them with the following colors:
- Cadmium Green
- Burnt Sienna
- Alizarin Crimson
- Burnt Umber
You will end up with some very interesting and very warm blues that you can play around with in your art. My favorite is mixing with the Burnt Umber, as you really get a rich and warm blue that looks amazing on your canvas.
Play with these color combinations and see what you think. Who would have thought that blue would have such a warm and fuzzy side?
Learning your way around the blues
Now that you’ve got some basics, the next steps are really going to be up to you. You’ve gotta get some practice in! If you aren’t currently keeping a notebook to track your colors then I would highly recommend it. Every now and again you mix a perfect little hue that you really want to remember and then you try to reproduce it and…. Well, usually lots of cursing is involved.
Don’t let that happen to you! Notebooks are cheap and you can write down mixtures that you particularly like just to store them away. While the odds are that you’ll remember, it’s good practice and every now and again you’ll find something worth noting so consider getting a notebook to track your little formulas in.
You’ll be happy that you did!
Exercises to practice your blues
There are a number of things which you can paint that will give you some good practice with the blues. In this section I’ll make some suggestions which you are free to follow or to use simply as a little inspiration to get your creative juices flowing. Theory only goes so far, so be sure to take what you have learned today and start putting it to some good use. Here are a few things which you can try painting just for fun and to get a little practice in.
Paint the sky outside
The sky is always a lot of fun and depending on the time of the day and the weather you’ve got a lot of things going on up there that you can try to capture on your canvas. Try painting the sky outside and this will give you some solid practice with your blues. See what happen when you throw a little turquoise in, go wild with it. The end result doesn’t even have to be a realistic sky, just get some of your new blues on canvas and see what you can do with them.
Do a Google search to find a coast that you like. I’ve been to Cyprus personally and Larnaca has some pretty amazing coastline. The water is transparent and you can see straight down to the bottom. Find a beautiful picture of a coast that strikes your fancy and see if your new blues help you capture a little more than you could before.
I think you’re going to love the results.
A realistic Smurph
This is just for fun, you don’t have to do this, but if you want to have a goof and get some practice with your blues, take a picture of a person that you know or pick a person at random from Google Images and make them into a real ‘smurph’. This will let you work with various blues as well as skin textures, shading, and more and can teach you while you are having a little ridiculous fun.
On a more serious note, find some pictures of Siberian ice sculptures and paint yourself one of these. The ice and the light will be a challenge but a great way to work on your muted blues so that you can sharpen up your skills effectively. Give it a go and see what comes out.
Simple fruits are fun to do and pleasing to the eye. Try painting some Blueberries to get a little practice
“It looks deceptively simple”
in and see how much of that vibrant color that you can capture. It looks deceptively simple but getting the color just right can be a real brain-teaser. So, get some Blueberries and paint them up to see just how much of that color you can reproduce.
Paint a picture of a blue snowcone. It’s fun, easy on the surface, but if has a lot of little details that will have a good time trying to get just so. It’s a bit of fun but while you are learning it’s best to find little exercises like that you can let loose on and not get overly serious about. It’s about the practice, not the product, so why not paint a snowcone?
Famous Blue Pigments that have been used in Art
While we’re on the subject of blues, here are a few collected tidbits on that primary color that we love so much. Nobody really thinks about it, but the mighty blue certainly does come in many different flavors. Here are just a few varieties with a bit of history behind them.
Produced by weathering deposits of copper ore, Azurite was used as early as 2500 B.C. on up until 1800 A.D.. Azurite is a perfect blue for the winter skies, though it was seldom used in painting in its actual heyday, as Egyptian Blue was the blue of choice. You can see some nice work with Azurite in the 1634 ‘The Surrender of Breda’ by Diego Velasquez.
A favorite of Claude Monet, who often mixed Cerulean with ultramarine and with cobalt to create some of this most stunning works. The name itself comes from the Latin ‘caeruleus’ which simply means ‘dark blue’.
Cobalt was used in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Chinese to decorate porcelain. Around 1802 a purer version was manufactured by a French Chemist named Louis Jaques Thenard and it since mass production quite quickly after that. Van Gogh and Renoir were quite fond of this color and you can see a lot of it present in the former’s famous ‘Starry Night’.
Created by the Egyptians in 2200 B.C., the first ‘Egyptian Blue’ was made from lapis lazuli but due to the scarcity of lapis and demand for the color, they later found a way to bake it. This required calcium copper silicate, copper, limestone, and sand. It had to be heated between 1470 and 1650 degrees so the fact that they figured out this process at all is an amazing salute through the ages to the power of blue.
Indigo actually isn’t a pigment, but technically a dye which is extracted from the Indigofera tinctoria plant. The plant grew so abundantly that Indigo was the color dye of choice in the 17th and 18th centuries, though later a synthetic indigo would replace which is still in use to this day!
Prussian Blue was discovered by accident in 1704 by Johann Jacob Diesbach, a German dyemaker who was actually trying to whip up a new red. He accidentally got animal blood on his compound potash and rather than reddening, the result became the first Prussian Blue! You’ve seen this color before, most likely, as it just so happens to be a favorite of one Pablo Picasso.
Once the most sought-after color pigment in Europe, the name for Ultramarine means ‘beyond the sea’ and while it was first discovered by 6th century Buddhists it wouldn’t hit Europe until the 14th and 15th centuries, when Italian traders brought Ultramarine to Europe to stay.
Now you’ve got the blues!
Well, you’ve got some basics now and you should be ready to get started playing with blues all by your lonesome. Just remember to have fun with it and to try mixing as many of the different variants as you can to get a feel for it and to figure out your favorites. What blue is for you?
Don’t forget to keep a notebook so that you can write down your favorite blue hues and mix them up on the fly when you need it. You always think that you will remember a mixture but every now and again you’ll get a crazy idea and if you don’t write it down, you might just lose it!
The most important part of this process, however, is going to be putting in the actual time to do some mixing. Knowing how it’s done is not enough, you need to make some time and actually play with the colors if you want to get to know them
In other words, it’s time to practice, practice, practice!