Color can be a complex and overwhelming subject, so in this article we hope to shed some light on the subject of neutralizing color, or toning it down without changing the color itself or its “color identity”. We will touch upon methods using White, Gray and Black, Complements, and how the Virtual Paint MXR can function as a helpful tool. You can skip ahead to any section that is of particular interest or follow along with a little science on color mixing!
Subtractive Color Mixing
We all have experiences where in an effort to tone down a color we ended up completely changing that color or producing varying shades of brown. Before we get into some advice on how to approach this, it might be helpful to talk about the paint as a physical material first and what happens when we mix color.
As a physical, pigmented material, paint will reflect wavelengths of light that correspond to the visual expression of its color and absorb to a greater or lesser degree the remaining wavelengths. The more colors we mix together, the more light is absorbed, producing darker, duller mixtures. This is why mixing paint is commonly referred to as “subtractive color mixing” as in we are subtracting wavelengths of light. Even white, that might seem like an exception, is darkened by anything it is mixed with.
Below is an example of subtractive color mixing where two complementary colors become darker and duller the more they are mixed together. It is also worth noting here that small additions of a complementary color can serve to tone down a color without dramatically changing its identity. We will go into this in more depth below.
Masstone and Undertone
Another thing to be aware of when mixing color, especially when trying to neutralize color, is identifying a color’s Masstone and Undertone. The Masstone is visible when paint is applied more thickly or when looking inside of a jar for example. The Undertone is most visible when a color is spread thinly over a surface or mixed with a lot of medium. In this example of Quinacridone Magenta, the Masstone looks much different from the luminous Undertone. The Undertone gives us a sense of what the bias of this color is. Is it warm or cool, more yellow or blue? With Quinacridone Magenta, knowing it has a cool bias leaning more towards blue will be important when finding its complement or a color opposite it on the color wheel.
For more information on color bias and its effect on color mixing, please refer to our Just Paint Article: Defining Warm and Cool Colors: It’s All Relative
Methods of Neutralizing Color
Keeping all of this in mind, there are a few ways color can be toned down while mixing without dramatically changing a color’s identity. The simplest of these being additions of white, gray and black. Other methods such as mixing together complements are a little more complex, but equally effective as we will illustrate below.
Mixing Titanium White into a color is an effective method of reducing its saturation, but this will also have an effect on the value (lightness or darkness of a color) and its opacity (how opaque or transparent it is). With colors that have a darker masstone like Ultramarine Blue, the addition of white can actually tease out the color more, making its Masstone look brighter. As more white is added, it becomes more pastel and less saturated. Zinc White with its weaker tinting strength can also be a great white for subtly toning down a color.
You can also neutralize a color by adding gray. The easiest way would be to use one of our Neutral Gray colors that are available within our Heavy Body, OPEN or High Flow Acrylic product lines, but you can easily mix a gray using white and black if you already have these in your studio. Mixing together two complements to get a gray is possible as well. We will go over this in more detail below. If the gray is the same value as the color, it can be a very effective way of toning down a color with even less change. For more information on our Neutral Grays, please refer to these links below:
Similar to white, larger additions of black can have an affect on a color’s opacity and greatly darken its value, but it too can tone down a color. Keep in mind that “black” is a relative term in color mixing, different blacks will be made from different pigments, each with slightly different qualities and biases. For example, Carbon Black, is a cool black with a very strong tinting strength, so often a dab will do! Since Ultramarine Blue is an inherently dark color to begin with, we have included another example using Cadmium Red Light.
A complementary relationship between colors means that they are on opposite sides of the color wheel. When true complements are mixed together, they can neutralize or cancel each other out, producing a gray or black. This becomes a bit more complicated though, because we are dealing with colors made from pigments that each have unique characteristics and color biases. They do not always fall neatly into place on a color wheel as we can see on the illustration to the left. Because of this, finding exact complements can be somewhat challenging. While a good color wheel is a great place to start for finding complements, our online Virtual Paint MXR can be a lifesaver in finding these pairings and working out the mixing ratios to get you the colors you are after. More information on this below.
That being said, when possible, direct complements are an incredibly effective way to tone down color without changing the color’s identity. For this example we chose Fluid Permanent Green Light and Quinacridone Red. When mixed together in equal parts they produce an achromatic gray, or a colorless gray approaching black. This means their color biases cancel each other out, which is an indication that they are good complements. When we take just a little of the Quinacridone Red and add it to the Permanent Green, with a little Titanium White to lighten the color back up (remember, colors will darken with subtractive color mixing), you can see that we effectively toned down the Permanent Green with minimal change to its color identity.
Depending on the tinting strengths between a set of complementary colors, the amount of paint needed to tone down a color will vary and may require some experimentation on the palette. Here are a couple more complementary and near complement scales for some ideas!
Virtual Paint MXR
While digital color mixing works through an “Additive” process, relying on colored lights rather than material color like paint, our MXR software is designed to simulate “Subtractive” color mixing. Because of this, it may not be possible to reach the saturation of some colors chosen from a digital source using paint, a physical material, but the MXR software does a nice job of getting you as close as possible to these colors using GOLDEN Acrylics. The important thing to note with this software is that each color is populated with unique data from our lab and colors mixed using the MXR should perform similarly to GOLDEN Acrylics when mixed on a palette.
By choosing a color from one of the available palettes, (Heavy Body, Fluid, OPEN) we can seek out its complement from colors we may have available in our studios or more broadly to what is available from a GOLDEN paint line. For example, we had a tube of Teal laying around and without physically mixing it with each color we had, we did a quick glance at a color wheel and sought out colors that were between orange and yellow on the MXR. After a few experiments, we found that Pyrrole Orange made an excellent achromatic gray. We then tested this further by doing just a small addition of Pyrrole Orange and we were able to nicely tone down the teal without changing its color. We have re-included our first painted example again to show just how well this software works!
If you haven’t used the MXR software before, here is a link to this software again and a short video walk-through of its features:
We hope this information was helpful. Color mixing can seem vast, but working on a few key things at a time gives you a lot of control when you go to painting! If you have any questions or comments about this article or any other paint related topic, please feel free to contact our Materials Application Department at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 800-959-6543.