Matching colors: tips and tricks

People often think color mixing is difficult. The real problem is usually not the mixing itself. Properly matching the colors being perceived is usually the biggest challenge.

If your not entirely clear about the color you’re seeing, it’s no wonder that you fail trying to mix it.

Judging colors well is much harder than it seems. Even only tonal values are something we often misjudge. For example, if we see a mostly dark piece, we often perceive lighter parts as very light.

The photo below contains mostly quite dark colors. Amidst dark colors, chances are that we percieve lighter colors way lighter than they actually are. On the white background at the right you can see how relatively dark those colors are. You may also notice that there is much more color in it than you would expect. I also put an arrow by the whites of the eyes. We think or expect eye white to be light, but often it is darker than expected.

Colors we think of as light are sometimes quite dark! (Photo: Samanta Barbara Alcala /

The same is true the other way around for darker pieces in a light section. When we draw or paint, we often tend to exaggerate the darker parts in such a case.

In the picture below you see a white suit, so watch out! Before you know it you estimate the shadows of the folds, for example, much too dark. I took some colors from the folds and put them on a black background, so you can see that the shadows are quite light. They also contain a relatively large amount of color.

Colors that we estimate dark are sometimes actually lighter than we think! (Photo: Jonathan Borba /

Here’s a section of painting made by a keen observer (self-portrait Rembrandt van Rijn). Look at the eye white: the shadows look natural in terms of tonal value and color.

Also look at how he painted the light hat. No exaggerated values in the shadows and they also contain a relative amount of color. Notice how the edge of the hat on his forehead is not represented by a black line, but all kinds of subtle variations in color and tonal value.

Colors next to each other also cause us to get confused quickly. The gray area in the image below seems to have a different color each time, even though it is the same gray each time:

And so there can be all sorts of things that fool us. Here are some tips to help you look more objectively at the colors you see.

Isolating color

We have seen how our perception is fooled by the total picture of colors. You can judge colors much better if you “isolate” them.

You can cover up the surrounding colors, so that you only see your target color. You can cut a hole out of a sturdy piece of paper. You can look through the hole at your subject (or lay it on your photo if you are working with photos). That way you can see the actual color much better.

Isolating a color allows you to judge it better. (Photo: Jeff Denlea /

If you make your cardboard medium-gray, it becomes much easier to estimate the correct tonal value.

Checking colors

It is also important to check your colors regularly. Especially if you don’t have much painting experience yet. Check yourself continuously and adjust the colors until you get as close as possible. In the beginning you will be shocked how often you are totally wrong. That’s okay, we all know how difficult it is to estimate colors objectively. The more experience you get, the less often you will fall into the traps. You can easily check your colors in the following ways:

With a palette knife

If you mix with a palette knife, you can very easily check your mixing color with your sample. You crush some of your mixing color on the back of your palette knife and hold it in front of your subject. In this way you can easily see what is missing from your blending color compared to your example.

With a palette knife you can easily check your colors. This way you can easily see what is missing in your mixture. (Reference photo: Ray Aucott /

With a scrap of paper

You can put some of your paint on the edge of a piece of scrap paper. Hold that up next to your sample. That way you can easily see what’s missing from your color. If your color is right, it will blend seamlessly with the color in the photo.

Put some paint on the edge of a scrap of paper and compare it to the color you see.

Starting from gray

Most of the colors we see are quite desaturated (not vivid). They generally contain a relatively large amount of gray. There are quite a few colors that are very difficult to assess at first glance.

You can then prepare some gray paint and then make sure that the tonal value (how light or dark the color is) is already as close as possible. Then compare the gray paint with your target color. You can often see quite clearly what color is missing from your gray. You can then add some color through your gray and then check again regularly to see if you are getting close.

Step 1: Gray paint on the palette knife, the tonal value is pretty accurate and now I can easily see what color is missing from my gray.
Now I’ve added a little yellow and red.

Working with the color wheel

You can hold a color wheel near the target color. On the color wheel we see colors in their most optimal, saturated (bright) form. Turn the color wheel near your target color and see which color has the most connection. Often you can easily find out what kind of color you are dealing with.

Once you are quite sure what color you see, mixing and matching isn’t that big of an issue. Especially if you’re just starting to paint, it’s good to check yourself a lot. With more painting experience you will start to judge colors better and you will not have to check that precisely anymore.

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