How to Mix Orange (beyond elementary school basics!)

Hi guys!  I hope your week has been going well!  This post is a continuation of my How to Mix Colours series that I’ve been working on.  Last week I showed you how to mix various greens here, if you missed it.  Also be sure to check out my video on Colour Bias here.

So today we’ll be talking about how to mix orange, another important secondary colour.  Now the first thought that probably pops into your head is to mix red and yellow, most likely Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow, right?  I’ve been pushing these two colours for a while now, and even mentioned them as the alternative to buying Cadmium Orange from the store in this post.  But now we’re going to dive a bit deeper into the orange rabbit hole, and explore all of the various forms of orange we may want to use in our paintings!

Toning Down Vibrant Orange

The oranges in this sunset look vibrant, but they're actually not as bright as one would think. The contrast with the black enhances their perceived vibrance, and the yellow mixed in with the orange brightens it up without over-saturating the colour.
The oranges in this sunset look vibrant, but they’re actually not as bright as one would think. The contrast with the black enhances their perceived vibrance, and the yellow mixed in with the orange brightens it up without over-saturating the colour.

The first thing to know, I guess, is what the heck to do with that vibrant Cadmium Orange you’ve mixed.  Most things that exist in nature aren’t blindingly orange, but are a more muted version of it.  Adding some complimentary blue to orange will start to tone it out, and grey it down.  How much blue you add determines how much more unsaturated (ie. how much more grey) your orange becomes(Cerulean blue is an excellent choice for toning down bright orange).  This is a good start for mixing the base of a skin tone, or even for starting to paint the colour of an orange peel in a still-life (remember, colours in real life are actually quite unsaturated…the temptation is to use vibrant orange on that fruit, but using a more muted orange will give a more believable effect).


To make a peachy colour, simply mix your chosen red and yellow, and then add Titanium White to lighten the tint while at the same time reducing the vibrancy.  The white will start to make the colours more chalky, or pastel-like, giving you the peach colour you’re looking for.  If it’s still too saturated then simply add a touch of Cerulean Blue until it becomes the tone you need.  What reds and yellows you decide to use will determine if the peach is very light and bright (like a pastel colour) or more dark and subdued.

Mixing a Darker Orange

Another strategy is to start mixing darker oranges to begin with.  What if you want a dark, but still saturate orange?  You won’t get that from mixing bright Cadmium Orange then trying to tone it down, you’ll lose it’s vibrance in the process.  One idea would be to start with darker colours…try Cadmium Yellow Medium, and mix it with something like Alizarin Crimson.  This will give you a nice, dark, blood-orange type colour (it will also be slightly unsaturated, as Alizarin Crimson has a purple bias, but this will prevent your orange from becoming too over-saturated).

You can also vary the amount of red and yellow you put into your orange in the first place.  Adding more red (whatever red you choose, be it Cadmium or Alizarin) will make a darker orange to begin with, while adding more yellow will create a brighter orange.  Don’t simply mix equal ratios of red a yellow, play with them to see how dark or how light you can get the orange to be.

Starting with Browns

For more muted oranges, useful in landscape paintings, starting with a brown may actually be a better idea, and omit the red-yellow combination entirely.  Burnt Sienna is a nice, red-based brown, so adding a touch of Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna will create a very dark, muted, earthy-orange suitable for forestry and riverbanks.

Remember that the perception of the colour you’re mixing depends on the colours around it!  So if you mix this very earthy, muted orange, you may first think that it’s still a dark muddy brown on your pallet.  But adding that colour into a painting next to the blues of

Don’t resort to buying a tube or orange paint! There’s so much we can do with colours we already have 🙂

the sky or a stream will instantly start making that colour look more orange-like without you doing anything extra! In a situation like this, a more vibrant orange would be overbearing.  Remember to always try your colours out by picking a little up off your pallet and holding it up to your painting before dismissing a colour as too dark or too unsaturated to be useable.

I hope this post helps!  Remember that mixing orange goes way past our simple elementary school lessons.  If there’s red and yellow in there somewhere, you’ll get some kind of orange.  And it’s usually the subtle, muted tones of orange that we’re really looking for, even though as beginners we may instinctually start making vibrant oranges to begin with.

Have fun, and never stop creating!

-Ashley <3

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