Lessons from “Making Color Sing”: Octanic Color

I’m working through Jeanne Dobie’s Making Color Sing, and after exploring chapter 1’s Mouse Power, I’m up to chapter 2: Octanic Color. The topic of this chapter is finding an individual paint color’s bias (e.g. lemon yellow is a “cool” or green-toned yellow), and using that to mix vibrant color. Although Dobie uses “warm” and “cool” terminology – which I notoriously dislike – I take the point that it’s important to know a paint’s color bias in order to mix vibrant paints! It’s easy to say that “red and blue make purple,” but your purple will come out different depending on which red and which blue you use.


This is one of the chapters that doesn’t have a specific lesson, so I made one up (not using warm and cool terminology!)

Chapter topic: Know the color bias of a primary to mix vibrant secondaries.

Assignment: Mix the following: 

  1. Vibrant Purple (from a purple-toned magenta and a purple-toned blue)
  2. Vibrant Orange (from an orange-toned red and an orange-toned yellow)
  3. VIbrant Green (from a green-toned yellow and a green-toned blue)

Stretch Assignment: Now, “break the rules” to create muted hues (e.g. a muted purple from an orange-toned red and any blue). Which of your paint combinations create the most muted hues? Did any surprise you? What use cases can you think of vibrant vs. muted hues?

Let’s try it!

For all three of these charts, I used a total of six paints:

In all of the charts, I arranged the colors so that the cleanest, most vibrant mix should come from the top left, and the dullest, most muted mix should come from the bottom right.


Purple mixing chart

As expected, the boldest, cleanest color came from purple-toned “red” (magenta) + purple-toned blue (ultramarine).

The bias of the red seemed to have the biggest impact. Both purples made from Quin Coral were muted, but both the purples from Quin Magenta were pretty bold. The Cobalt Turquoise ones weren’t that different from the Ultramarine ones.


Orange mixing chart

Again, the red seemed to make the most difference, as I found both the oranges from Quin Coral pretty good. Actually, they’re mostly decent; the only one I don’t like is the bottom right, from green-toned yellow and purple-toned red (i.e. neither of the components is orange-toned). It seems like orange is good as long as at least one of the components (the yellow or the red) is orange-toned.


Green mixing chart

This range of colors showed the most variation to my eye. The green-toned turquoise and green-toned yellow together created an almost neon green – extraordinarily vibrant! (I praised this combo before in my post on neon colors.) Both the “off by one” combinations were muted in their own way, with the green-toned turquoise + orange-yellow green making a sort of avocado, and the green-toned yellow + purple-toned ultramarine combo looking more like sage. The mix in the lower right, where neither color is green-toned, is barely green at all; it’s more of a slightly green-toned gray.


I feel like my experiments have demonstrated the general rule that you get the brightest vibrant color from mixing two colors biased toward the same color family you’re trying to mix (e.g. green-toned yellow + green-toned blue = vibrant green). But the exact shades can vary a lot. Some colors don’t behave as you would expect; some components make more or less of a difference on the final mix; and every “muted” shade has its own personality and its own use cases. For example, none of the greens I mixed are “wrong,” they all have different possible use cases in a landscape! (The most vibrant one is actually probably one of the ones I’d reach for the least.) It’s always a good idea to experiment and make charts from your own colors to see how they mix.

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