when every painter worth his pigment carried around a little wire rack of color additives and mixed his own colors on the job site. Color mixing was a necessary skill that was passed down from one generation of painter to the next.
As the technology that suppliers used to mix colors in the store improved, the need for painters to master mixing their own colors diminished. By the 1980s this once commonplace practice was in sharp decline, and today it is largely a lost skill from a bygone era.
It hasn’t completely vanished, though. High-end specialty painters, such as those doing historic restoration or faux work, have kept on-the-job-site use of color additives alive.
For some of these artisans, using color additives to gain total control over their color palettes is indispensable. Imagine the frustration a historic restorationist might feel if he attempted to recreate the rich, dark colors of a Queen Anne Victorian façade with store-mixed colors.
For other artisans, mixing their own colors just comes naturally. “The majority of people doing faux work come from art backgrounds,” says Janie Ellis, of Anything But Plain Studio and School of Decorative Finishes in Houston, Texas. “And for most artists, they’ve never seen a color in a jar that they like. They have to doctor it.”
Messing with color additives may be more trouble than most professional painters care to bring upon themselves. But for those who take the leap, there are significant benefits.
“Custom mixing colors is part of the service we offer our clientele, and it helps to set us apart,” Ellis says. “We can mix any color they want. If they want the walls to match their rug or their drapes, we can do it.”
One risk involved in mixing your own colors is that if you don’t get it just right the first time and have to keep adding color, you can quickly wind up with more paint than you need. “If you’re not careful, you can overshoot and mix too much,” says Rod O’Neal, corporate product manager for Kelly-Moore Paint Co., which has a line of universal colors. Furthermore, O’Neal warns, if you don’t have a good eye for color, mixing your own colors can be an exercise in frustration — “And believe me, a lot of people do not have a good eye for color,” he says.
In addition to mixing colors from scratch, color additives can also be used to tweak store-mixed colors on the job site, saving you endless runs back and forth to the paint store when finicky clients or decorators want just a tad more yellow in their burnt umber or not quite so much cream in their raw sienna. This is the most common use for color additives.
With color additives you can also get deeper, richer color than you’ll typically find at the paint store. And you can get more complex colors: blues with touches of orange and red, perhaps, or golden yellow with a hint of raw sienna.
“When you make colors more complex, they can go along with any other color inside the room,” says Dean Sickler, owner of Dundean Studios, a decorative painting school in northern New Jersey. “It’s all about nuance. It’s pretty subtle, but it’s there.”
Color additives come in both liquid and powdered forms. Among liquids, there are oil-based, water-based and universal colorants available. Universals, which have an ethylene-glycol base, work with either oil- or water-based paints, and typically with glazes, varnishes, lacquers, and other coatings. Popular universal brands include ProLine Universal Colorants, Sheffield Universal Tints, Colortrend Plus universal colorants and Mixol Universal Tints.
Mixol, a German brand, is one of the premium color additives in terms of quality and price. It’s the colorant of choice for the restorationists at the Getty Museum, who keep some of the world’s greatest masterpieces in tip-top condition. It’s the choice of the furniture restorationists who did touch-ups on the desks and chairs of the U.S. Senate.
“Mixol can achieve deep, dark colors not achievable with most tints,” says JoAnne Campisi, of Sepp Leaf Products, the New York-based, U.S. distributor for Mixol.
Mixol comes in 32 colors, 15 of which are made for fast-drying varnishes, silicate and silicone resin paints and coatings. They can even be used to color concrete and mortar.
One potential pitfall in using universal colorants is oversaturation. Put in too much colorant and it will overwhelm the binder, leading to rub-off or poor adhesion.
Charts are available from the manufacturers showing how much colorant to use.
Another type of color additive is the do-it-yourself concentrate type, which includes artists’ oils, Japan colors, poster paints, gauche paints, watercolors and other oil- and water-based paints. Golden Artist Colors Inc. of New York makes artists’ acrylics that are used by many specialty painters as color additives for water-based coatings. Unlike universal colorants, you don’t need to worry about oversaturation when adding paint to paint. “That’s one advantage of using fluid acrylics over universal colorants — fluid acrylic is packaged paint,” says Lori Wilson, an application specialist with Golden Artist Colors.
Some companies sell color additives in their pure, powdered form. The powders are made of mineral or metal particles and offer a variety of colors and effects, such as metallic, iridescent, pearlescent and sparkle finishes. They can be mixed with oil- or water-based coatings. They work particularly well when mixed with clear coatings, such as a clear varnish or a clear glaze. One current trend is to mix these specialty-finish powders with a clear wax, which is applied atop Venetian plaster, “to give it sparkle and a little flavor,” says Larry Neuberg, president of Gold Leaf & Metallic Powders, in California.
One note on powders: They can be hard to mix if you don’t wet them down first.
But regardless of whether you’re using powders or liquids, oil-based, water-based, or universal tints, color additives can save you trips to the paint store, pump up your color palette and help you distinguish yourself from the pack.