What Colors Make Orange? Successful Artists Transcend the Basics with Color Theory

What colors make orange?

The simple answer is: red and yellow make orange. 

However, the quick answer ignores nuance.  Not all oranges are the same. 

If you want a brilliant, perfect orange, mix red and yellow primary colors to create a flawless orange secondary color.  

How mundane.

The secret behind color theory is that nobody wants flawless synthetic orange. Simply mixing primary red and yellow ignores the vast playground of color, which includes hundreds, if not thousands, of shades of oranges. 

Artists create fantastical expanses of color ranging from cool red oranges to warm yellow oranges, subdued oranges to brilliant oranges. 

Join them with this quick and easy look at color theory using the variety of colors used to make orange as an example. 

What the video for some examples of the different shades of oranges you can get!


Color theory isn’t just about mixing two colors to get another color. It’s a system that lets you predict how your color scheme will harmonize with itself and allows you to plan that harmony in your works. Considering your color scheme in advance will help you create a successful image before ever making that first brushstroke.

Learning color theory is critical and underrated if you’re serious about turning your passion for painting into a viable side hustle

Here we explore color theory using orange as an example and fully answer the question, “What colors make orange?”. 

How to Mix a Variety of Oranges

What Colors Make Orange
A Variety of Oranges

Every yellow and red pigment has different qualities, allowing an endless spectrum of orange mixtures. Experiment with these mixtures. Try adding more red to one and more yellow to another. See the range of red oranges and yellow oranges you can create with just these two colors. 

Next, add a dab of white to all your mixtures to test how the color behaves as it cools and grows lighter. Note the fantastic array of colors you’ve created with these three pigments alone. 

Using Tinting to Get the Perfect Orange

Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to produce an even greater spectrum of oranges with shading and tinting. Artists accomplish this by choosing the correct pigment before starting a project. 

Some pigments are transparent, and some are opaque. If you want the brightest orange, choose something opaque like Cadmium or Lemon yellow. Combine this with a transparent red, like Alizarin Crimson, or Transparent Red Oxide, to create a bright, brilliant shade of orange. 

Alternatively, substitute the bright reds and yellows for earth tones while working on a naturalistic painting. Consider the earthy, warm Venetian Red by Winsor & Newton or its counterpart Yellow Ochre for a pre-made orangish-yellow. 

Earthtones make breathtaking colors ideal for a landscape or portrait. Although they may lack the brilliance of sunset orange, it’s important to remember that a painting’s beauty lies in the artistry of subdued colors more often than in bold, striking contrasts. 

Remember that you don’t have to mix every color from the perfect primary blends of red, yellow, and blue. Various pre-made mixes are available across the spectrum of tones and may be an ideal starting point, depending on what you are painting. 

What Colors Make Orange Neutral? 

Have you noticed the phenomenon where it’s sometimes difficult to tell what color you’re looking at? It might be orangish grey, bluish-grey, or greyish blue. If you’ve experienced this, you’ve encountered a neutral color situation. 

Neutrals make brilliant color possible. Though you can paint without them, you might find that when you create color-neutral combinations in your paintings by accident, they add a sense of atmosphere that bright colors can’t produce on their own.

What Colors Make Orange - Color Wheel jm

Create a neutral color by adding the opposite on the color wheel, known as the complementary color, to a mixture.  Red and green are complementary, yellow and purple are complementary, and blue and orange are complementary. Artists mix complementary pigments together to neutralize them.  

For instance, you can combine blue and brown to make a chromatic black because brown is a very dark shade of orange. When you mix the dark orange and dark blue, they neutralize each other. The end result is the absence of color, which appears black.  

Painters make black from Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber. Next, they combine various parts of their black mixture with different amounts of white to create a gray tonal scale. Using blue and brown for your black is advantageous because you can use a little more brown to make the resulting mixtures warmer or add more blue to make the resulting mixtures cooler.

This same process works to create a dull orange as well. If you add blue to orange, but not enough to neutralize it completely, you will still be able to tell that it was orange, but it won’t be as vibrant. Artists employ this method to tone down certain aspects of a piece. 

What Colors Make Orange Look Good?

The next step to exploring color theory in art is to make your painting realistic. Although a perfect orange offers brilliant colors and can give make your masterpiece stand out, it’s often not realistically found in nature. 

When depicting a still life or landscape scene, it’s vital to mix realistic colors, making your oranges look true to life. 

For example, imagine that you’re painting an actual orange. The fruit rests on the table, with light from the window shining on one side. The off-centered lighting gives the orange sphere a crescent-shaped darkened side which casts an elongated shadow on the table. 

image of an orange with a gray scale background casting a shadow
Orange casting a shadow – credit Unsplash

The light side of the fruit showcases the brilliant orange color sharing its name, but consider the shadows.

 How would you describe the orange in the shadows?

The color will vary slightly based on your light source and the color of the table, but those slight variations don’t impact the tried and true method of painting a cohesive and color-true spherical orange. 

Add blue. 

A tiny dab of blue will neutralize the brightness of the orange, just like the color appears neutralized in the orange’s shadow area. 

Getting the Mixture Right

It takes some tweaking and exploration to get your neutral mixture JUST right, but the results are well worth it. The truth is that most oranges in nature aren’t the perfect, bright orange you achieve when you mix red and yellow. Most are toned down with shades of blue. 

It’s also important to remember that different props require different mixtures and color schemes. For example, the red-orange color will impact your neutral if you use a blood orange instead of the traditional fruit. 

You will have to shift your compliment. 

Since your light color shifts toward red, your compliment will shift naturally toward green. Memorizing the color wheel is essential, but until you do, keep one nearby to ensure your intuitions are correct. 

Using Color Harmonies to Establish a Solid Foundation

You can easily pre-plan your color harmonies by looking at the color of your subject(s) and finding that color’s complement. Remember that you must treat each object a little differently. 

If you’re painting a woman with red hair wearing a blue hat, you will treat all three main color masses differently. The neutral will always be the color opposite your main color on the color wheel. There are only a few to memorize: Blue-Orange, Yellow-Purple, and Red-Green. 


color theory infographic

Color and Value Are Both Relative

The basics of color theory are just the beginning. Subtle intricacies arise based on the relative nature of color and value. 

Orange will seem more orange when your image has blue in it than it would if surrounded by green or yellow. The same applies to the other color harmonies as well. A complimentary color can provide a much-needed “pop” for the primary color. 

To make the most of this stunning relationship in a painting, use your overall light color to establish a unified color harmony.

It’s not as complicated or confusing as it seems. Block your shadows in with a complementing color, even if that means neutralizing a little bit of your light color to turn the form.

In the example of an orange on the table, you’d use blue for your shadows to make the orange pop. Remember that the paint is capable of much more subtlety than can be shown in a photo. Use your knowledge of light/shadow relationships to build up to the saturated orange color prominent in the light using a gradient of value-based neutrals. 

If you paint your whole orange in neutral colors but leave a spot with pure orange, the eye will be drawn to the perfect orange. It’s similar to your natural reaction to a ripe fruit when hungry. Eyes crave bold, brilliant, lush, highly saturated colors. 

The tension created by the flow of neutrals will be satisfied by giving the eye the vivid burst of color saturation it craves. Only fellow artists will understand why your orange still life painting is so compelling. 

Understanding Color Theory

Color theory isn’t as simple as asking “what colors make orange” and mixing the two primary colors. There are millions of shades of orange. 

 Understanding color theory will help you mix the perfect tone for your piece. 

This brief introduction is enough to get you started, but if you are serious about becoming a professional artist, you might benefit from a complete course on color theory. Udemy offers an amazing course to help beginners fully understand the color wheel and the idea behind mixing colors. 

Whether you want to be a professional artist or just paint as a hobby, a basic understanding of color theory will help you craft the perfect piece!