Colour Mixing Master Class
Have you ever tried mixing your own hair colour and been disappointed by the results? Do your purples always come out dull and muddied? Learn how to combine colours like a master and mix the perfect hair colour every time.
The CYMK System
Sound familiar? CYMK is the colour system that printers use to mix pigments. It uses Cyan (bright blue), Magenta (bright pink), Yellow and a “key” which is usually black. We’ll be concentrating on CM and Y, but I’ll also give tips for creating darker and lighter colours.
Why use Cyan, Magenta and Yellow and not Blue, Red and Yellow for colour mixing?
With just 3 dyes, you can concoct a rainbow of colours just by mixing them in the right quantities. You were probably taught to mix red/blue/yellow paints at school to make new colours, but if you use cyan, magenta and yellow you can produce brighter, purer colours than with the traditional primary colours of blue, red and yellow.
Here’s an example: let’s say you want to make a purple hair dye.
If you mix red with cyan, you’ll get a muted purple. Mixing pink (magenta) and blue (cyan) makes a brighter purple.
With the CMY system you can create predictable results. Check out the chart below:
You can adjust the ratio of colours to tweak the result.
To make purple you need to mix 3 parts magenta with 1 part cyan. This is labelled on the chart with its mixing ratio 3M:1C.
To make violet you need to mix 2 parts magenta with 1 part cyan. This is labelled on the chart with its mixing ratio 2M:1C.
Violet is less pink than purple, so you use less pink in your mix.
Here’s another example:
If you want a pure green you mix 1 part cyan with 1 part yellow. (1C:1Y)
If you want a yellow green you can mix 1 part cyan with 2 parts yellow. (1C:2Y)
If you want a greenish yellow, add more yellow to the mix: 1 part cyan with 4 parts yellow. (1C:4Y)
See how it works?
As long as you measure out your colours and use the same dyes each time, your hair colour should come out exactly as expected, first time, every time.
We’ve all done it: started applying dye and run out half way through. With this method, it should be easy to mix an exact match to finish off your colour, but it can be helpful to avoid running out in the first place.
Step 1: Figure out how much hair dye you usually use
Take me as an example. My hair is pretty long – mid way down my back – and I tend to use one and a half jars of Directions each time I dye my hair. That works out at about 135ml (that’s about 4.5 fl oz in American). I’ll need a total of 135ml to cover my hair
Step 2: Decide on your colour
Let’s say I want to dye my hair violet. What did our chart say the ratio was again? Oh yeah, 2 parts cyan to 1 part magenta (2C:1M).
Step 3: Figure out your measurement
I’m using 2 parts cyan and 1 part magenta – that’s 3 parts in total.
I know I need 135ml of hair colour to cover my hair, so I divide that into 3 parts = 135ml / 3 = 45ml. Each “part” is 45ml.
That means for my 2 parts cyan, I need to measure out 90ml (45ml x 2). For my 1 part magenta, I need to measure out 45ml of magenta hair colour.
Mixing 90ml of cyan and 45ml of magenta makes the 135ml of violet that I need to cover my hair.
(If I decided I was going for purple, which is 3 parts cyan to 1 part magenta, I’d need to divide my 135ml by 4 this time (3 parts + 1 part) and each part would be about 34ml.)
What Hair Dyes Should I Use?
Almost every brand has colours that are analogous to cyan, magenta and yellow. Pick your favourite brand and then choose colours that closely resemble the cyan, magenta and yellow colours in the diagram above. Let’s take Crazy Color as an example.
For Cyan I’d use Sky Blue, for Magenta I’d use Pinkissimo or Cyclamen and for Yellow I find their Canary Yellow is a good pure yellow.
A note about yellow
Yellow is a difficult colour to work with. It easily becomes swamped by other colours. Additionally, many brands don’t produce yellow, or produce yellows that are sub-par. Some brands don’t offer yellow (for example, at the time of writing Adore does not offer a yellow colour in their range). It’s ok to mix brands when you’re working with direct colour. So you might want to use Crazy Color’s Canary Yellow alongside Adore colours, or if you find Pravana’s yellow is too dark, feel free to use Manic Panic or Directions instead.
Tip: If you want luminous results, choose UV reactive dyes to create new shades with. You can combine a regular cyan colour with a fluorescent shade like Manic Panic’s Electric Banana to create luminous green!
Mixing Darker Colours
The methods I’ve outlined so far are great for bright colours, but how do you darken them? Should you use black? The answer is: it depends. To achieve a dark, yet still saturated colour, use darker versions of cyan and magenta in your mix. There are very few dark yellows – (Pravana Yellow (undiluted) is the exception). You can add black, but most semi-permanent blacks aren’t designed for mixing to make a darker colour. Most have a strong red or green base which can impact the result.
Let me explain a bit further…
3 approaches to making dark green
1. Mix a very dark blue with yellow – result: dark green with a saturated/highly pigmented finish
2. Mix blue and yellow and darken with black dye – result: dark, muted green due to the red tones that were present in the black (remember, red neutralises green and turns it brownish).
3. Mix blue and yellow and darken with a black additive e.g. Pravana Black Additive – result: dark green, not as vibrant as the first option, but not dull either.
This is why we do strand tests!
Mixing Lighter Colours
Making lighter versions of our CMY mixes is a lot easier! For example, if we wanted to make a mint green colour, we’d first refer to our chart above to make a regular mint green. The mix could be 3C:1Y, i.e. 3 parts Cyan to 1 part Yellow. Now we need to dilute that mixture with conditioner or a clear mixer. Manic Panic, Pravana and Adore all make mixers. Conditioner works well too, but conditioners vary in thickness so to be consistent, always use the same brand.
The first time you lighten your mixture will likely be trial and error. In our example, we’ll mix our mint hair dye with the same amount of conditioner – a 1:1 ratio.
If you mixed your usual amount of colour and then added the same again in conditioner, you’ll have another application’s worth of colour left over. You can keep mixed direct dyes in an airtight container (never do this with dyes that are mixed with developer). Or if you don’t want left overs, use half as much dye at the first stage of mixing.
Creating Subtle Colours
Maybe you don’t want a vibrant mauve colour and the pastel version of it is still just a bit too bright; you need to make a muted colour.
To make a colour less vibrant, we add a little bit of a neutralising colour. If you’ve read Colour Theory for Hair Dyeing you’ll already know that colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel have a neutralising effect on each other. Think about those silver shampoos for blonde hair – they make the blonde less yellow by adding yellow’s opposing colour: violet. If you mix any pair of colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel you’ll get a shade of brown – a neutral colour. So you can think of it as adding a tiny bit of brown to make the colour a little more drab.
To tone down our too-bright mauve, we need to add a little bit of its complementary (opposite) colour.
Check out this colour wheel below:
Mauve is just a name for light purple, so let’s find purple colour wheel. There it is near the top right, made with a mixture of 3M:1C. Now follow its line across the wheel and you’ll see that the opposite colour is yellow green 1C:3Y. That’s technically its opposite. Both purple and yellow-green here have one part cyan, so we can ignore the cyan in the mix. That leaves yellow. If we add a small amount of yellow, it will make the purple a little bit muted. I’d suggest a mixture of 1 part yellow to 8 parts purple. Do a strand test.
Correcting a Colour
The same works for any colour. Say you’ve dyed your hair that lovely orange shade 2Y:1M, and you need to tone it down a bit to a more natural looking orange. Found it on the colour wheel? It’s middle-right on the diagram. Directly opposite it is blue. To tone down that orange you’d need to add a tiny bit of blue to your existing orange hair colour. In this case, I’d take a small measure of blue and dilute it heavily with conditioner and apply it over the orange to tone it down to auburn. Of course, do a strand test before attempting this.
tldr; opposite colours have a neutralising effect and can be used in small quantities to dull colours.
How do you make grey? Is it just diluted black?
As I mentioned earlier, most black hair dyes aren’t just black and have other pigments like red or green in them. If you want to make grey, start with a blue-violet and add a little yellow, then dilute it to your preferred shade. An example formulation might be 6 parts Cyan + 6 parts Magenta (to make a violet colour), plus 1 part yellow (to neutralise the violet), diluted with 13 parts conditioner or mixer. That formulation is an estimate, you’ll need to experiment. Using a little more magenta and a lot more mixer will create something closer to a white toner. These kinds of mixes require a lot of strand tests to perfect, but creating greys is possible.
Now you Know how to Mix like a Pro
If you do feel like having a go at colour mixing, check out this selection of suitable colours below. We’d love to see your colour mixing triumphs in your hair timeline (and also any disasters, we won’t judge!) or leave a comment if you have questions.
Feel free to print out the charts or colour mixing list to use as a guide.* You might also like this article that uses the CMY system to create a cool pixelated dyeing effect.
Hair-Dyeing Fun with Pravana Locked-In!
Create pixelated hair colour with Pravana's no-run Locked In dyes.
*For non-commercial use only.