Art Glossary: Mother Color

Claude Monet's painting of haystacks in the morning snow
Haystacks, Snow Effect, Morning (1891) by Claude Monet showing color harmony and unity as would be achieved by using a mother color. Fine Art/Corbis Historical/Getty Images


A mother color is a color you use in every mixed color in a particular painting. It can be any color, but should be a color that reflects the overall theme of the painting. For example, if you were painting the ocean on a cool day, you might choose blue or blue-violet as your mother color, mixing a little of it into all your other colors. You can either mix the mother color into every color you create, or use it as the starting point for the other colors you create by mixing another color into some of your mother color.

You can also use the mother color as a glaze rather than physically mixing it with the other color, for example when using watercolor.

Why Use a Mother Color?

The logic behind using a mother color is that it helps to unify the painting by bringing the colors into harmony with one another and making them part of the same family of colors. 

A mother color can be used as a dominant color (or color theme) within a painting, or it can be used less prominently. A danger with using a mother color too strongly is that the colors are too similar (in tone and hue), not giving the painting enough contrast, and making for a boring or dull painting. It takes some skill to use this method successfully.  Color notes that are complements to the mother color can be introduced for contrast.

Ways to Use the Mother Color

You can either mix the mother color into every color you create, or use it as the starting point for the other colors by mixing another color into some of your mother color.


You can also tone your painting surface with the mother color, which is a good way to ensure that it contributes to the painting as a whole, and helps to unify it. Make sure to let some of the mother color show through areas within the whole painting.

Another approach is to apply a glaze of the mother color over the other colors.

If you're working with glazes rather than physically mixing colors, you can also use a mother color as a layer in the color you're building up. A final glaze with a mother color may be just what a painting needs to pull its components together.

Analogous Color Schemes and Mother Colors

Analogous color schemes are well-suited to using a mother color. An analogous color scheme is one based on three or more colors that are next to one another on the color wheel.  Simply choose any color on the color wheel and then one, two, or three colors on either side of it. The color you choose first is the mother color since the colors on either side of it, up until the next primary color, naturally contain some of that color. This color scheme results in a very harmonious and unified painting.

What Colors Can be Used as a Mother Color?

Any color can be used as a mother color. A mother color can be a color that comes straight from the tube, or it can be a neutral gray or brown made by mixing colors that are left on your palette when you are done painting. Some artists have even used black as the mother color.

Colors can be tinted, toned, and shaded by adding white, gray, and black, respectively.

Exercises for Experimenting with Mother Colors

Practice by choosing a color to be the mother color and combine it with another color gradually in seven steps, starting with the mother color and transitioning to the other color.

Do this with analogous colors as well as complementary colors. Note the range of colors you get as you transition from the mother color to the other color.

Further Reading

Analogous Colors

Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory (Buy from Amazon), by Stephen Quiller

Color Mixing for Harmony: Acrylic and Oil Painting (video)

Updated by Lisa Marder 11/26/16