Stop Wasting Money on Food Coloring: A Buttercream Color Mixing Guide

Buttercream color mixing and color wheel with food coloring

If you are looking for how to mix colors to achieve a perfect buttercream color match while saving money, you’ve come to the right place! Before we get started, I want you to think about your food coloring selection for just a moment. How many bottles of food coloring do you have? Think about the average price you have spent on each bottle. Now, consider how much money you have spent just on food coloring.

Are you cringing yet? Now, think about how much money you would save if I could teach you how to mix buttercream colors from 4 food coloring bottles. Yes, just four!

In this post I will share:

  • Common Buttercream Color Mixing Struggles
  • How I Started Mixing Buttercream Colors Like a Printer
  • Color Theory Overview
  • How to Get the Perfect Buttercream Color Match
Title says "Stop Wasting Money of Food Coloring + a step-by-step color matching guide
The photo shows a palette knife with different color buttercream smears and a buttercream color wheel and three bottles of food coloring.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are ‘affiliate links’. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. This commision helps pay for the cost of running Thrifty Cakes.

Buttercream Color Mixing Struggles

When I started decorating cakes, I thought I would be slick and buy red, blue, yellow, and black food coloring bottles. I thought I would mix my own colors and save a lot of money! Well… that didn’t work out so well for me.

When I would try for vibrant, bold colors, I would be left with a grayish or brownish version of the color I was aiming for. So, I set off to research why my colors weren’t working so great. I found a lot of great information about color biases and how that can really affect the the vibrancy of the colors that you are mixing.

In a nutshell, color bias is when a color “leans” towards another color on the color wheel. For example, a slightly “purple-ish” and a slightly “green-ish” blue are both blues with different color biases.

If you are interested in learning more about color bias, justpaint.org explains it well. They explain color bias and warm and cool colors in an easy to understand manner. The Buzzed Artist also has a blog post and video explaining how to avoid muddy colors with acrylic paints. These same concepts apply to mixing buttercream colors!

Why Mixing Red, Blue, and Yellow Didn’t Work

As I mentioned before, mixing red, blue, and yellow didn’t work so well for me. I used Americolor’s Super Red, Royal Blue, and Lemon Yellow. (In this post, I use Americolor gel food coloring. I am not sponsored or affiliated with Americolor in any way.) In the photo below, I have mixed the color wheel using these three primary colors. You can see that I was able to get nice reds, oranges, yellows, and greens. But when you take a look at the different purple hues, they all look very brownish or black.

buttercream color wheel mixed with red, blue, and yellow
Buttercream Color Wheel mixed with Red, Blue, and Yellow buttercream colors

This is because one or both of the red and blue “leans” towards yellow (has a bias towards yellow) on the color wheel rather than being purely neutral or having a color bias towards each other. What that basically means is, one or both of those colors have just a bit of yellow in them.

And what happens when we mix all three primary colors? We end up with brown or black! If you are ending up with muddy colors, the culprit is most likely a food coloring that has a color bias opposite of the color that you are trying to mix.

In order to make a vibrant purple, I realized that I would need a good neautral option for blue or red. Or, I would at least need a blue with a color bias towards red, and red with a color bias towards blue.

When I was searching through Americolor’s color charts, I couldn’t find a true version of red or blue other than the two that I already had. I should also mention that there were some colors that I also couldn’t figure out how to mix with red, blue, and yellow. For example: how do I mix cyan? That is what brought me to the next bit of research.

How I Started Mixing Colors Like a Printer

In my color mixing research, I learned about the CMYK version of mixing colors. What that is, is using cyan, magenta, and yellow as the primary colors, and the K stands for black. I will refer to this as the CMY method throughout this post when I am not including black.

These are actually the same colors that your printer ink cartridge uses. And your printer does a fantastic job of mixing every color! After doing a bit of research, I found that many people consider the CMY colors the “true” primary colors rather than Red, Blue and Yellow.

What we were taught in elementary school wasn’t working for me, so it was time to start mixing buttercream colors like a printer.

The Food Coloring I Use

I searched through Americolor’s color charts to try and find a good neutral cyan, and magenta. I already had a good, neutral yellow without any noticeable color bias.

First, I tried Americolor’s Sky Blue for cyan. It was a perfect fit. I didn’t feel like it had a color bias towards magenta or yellow. It seemed like a great, neutral cyan.

For magenta, I initially tried Americolor’s Fuchsia. It seemed to work well, at first. Especially for shades of purple and pink. But I soon realized that it had a color bias towards Cyan. If I were to try to mix reds and oranges, I would not have been able to get the vibrant colors I wanted because of the small amount of cyan in the color.

So, after a lot of trial and error, I present to you the 3 CMY primary food colorings that I use to mix all of my colors with as well as the black that I use to darken my colors. Drum roll please!

Just look at those beautiful, vibrant colors all mixed up on this color wheel.

Buttercream colorwheel mixed with cyan, magenta, and yellow
Buttercream Color Wheel mixed with Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow buttercream colors

The Truth About Red and Blue

Red and Blue are said to be primary colors because they cannot be made by mixing any other colors. Well, I have some bad new. I mixed both red and blue using the CMYK method and those food colorings I listed above! If you take a look at the buttercream color wheel that I made using the CMY colors, I was able to easily mix a nice royal blue. That is the color halfway between Magenta and Cyan.

You may notice that red isn’t on this CMY color wheel above. Theoretically, it should be.

I have watched artists mix red paint from magenta with just a touch of yellow. When I did this with my buttercream, I ended up with a nice, warm magenta, but not quite deep enough to be red.

Red is always a tough color to mix, but I was able to make it with magenta and a touch of yellow. I found that I need to add just a bit of a darkener to get the color deep enough to look more like red. In my case, I added some cocoa powder. I’ll be sharing the exact color recipe soon. I release those color recipes on my instagram before I release them anywhere else. Follow me there to get them first!

red cake witha broken heart and gold bars holding the heart together
Red Buttercream mixed from magenta (Americolor’s Electric Pink), yellow (Americolor’s Lemon Yellow), and a bit of cocoa powder

Color Theory Overview

Now, let’s get into the basics of color mixing! The first thing that I highly recommend having on hand when mixng your buttercream colors is a CMY color wheel. This is important for helping you visually see if a color that you are shooting for is closer to one primary color or another, letting you know which color you should add more of.

This is the color wheel that I have and the one that I suggest for color mixing using this method. It not only shows the colors that you can create with Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow; but it also shows the tints and shades that you can create from each color. Tints are the lighter version of the color, or the color mixed with white. Shades are the darker version of the color, or the color mixed with black. You can find a great explanation of color vocabulary at color-wheel-artist.com

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors

You may remember from grade school that in order to create secondary colors like green, purple, and orange, you will mix the primary colors together. The same is true for the CMY method. The main difference is that you will be using different primary colors. Instead of red, blue, and yellow (RBY), you will be using cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY).

When you mix a secondary color like green with a primary color, you will get a tertiary color like blue-green or yellow-green. I have labeled the buttercream color wheel that I mixed as a guide. The black triangle is pointing at the CMY primary colors and the gray triangle is pointing that the secondary colors. All of the other colors on this wheel are tertiary colors.

buttercream color wheel mixed with CMY method.  Illustrations is pointing out primary and secondary colors.
CMY primary, secondary, tertiary buttercream color wheel

How to Get The Perfect Buttercream Color Match, Step-By-Step

Step 1: Find Your Color On the Color Wheel

When you have a specific color that you are trying to mix, the first thing that you should do is find it, or something close to it on the color wheel. Let’s work together to get a buttercream color match as an example. We will work to mix our buttercream color to match my notebook. You can see in this photo that the closest match on the color wheel is one of the light tints in the red-violet and light purple color wedges. (I will refer to color wedges throughout this post. I color wedge is the “wedge” on the color wheel showing the range of shades, tints, and tones that can be made from a certain color on the color wheel.)

Purple notebook held up against a color wheel to find the color match.
Holding my notebook up to my color wheel next to the tints of red-violet and purple that are the closest match to my goal color

Step 2: Determine Which Primary Color to Start With

There are two ways to determine which CMY primary color is dominant in a color and, in turn, which color to start mixing with. The first is by looking at the color and thinking about which primary it looks like it is closest to. This comes easy to some, but is difficult for others. You will get better at this the more you work with mixing colors.

A more concrete way to determine which primary color to start with, is by using your color wheel. Put your finger on the “color wedge” (section of shades and tints of the same color) that you matched your color to and slide it down to the center of your color wheel. What primary color does your color wedge point to? That is the color you will start with. In the case of matching a color to my notebook, the red-violet and purple color wedges “point to” Magenta (or Americolor’s Electric Pink).

CMYK color wheel showing what a "color wedge" looks like and how it works.
CMY color wheel with wedges “pointing” to the dominant primary color in each color mixture

If your color wedge is split down the middle between two primary colors like violet is, then you will be mixing a secondary color. If that is the case, go ahead and pull out both colors and you can skip step 3.

Step 3: Determine Which Other Primary Color You Will Need

There are also two ways to determine which other primary color you will need to get your buttercream color match. You can look at the color and think to yourself, “Does this color look like it’s leaning more towards primary color A or primary color B?” Again, the more you practice color mixing, the better you will get at that.

If you would like a more concrete way to determine the other primary color that you will need, let’s head back to the color wheel! Find the color wedge that you are working with again. Slide your finger down to where the color wedge meets the primary colors in the middle of the color wheel. You will look to see which of the other two primary colors your wedge is closer to. In the case of the light red-violet/purple color we are mixing together, the wedge is closer to cyan. So Cyan (or Americolor’s Sky Blue) will be the other primary color we will need.

Step 4: To Saturate or Not to Saturate

If the buttercream color that you are matching is one of the outermost vibrant colors on the color wheel, you can go ahead and add the first primary color and “saturate” the buttercream with your color. What I mean by that is, go ahead and add enough food coloring to create that vibrant primary color that you are starting with.

If I was creating a vibrant red-violet rather than the lighter version that I am working towards, I would start by adding enough of my electric pink to create a vibrant magenta buttercream.

You will also start with a saturated primary color if your color matches one of the shaded or darker colors on the right side of each color wedge.

However, if your color is one of the lighter colors (tints) in a color wedge, like in the case of the notebook color that we are trying to match, you will not want to start with a saturated color.

For getting a buttercream color match on those lighter colors, you will want to build the color a little at a time. For those extra light colors, you may want to start adding color with just a toothpick dip at a time. Some of the darker tints you may be able to start with a small drop at a time. Remember, take it slow. You can always add more color, but you can’t take it out.

Step 5: Troubleshooting Your Buttercream Color Match

This is the step where we get the color at just the right spot on the color wheel. In my opinion, this can be the trickiest part in acheiving a buttercream color match. To make this step simpler, keep your color wheel close by. It will help you notice if your color is moving towards a different color wedge or biasing towards one primary or the other.

For example, as I was mixing sky blue (cyan) into the electric pink (magenta), I noticed that my buttercream was beginning to look more like the tints in the violet wedge rather than the tints in the red-violet or purple wedges. It looked like a color that was closer to cyan on the color wheel. That meant that there was too much sky blue in the mixture. To remedy my color moving towards cyan on the color wheel, I simply added more electric pink to bring the color back towards the red-violet color wedge that I was working on.

Purple buttercream that is too cool
Buttercream Color Matching: color with too much cyan (Americolor’s Sky Blue)

There were also times when my color would begin to look closer to the colors in the fuschia color wedge. Because that wedge is closer to magenta on the color wheel, it meant that I had too much magenta in my mixture. To remedy my color moving towards magenta on the color wheel, I would add more sky blue to bring the color back towards the purple or red-violet color wedges.

purple buttercream that is too warm
Buttercream Color Matching: color with too much magenta (Americolor’s Electric Pink)

During this step, there may be multiple times where the color waxes and wanes between different color wedges. It’s ok! Just slowly steer the color back in the direction that you need it to go in.

Is Your Color Too Light or Too Dark?

As I was mixing my buttercream color match, there were times that I felt like I had pinned down my color in the color wedge that I needed it to be in. But, I also found that it wasn’t quite as saturated as my target color. To remedy unsaturated, or pale color, I simply add more electric pink and more sky blue, watching carefully to be sure that I didn’t move my color into a different color wedge.

Keep in mind that some colors develop and become darker over time. If you are trying to get a very dark color, you can cover your buttercream and leave it at room temperature overnight. The color will develop and may darken a bit. If you find that your color ended up too dark, you can slowly add in a bit more buttercream to lighten the color.

purple notebook next to a bowl of buttercream that is a perfect buttercream color match.  There are 2 food coloring bottles in the photo
Buttercream color match to my notebook using Americolor’s Electric Pink and Sky Blue

Step 6: Do I Need Black?

You should be able to make any of the vibrant colors as well as the light colors without any black or any darkener (although, I find that adding a bit of cocoa powder helps me to create a vibrant red.) If you are trying to mix a color that matches one of the darker shades in a color wedge, you will add a small amount of black at a time until you get a buttercream color match. I suggest getting your color matched to the color wedge that you are shooting for before adding your black. I like for my black to be the last part of the color that I add.

Alternatively, you can darken colors with a bit of cocoa powder. Keep in mind that cocoa powder is brown, not black and can make for an unpredicatable outcome. The brown tends to add a bit of yellow to the color. This will likely shift your color out of the color wedge that you were aiming for. If this happens, you can sometimes counteract that shift with a touch of electric pink. Keep in mind that introducing yellow to a mixture with cyan and magenta can cause muted or muddy colors. That happens because all three primary colors are present.

How To Create Less Vibrant, Toned Down Colors

So far we have focused on working to keep our colors from becoming muddy. But, what if you are looking for a more natural, toned down color for your buttercream color match? A bit of a muted color with an earthy tone?

To create that muted/earthy color, I find that adding a touch of the primary color that I did not use to make the color does the trick. Let’s use the light red-violet/purple as an example. Adding a touch of yellow to the mixture would tone down the vibrancy and create a toned down color.

Alternatively, you could add a small amount of black to some uncolored buttercream and slowly mix the gray mixture into your color. The additional white buttercream will help to make your color less saturated. It is especially important for this to be done a small amount at a time. Once the vibrancy is gone, it is hard to get back.

Conclusion

In order to save alot of money on food coloring, I strongly encourage you to mix your own buttercream colors. When using the popular Americolor gel colors, I suggest using CMYK in order to get vibrant, true colors. This means using a cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to mix colors.

If you already have a lot of food coloring, you probably already have the bottles that I suggest using. But, if you don’t, I truly think the investment on the 4 bottles of food coloring and coordinating color wheel will be worth it and save you a lot more money in the long run!

As a quick overview, you’ll need: Americolor’s sky blue, electric pink, lemon yellow, and super black. You will also need a CMY color wheel.

Did you find this post helpful? Do you have more questions? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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12 thoughts on “Stop Wasting Money on Food Coloring: A Buttercream Color Mixing Guide”

  1. Iva Humar

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience 💞 great article, so much helpful information and tips 🙏🏻

  2. Kris C

    This is invaluable information!! Thank you so much for sharing this!!!

  3. Wendy Robbs

    This was so helpful! I can’t wait to start experimenting with this method! All my food coloring bottles take up so much room, it would be amazing to pare it down to four bottles!

  4. So so useful!! Will definitely try this out! I’m so tired of having a million colour gels, but never achieving the same colour twice – awesome advice!

    1. Absolutely! I’m all about keeping a minimalist cake supply cabinet and stretching what I already have. I’m so glad you found this helpful!

  5. Brittney

    This was so interesting and you put alot of time and research into it which I really appreciate; it was very informative and detailed. I’ll have to try this method soon.

    1. Thank you, Brittney! I’m glad you found it interesting. It’s certainly a fun topic! I would love to hear how it goes if you give it a try!

  6. This has been a fascinating read – thank you so much! I’m still not entirely clear how to use a colour wheel though, so I’m going to have to delve a little deeper into that aspect before I start mixing.

    1. I’m so glad you have enjoyed it! Thanks for your feedback. I’ll add an in-depth color wheel guide to my list of posts to share. It’s always great to hear what readers want more of. In the meantime, let me know if you have any color wheel questions. I will be happy to help!

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