by Earlene Moore

color wheel image

Once a cake is iced and a design is decided upon, an important consideration is color. Your reputation as a cake decorator depends on your ability to match a color or put a combination of colors together in an artistic way. Your skill with tips, stencils, air brush, etc. is important; but every technique and every customer’s satisfaction hinges upon your ability to combine and use colors.

Many times a customer has asked for a combination of colors on a cake that I thought were awful, yet, upon delivery of the cake, it was perfect in her room for her occasion. “Your future orders will depend on whether the customer is satisfied or dissatisfied.” With that in mind, remember that your concept and her concept of color may be completely different. A bride requested peach trim on a wedding cake and, upon delivery, I found that everything was orange. She was upset because the cake looked pink - our color interpretation was completely different. A swatch of fabric “large enough to see” is a must when matching for a wedding cake. I prefer at least a 2” strip of ribbon or a 2” square of fabric.

There are no absolutes in mixing colors because of the many different things that can affect the color. Some of these variables are l) Ingredients in the icing: 2) Temperature and humidity: 3) Time: 4) Light.

1) Ingredients in the icing: Shortening, margarine, and butter make colors turn darker, whereas lemon juice bleaches out or softens colors. If you use salt in your buttercream icing, mix your colors the night before: because if the salt is not thoroughly dissolved, it will leave little light spots in your icing. Canned Milk, regular dark vanilla and cream cheese give an off-white color to “white” icing and also affect other colors: such as, blue acquires a greenish cast and soft pink will become more of a peach color.

2) Temperature and Humidity: In icings which contain shortening, margarine or butter, the temperature of the room, heat of your hands, and warmth of the liquid you add to your icing can affect your color. The warmer the room, the softer the frosting gets and color seems to darken or get deeper. After you fill the bag, the heat of your hands will make the color deepen even more. The use of hot water to soften colored buttercream icing that is too firm also seems to make the color deeper. The amount of time it takes your frosting to dry (or get a crust on it) is controlled by the humidity. The longer it takes to get dry, the more the colors seem to darken.

3) Time: When using buttercream icing, soft colors can be made and used immediately and will only darken slightly. But when you are striving for dark colors, mix in the colors and then let the icing sit overnight before decorating: and you won’t have to use quite as much color. Charcoal gray will turn black, and an “almost” red will turn bright red. When mixing red, I start with a bright orange or pink and add red food color. This cuts down on the amount of red color needed and helps prevent the bitter taste associated with too much red color.

4) Light: After your creation (flowers or total cake) is finished comes the time to protect the colors from fading. Pinks are especially susceptible to fading out. Hot pink can be reduced to almost white when exposed to sunlight: purples to blues: blues to gray: black to purple or green. Just be careful to protect your colored sugar work from sunlight or other bright lights.

Food Colors

There are so many beautiful colors available to the decorator that our work is much easier today. We have a choice of brands and paste,gels, liquids, and powders.

Paste Colors: These colors are a very concentrated form of color designed to be used in very small quantities. Some come in almost liquid form and others are very thick and almost dry. If your color comes a little too dry or it dries out after months of use, pour a small amount of glycerin over the dry color and close the lid tightly and let it sit for a couple of days before mixing. This will bring it back to usable consistency. If some of your paste color jars leak, try cutting a disc from a new Styrofoam meat tray to fit inside the lid. Put the Styrofoam disk inside the lid and screw the lid on tight.

Gels: Normally coming in small to medium size bottles with a small hole at the top to allow for a drop of color at a time to be squeezed from the bottle. Very strong color and so easy to use. Being refillable is also a plus for those much used colors.

Liquids: There are three kinds of liquid color: liquid paste, airbrush colors, and liquid colors that you buy in the grocery store. Most decorators started off with the grocery store liquids, which are very weak compared to the paste colors that are available to us now. Liquid paste is a strong concentrate of color which is used like paste colors in small quantities. Air brush colors are a specialized form of color for a specific need. The air brush requires colors with as few crystals or minerals as possible because of the tiny opening the color must pass through.

Powders: Since this is the driest form of color available to the decorator, the selection of colors is now wonderful... Powdered colors are very strong and should be handled carefully as the powder is very fine and drifts onto cabinets, icing, etc. It will stain porous surfaces, cake tops, etc. Powdered colors come in two types of containers: plastic bags and small jar containers. To conserve your color and control the amount used, make a small opening in your container. For plastic bags, cut off a small corner and sprinkle color, then fold the corner over and paper clip shut to store. The bottles come with a sealed top. Do not remove the seal, but punch a small hole in one side with a toothpick or pin and sprinkle out the powdered color.

Dusting Powders: These soft colors are available to allow us to enhance a sugar creation. Normally these are painted or brushed on a finished sugar project. Adding those highlights of silver or gold or soft shading for a more realistic flower, leaf or etc.

Dry fondant, gumpaste, pastillage, run sugar, etc., can be colored, dry brushed, drawn on, or painted with pastel pencils, chalks, non-toxic felt tip pens, or paste colors that are diluted with spirits such as vodka or Lemon Extract. Buttercream can also be painted with vodka-diluted colors (Brown paste color does not mix will with vodka. So for brown, mix red and green paste color and then dilute with vodka.)

When mixing color into gum paste, fondant, etc., a light coat of shortening on your hands will keep them from getting so badly stained.

Color Mixing

There are three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) and three secondary colors (orange, green, and purple) and hundreds of variations of these. White is an absence of color and black is a collection of the three primary colors in intense form. Because it takes such a strong concentration of color to produce black, it is easier to buy black color. If you get a black (or brown) color that has a violet tint add yellow. If you get a black or brown color that has a green tint add red.

Brown is a combination of opposites on the color wheel such as red and green or yellow and Violet . (Essentially brown is a combination of the three primary colors in a less intense form than black. )

Those who have difficulty in mixing colors should invest in a good color wheel to serve as a guide for what color to add for the shade needed. If you start with pink icing and need peach, apricot, or gold, the amount of yellow you add to the pink will determine which shade you get.

Remember, if you want a pastel color, start with a pastel colored icing. Hot pink and bright yellow will not produce a soft apricot without adding a lot of white icing. In mixing soft colors, add soft colors. When trying to get exact colors, add very small amounts of color ( or colored icing) until you get the color you are striving for.

Some colors require a dulling effect, such as moss green and dusty rose . This dulling requires that you go to the opposite side of the color wheel. Leaf green plus orange equals moss green, pink plus pale green equals dusty rose. When colors are too bright, use white for softening and an opposite color for dulling.

One method of testing your color is to put a thin layer of icing on white cardboard or paper and let it sit until dry and then check against your color swatch.

The more you become aware of color, the more adept you will be in recognizing just what colors need to be mixed for your specific needs. With the hundreds of colors and shades we have available in fabrics, plus the lighting factor, and fabric texture that can make a color change, you hope your icing color is close to the requested shade. If the ribbon or fabric swatch has highlights, you may want to check with the florist and match the flower color. Don’t promise to match any color exactly: but try to get as close as you can.

Color is what makes our lives, our cakes and our world so beautiful. Enjoy the colors around you - In that beautiful sunset - In that wonderful grandchild's blue eyes - In that first bloom in the spring. Color is all around us and we take it for granted.

Good luck with your color skills. Enjoy this wonderful medium and the endless possibilities you have before you.

Earlene Moore

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