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Stick in the Mud

We’ve all been there. Painting away at a portrait, landscape, abstract, you name it and then it appears on your palette: mud. You didn’t ask for it to show up but nonetheless there it is AND it’s on your brush. Does this scenario sound familiar?

You mix colors A and B to attempt to make color C. You try a few brushstrokes on your painting. Not quite right. You add color D to the mix and dab it on your canvas. DEFINETELY not right. You try to get back to your starting color so you add larger quantities of A and B back into the mix. Cover previous brushstroke. Eh. Add color E to the now large mix in the center of your palette. You blindly paint the color on the canvas. Woah! Quick! Add white and some other colors! Panic sets in and you realize the only color left on your palette is a greyed mauve that bears a resemblance to the vinyl seats in your dentist’s waiting room.

Breathe. Mud is a simple way to describe an “out-of-place color”. I was originally going to label mud as an “unintentional color” however many unintentional colors can successfully find their way onto a canvas. An out-of-place color has no place on the canvas (at least not for what you’re currently working on).

What is the difference between mud and “mutes”?

Technically speaking, mud is a “mute” gone rogue. Mud (especially those large quantities of mud on the palette) comes from color guesswork. Mutes are colors that have been reduced in intensity. The most common example to achieve a mute is mixing 2 complementary colors (colors across each other on the color wheel) to achieve a neutral. The resulting color is lower in intensity, perhaps a little more grey, and still in color harmony with the original color palette. Working with muted colors can strengthen the power of a painting whereas mud only does the opposite. Let me give you a fashionista example:

A girl is getting ready to go out for the evening so she opens her closet. She pulls out her jeans and a bold colored top. She likes how the top looks so she decides to put on a bright colored hat…and a bright yellow jacket…and cherry red heels…with hot pink lipstick…see where I’m going? We’ve all seen this person walking down the street – you’re looking at the loud clothes instead of the girl. That’s the same thing that can happen to your painting. Mutes are the resting place for those bolder colors.

Let me propose two questions: How do we make mud? Why do we feel the need to use it? In my mind the second question is more important. I’ll give you a second to ponder…

I have a couple solutions for you:

  1. Limit your color palette. Look at what you’ve got squeezed out. For beginners, if you have more than 5 colors on your palette it is very easy to get in the weeds. By limiting your color palette to 5 colors or less it is easier to have color harmony. I like doing this exercise whenever I start a painting: I pick out the tubes I think I’ll use – maybe about 8 colors. Then I start eliminating tubes until I get down to a strong commitment of 5. When working with acrylic I always have white for tinting so I include that as 1 color. This means I look long and hard at the 4 other tubes I’ve picked. Without going down the rabbit hole of pigment properties let’s just say that I am a color nerd and I love reading my paint tubes. I make sure that I don’t have any obvious pigment redundancies (for instance: I wouldn’t grab pthalo blue AND pthalo green. I would grab pthalo blue and a yellow that I could mix to create green. I could then use that yellow with other colors whereas I would be more limited with the pthalo green).

  2. Learn how to mix with a palette knife (this suggestion is for the acrylic and oil artist). By mixing with a palette knife you will extend the life of your brushes. If you make a color you don’t like then just wipe off your knife, no need to constantly clean your brush. Learning how to properly use a palette knife is an excercise unto itself. With a little practice the palette knife will save you mixing time as well as assist with paint consolidation.

  3. This suggestion might be the toughest for most…CONTROL. If you mixed a color that is not going to work then DON’T USE IT! I cannot stress this enough. Resist the temptation, put down the brush, step away from the painting.

So what purpose does mud serve?

Whether you like it or not, you are still mixing color and can learn from each of these muddy “mistakes”. One idea is to keep a sketchbook of your muddy mixes. You can also do this on a large piece of watercolor paper. Take notes. What colors were you using? To take this practice a little further why not try organizing your sketchbook or watercolor paper into rainbow color categories: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. Where does your color fall? Is it a purple-mauvie-brown or is it a pea soup green?

This practice will help you to intentionally see the color bias of your mud, how to purposefully recreate it in the future, and how to avoid getting yourself stuck in the mud.

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