How To Mix Colors Without Muddying Them

Don’t you just hate it when you’re painting along and all of a sudden, you’re looking at an expanse of unattractive muddy glop?

What’s up with that?

Well, you’ve stumbled upon a very common problem for many artists. For some reason, you’ve combined too many colors and have wound up with an inappropriate gray or brown.

Notice that I said inappropriate. I didn’t say ugly or unattractive. There could be lots of places where that nasty color combo might be just great. It just doesn’t happen to work with that lovely passage you’re working on now.

Choosing The Right Colors

You just don’t start mixing colors willy-nilly. You need to understand the color wheel and how colors work together to create new hues. You also need to learn specific qualities of various paint colors.

We’ll start with the premise that you already know yellow and blue make green, yellow and red make orange and that red and blue make purple. And, of course, there are limitless variations among those shades.

Let’s choose green for our example. If you want a bright, clean green, you can mix Phthalo Blue and Lemon Yellow. However, when you mix Ultramarine Blue to that Lemon Yellow, you wind up with a muddy green. That muddy green may be perfect for foliage in a landscape, but it’s certainly not ever going to be the bright, vibrant emerald green you want. So, it’s not that it’s a bad color. It’s just inappropriate for your needs.

It’s the same with your entire palette. Using Cadmium Red will never give you a rose-colored pink, but Alizarin Crimson will. You’ll get lovely oranges using the Cadmium Reds, and you’ll be able to mix luscious lavenders with the Alizarin Crimson.

A good way to see the interaction between colors is to develop an artist’s color chart that shows all the permutations of colors you have in your paint box. That way, you can see at a glance which color combos are appropriate for your current painting. This seems to be a tedious, boring task. You’re right, it is. But, taking the time to learn the interplay between various paints and having a permanent record for reference is certainly worth the time and effort.

Using Too Many Colors

It’s a good idea to make up your colors before you begin flinging paint on your paper or canvas. If you just start dipping your brush and mixing on the fly, you may find yourself impetuously dabbing your brush in different piles of paint. If you’re not careful and know what you’re doing, you can wind up with that inappropriate brown or gray.

Blending two complementary colors together cancels each other out, and that’s how we make mud. The complementary colors are red/green, blue/orange and yellow/purple. Notice that green is a mixture of yellow and blue, orange is a combination of yellow and red and purple is a mixture of red and blue.

So, it appears that when you blend three colors together, you get mud. Keep that in mind when you’re mixing colors. Two is good. Three is bad. This, of course, is a broad generalization. You often put just a touch of a third hue in your blend to tone down a color. However, this is just a basic concept for you to practice until you get really comfortable with color theory.

Maintaining Tidy Painting Habits

If you don’t keep your brushes clean, you may wind up contaminating your new paint with the last color you were using. Make sure you thoroughly clean your brush before starting with a new color family.

The same goes for keeping your palette tidy. Keep your color groupings separated and do periodic swipes with a paper towel to prevent colors from becoming muddy on your palette.

Don’t Overwork Your Paints

This is another common way to develop mud. Continuing to work over a painting tends to mush all the paint together. You can certainly go back over your painting with a glaze to tone down or brighten an area, but too much fussing with paint you’ve already laid down is a sure-fire way to muddy up the works. Step away; take a break.

The more you practice tidy painting habits and learn color theory, the more confident you’ll become in blending and applying your paint. Just like any skill, you need the practice to develop your color sense, and you’ll learn how to avoid mud and create the perfect colors for your painting.

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