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September 08 As Clear As Mud

Sudents often complain that their paintings look muddy, and want to know if there’s a solution. I always tell them, “No problem”. We all pretty much understand that when you have a passage or section of a painting that you want to look lighter, just put something darker next to it. So if you get a passage in your painting that seems muddy, and you want to clean it up, just put a muddier passage next to it.

Just kidding.

Other than over-scrubbing an area to death, the chief cause of muddy color is introducing mixtures that have an inappropriate relative temperature for the area in which they are placed. It’s that simple.

One way to avoid the “muddy color” pitfall is to experiment painting with a simplified palette (see “Knowing Your Palette” – July, 2007). Try doing some paintings while only using three primary colors. Pick a red, yellow and blue and have at it. There are still no guarantees, but the limited palette should help the overall color harmony of your painting, and give you a leg up on keeping it clean.

The following demonstration painting will help to illustrate the “simplified palette” concept. I elected to paint a sunset scene using only three primary colors: cobalt blue, cadmium yellow and permanent rose (alizarin crimson would have been just as effective).


Step One:

I begin with an accurate, but rudimentary drawing. I placed frisket on a couple of spots that I want to save for highlights. I rarely use frisket, but I plan to work the whole page wet-into-wet, and I don’t want to interrupt the tempo trying to work around those spots.


Step Two:


I wet the whole paper and begin charging in pigment; yellow and red at the top, and red and blue toward the foreground. I don’t mind the bleed between the areas. This will help to attach the foreground and background in the final product. I damp out that building in the lower right corner.

Now I can hear some of you screaming, “Warm colors come forward and cool colors recede!” Generally true, but be aware, there are no constants in nature. In a warm sunset, the foreground colors can often appear much cooler than they would be perceived at high noon. Furthermore, I intend to introduce some of the sky mixtures into the buildings when the wash is dry. That, coupled with the red domes, should successfully link the foreground and the background.


Step Three:

paintingNow I address the distant hill and buildings in one continuous wash. I immediately put some one-stroke washes over the water, letting the distant mountains bleed into the first stroke. I want these washes to be about a half value darker than the water. These almost imperceptible edges will give the water a surface, and differentiate it from the sky. It is important to put your over-painted areas in with one stroke. Even two strokes can start to disturb the paint underneath, and cause the passage to become “muddy”.




Step For:

I finish the building at the lower right. Now I model the near and distant buildings using a little more red in my mixtures. This helps to subdue the bluer tones from my initial wash. Once again, these passages should be painted one time, with a light hand, to avoid stirring up the already dried paint.                


paintingStep Five:

Now I do some additional modeling to the main building and the skinny tower. I state the floor areas; add window indications and some faux details on the distant building. I’m very stingy about putting in much detail until the end of the painting, when I do my finishing work. It doesn’t take much detail to sell a concept, but too much detail can be a real distraction.




Step Six:

I paint the main sloping hill and the little island. Could there be anything more dramatic? Look how that passage changes all the value relationships in the painting. This hill would have been the perfect spot for the wrong color temperature. Although the hill would have been a “blue and yellow” green during the day, I added plenty of sky color to my mixture, thereby integrating the hill into the painting. Once you select a light source, it’s important to bathe your entire painting in that light.

I add just a touch of reflection below the island and the points jutting out from the hill. I instinctively kept them light. It seemed appropriate, given the diffused light in the painting.




I remove the frisket and paint the domes on the main building and the tower. I push the values down so that they are darker than the far distant stretch of land. These dark tones keep the buildings firmly in the foreground.

I strengthen the windows and add a little detail to the tower. Lastly, I give a pale tone of cadmium yellow to the highlights on the walls and the upper corner of the building. White is the coldest color that there is, and the white highlights were incongruous in the warm sunset light.


“Sunset on the Aegean”

So there you have it, a full-color painting using just three primary colors.

And, if you are wondering if this process translates to other mediums, the following piece was painted in oil using only cobalt blue, cadmium yellow medium and alizarin crimson.

“Sunset on the Aegean” 36x48 oil image

Happy Painting!