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10 Things That Cause Mud in a Painting.

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Your painting may not be as fresh as it could be.

Many factors can cause your painting to look duller than a subway station in December and you may be surprised to know that most of them are not even colour issues. Here is my list of the top reasons why your painting may not be as fresh and dazzling as it could be.


1. Bad Drawing

Get your drawing right from the start. Bad design causes more grief in a painting than anything else. You don’t need to draw well but you do need to be accurate. Most of us fear drawing and yet it’s the very foundation of art. If you don’t feel comfortable drawing, take a class. It’s fun and you might just be good at it! It only takes practice. Draw freehand, copy, project, trace, draw from life, or scan and paste… it doesn’t really matter. Keeping the life in your painting is the objective. Begin with a well designed drawing and seal it. As you paint over top you can wipe pigment off to get back to your sketch. Your drawing is only a guide, not a floor plan, but if it is weak your painting will become muddled and incoherent causing you to overprint or guess. Guessing = Mud.

2. Buying Lame Colours

Have a look at your palette. If you have more than two earth tones, chances are your painting will look drab. It’s very hard to get a colourful painting when you start with a bunch of tubes of browns or grey's. Colours are at their brightest in the tube. There is no way you can make them brighter. You can, however, dull them down all you want. Start bright and move towards dull. This will keep your colours fresher.

Here are a few of the muddy culprits found on too many palettes: Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue, Indigo Blue, Davies Grey, Paynes Grey. They have black in them so naturally turn dull. Also anything with the word “pale” in it. Any of these colours used with a knowledge of their working properties are fine, just make sure you are using them properly and sparingly.

3. Dirty Habits

Dirty brushes make dirty paintings. Check your water or your thinner - if it looks like something an Alabama mud snake lives in you might want to clean it and do so often. Dirty brushes also make for dirty palettes. Clean it and keep it clean. I recommend using a glass palette. It’s very easy to clean and reuse. For you watercolorists - get a nice metal palette (don’t skimp, it ain’t worth it). And finally - Blue Shop Towels are an artist’s best friend. Clean rags make for clean brushes.

4. Values

Another culprit for mud is bad value exchanges. If two colours have the same value they will be hard to read. Similar values can be used together but if the overall painting has the same value throughout, it will look muddy. Think: Are you painting a tree in the sun with a bit of shade or is it a tree in the shade with a bit of sun? Use your value finder and pay attention to how far apart your values are.

5. Warms and Cools

Any time you mix opposite colours you get duller versions of those parent colours. As you likely know, the opposites are red/green, blue/orange, yellow/purple. But there are also warm/cool opposites. Red-orange and yellow play well with each other. Blue-red and purple coexist nicely. Look at your palette carefully and see if you have any dominant clean colour mixes and use their compliments.

6. Over-mixing 

Mixing too many colours and variations of warm/cool on your palette is not effective. A bit of this, a daub of that, is asking for trouble. Know what you are mixing and why. Don’t guess! Guessing = Mud.

7. Mark-making

Putting too many marks on your paper or canvas will make for a confusing painting. Daubing with your brush can cause unruliness. Make clean distinctive marks and leave them alone. Overprinting your marks can cause you to want to overprint the overprinted marks, compounding the problems. Less marks means a cleaner painting.

8. Surface

Switching from one paper to the next, from canvas to Masonite to Gesso board can cause you grief. Every surface has different working properties. If you don’t know how to handle the surface, your tendency will be to overwork it. Learn what each surface is like, find their strengths and weaknesses and then use them to your advantage.

9. Toned Surface

Toned surfaces are nice to work on but they have disadvantages too. If you don’t establish your lights and dark's very early on, you will be tempted to paint things the same value as the ground you are working on. This leads to a dark and almost ominous feeling in your work.

10. Shapes

You can’t paint the flea on the dog till you have painted the dog. If you start with little itty-bitty shapes your painting will look too busy. Busyness causes clutter and clutter reads like mud. More is never the answer. Less is always the answer. Simplify things so they read clearly.

11. (BONUS) White

Adding too much white too early causes chalkiness in your paint. When your paint gets chalky the effect is hazy and looks like your painting went through an old dishwasher. Start with your dark's and keep the white out as long as you can. Watercolourists have the opposite problem. You need to preserve your whites. If you lose the white of your paper too early you will end up with an overall dark appearance to your work. Leave some whites so your colours will glow and don’t put on too many layers.

Your friend in art, Doug.

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