The “Beware of Mud” School
Some oil painters are wary of overmixing colors to avoid colors that look “dead” or “dirty.”
Virgil Elliott, in his popular new book Traditional Oil Painting writes, “a clearer color sensation is possible with a single pigment than with any mixture of two or more.”
Daniel Parkhurst, a student of Bouguereau, said in his 1903 book, The Painter in Oil, “Over-mixing makes color muddy sometimes, especially when more than three colors are used. When you don't get the right tint with three colors, the chances are that you have got the wrong three. If that is not so, and you must add a fourth, do so with some thoughtfulness, or you will have to mix the tint again.”
Partially mixed colors, he says, are more apt to yield harmonious variations in the final painting. He goes on to recommend that the artist keep the palette scrupulously clean and use a lot of brushes.
Another cause of mud, some artists believe, is having too many colors on the palette. Teachers say that art students tend to use browns or black habitually for toning or graying color. They recommend using only pure primaries as the only source colors, especially when learning to mix colors. The primaries could be warm and cool variations of blue, yellow, and red, plus white.
Some watercolorists use only primary pigments laid over each other transparently in varying amounts to achieve all other colors. Other painters, in the name of achieving purity of color, set the palette with many different tube colors, so that they don’t have to mix as many component colors to achieve the colors they want.
The “Mud is a Myth” School
On the other hand, there’s a group of equally sensitive colorists arguing that there’s no such thing as a muddy color mixture. There are only muddy relationships of color in a given composition. Grays are the artist’s best friend. A given color either works in its pictorial context or not. The effect of drabness or dullness, they would argue, comes from poor value organization more than from bad mixtures or bad mixing practices.
As Richard Schmid puts it in Alla Prima: Everything I Know about Painting, “There are no ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ colors. ‘Muddy’ colors are simply mixtures that are the inappropriate relative temperature for the area in which they are placed.”
Kevin MacPherson, in his book Oil Painting Inside and Out, recommends scraping up unused paint on the palette, stirring it together, and putting it into empty paint tubes that he actually labels “MUD.” He uses these tubes of gray instead of white for mixing a medium value color. “These grays are in harmony with your primaries,” he writes, “since they are a mixture of all of them, and most of nature is made of grays.”
These artists might point out that a given color can be mixed from many different constituent colors. A neutral gray can be blended from red and green, or from blue and orange, or from all the colors on the palette. It really doesn’t matter to the painting how you arrived at a given mixture.
And you don’t necessarily have to wash your brush all the time or use a lot of different brushes unless the painting calls for saturated tints. A “dirty” brush is infused with unifying grays or browns (which some artists affectionately call “sauce”) that can help bind a painting together.
What have you been taught? What has been your experience? What practices do you follow to get luminous color? Start mudslinging—but please, no criticism of living artists.
Tomorrow: The Origami Mystery