Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Mud Debate

Is there such a thing as a muddy color? There are two very different schools of thought on this issue, with great painters and teachers on both sides of the fence. Please consider both arguments and share your own opinion in the comments.

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


Elena Maslova-Levin said...

My training was closer to "there-are-no-muddy-colors" school of thought, and I would rather subscribe to it if I am pressed, yet I believe there is no real contradiction here. For one thing, it is a matter of stage in one's study of color and use of paints: what is an appropriate advice for a beginner (e.g. not to mix more than three pigments, to use a limited palette, to keep brushes clean), is not necessarily a "law" to be followed at all stages of one's development as a painter. On the one hand, it is true that an "overmixed" color is more likely to look dull and dirty (in the wrong context), that is, if it is a pure pigment, it can still be totally wrong, but for other reasons (I mean, it won't be perceived as muddy). On the other hand, the same color might work in other contexts and in more skillful hands (if there is such a thing as "exactly the same" color). It seems to me that there is no contradiction here.

There is no contradiction with the fact

Elena Maslova-Levin said...

Sorry for bad editing..

Erik Bongers said...

Hear hear to the above.
Context is everything.

I also believe there is no right or wrong in color mixing.
Hey, I guess I'm the worst colorist ever, but I stick to my approach.
Let me describe it.

1. I use acrylics and I start with transparent layers of color, a-la-aquarel. Burnt Sienna for skin, Cobalt Blue for sky (often airbrushed to get a smooth gradient) and so on.
2. I build up the other colors of the scene with layers until it looks saturated enough.
3. I start adding shadows with Indian ink - still in transparent layers.
4. At this point the painting looks like crap and I throw some expensive china against the wall.
5. I calm down. The painting does look muddy. I overdid the layer upon layer thing. I mix Titanium White with a bit of Cadmium yellow and add some edge lighting. Aha, that looks better...but the shadows of the face are still too dark.
6. I mix some Titanium White with Burnt Sienna and with transparent layers build up some lighter areas in the shadow.
7. Wow, that looks more like it ! But the left eye is too low...
50. The layers of paint are beginning to build up...
70. The face has now been replaced by a still life of vegetables because it fits better with the background.
143. Finished!!! I invite my family to show of my new masterpiece! They are in absolute awe for this great marine that I painted! I boast that 'we artist' we see the painting already in our head before we put it to canvas.

Ok, I may be slightly exaggerating, but my point is that I always seem to be correcting things in the most unorthodox way.
The only regret that I have is that it often takes to long, and so I do try to mix colors spot-on the first time, but that really never happens.

Everyone his/her way of working -it's the result that counts.

Erik Bongers said...

Mud is the enemy?
I quote Delacroix:
I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will.

Gray is your friend?
I quote Delacroix:
Remember the enemy of all painting is gray: a painting will almost always appear grayer than it is, on account of its oblique position under the light.

Will I ever be able to mix colors spot-on?
I quote Delacroix:
Draughtsmen may be made, but colourists are born.

More of his quotes here.

Roca said...

My formal training in color was of the "mud" school, and was adamant about sticking with pure pigments (there is no "black" in nature, etc.). However, in practice I find it very difficult to get the colors I want this way and end up wasting a lot of paint. So as a practical matter I try to use every drop of paint on my palette under the pretense of "it will unify my painting." Reality? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Dean H. said...

My training was keep 'em pure...mix no more than three, etc.
But the more I painted, the more I made friends with neutral grays and "mud". The latter for me leads to more control of the focal point by judicious placement of the purer colors.

innisart said...

I was taught mud was bad.

In college, a teacher told me I had terrible color sense because I used brown in an acrylic painting once. It shook my confidence in my ability to use color. It took me years to understand that his view was biased: he was a watercolorist, and he expected everyone to use the same color palette he employed, even when they worked opaquely.

It wasn't until I studied with someone from the Frank Reilly school of painting that I felt I was given permission to paint with grays. I finally was painting with colors as I saw them!

Granted, the Reilly system involves neutral grays. When you mix color complements, your result is not neutral, but often a gray or brown with a color shift. However, I guess you are making your own "muds" anyway when you add the neutral grays to a purer color.

A painting filled with muds, in my opinion, is often the most realistic and beautiful painting on the gallery wall. I think the subtlety of the colors (muds) produces some great work.

Paul Moyse said...

I've had no formal training, but in my view it's a matter of context and balance. Personally I think mud can be a great asset for skin tones, if used in a controlled way, and in the right context and lighting. Interesting discussion, and great blog, I check it every day!

Rob Rey said...

I'm of the opinion that muddy colors are just the wrong temperature and/or value. However, I also try to mix my colors from as few pigments as possible. This is because it is all too easy to "settle" for a mixture that isn't quite saturated enough after you've had to pull a color back towards a primary from an initially mixed gray. Resulting in a color of incorrect temperature.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading your post today!

Hubert de Lartigue said...

Personally, I try to found the colors I need and put them in little bottles...
Like that

Paolo Rivera said...

I actually use gray paint out of the tube to speed up my mixing process — same with black and earthen tones — and people call my work "colorful." At this point, it would be difficult to convince me that "mud" exists.

Having said that, I will concede that there is something about the degree of mixture that affects a color's impression. When the original components of a mixture are still perceptible, it creates a visual "vibration" from the internal contrast. However, I think this is more a matter of style and have seen both good and bad examples of it.

I'd have to side with Delacroix

N said...

Great post! I'm on the "mud is a myth" side, but Lena also has it right.

I find that those who go on about "mud" tend also to be the ones who insist there is no black in nature (I disagree, a few molecules of black does fast and cost-effective wonders in mixing an accurate and satisfying earth tone), and are sometimes the plein-air evangelists who drive me crazy (nothing against plein air, I just resist the notion of the fundamentalists that genre tends to attract, that it's the one true painting method).

Mud schmud! It's all relative. The wrong pure pigments next to each other looks pretty hideous too.

Shane White said...

Great topic:

There are colorists like Sergei Bongart who painted in pure color and because everything was turned up to 11 it was color temeperature and placement that pushed and pulled the correct values. He I think was the most explosive of colorists.

Joaquin Sorolla another is another colorist who whose non-fussy paintings breathed with light.

All too often people are scared to paint with pure color because it's like a wild animal. Most people try to tame it by neutralizing it with complimentary mixing...or just "graying" it out.

There are beautiful paintings from many disciplines. Anders Zorn was as amazing as John Singer Sargent, but Zorn used 5-7 colors, Sargent used many more.

I lean towards the colorists. I like unbridled color and I think it reflects better color seeing than to run toward the comfort zone of grays. That being said, color temperature is the utmost important aspect of painting. Many believe value is more important.

The rule of thumb I've learned:
We squint for value and open our eyes to see color.

Think about painting a person standing with their back to a wintry overcast sky where there's a hint of sun poking through behing them. You're not going to get a lot of rim light or defining values in the face. With color temperature you'll get more mileage in seeing the blood well up in the cheeks and lips and nose.

I think value is equally important but it has it's limitations when painting from life.

I look out my window here in Seattle and on any given day it can be sunny or cloudy, but it's just different temperatures of the same color when I look at the landscape. It's not like black was handed down by the gods to gray up everything.

I do use black though, and I love mixing it with lemon cads to get interesting greens, or quinacridone magenta and white for beautiful cool violets.

One thing I think might be true is the more of colorist you tend to be, the more likely you'll notice dirty incorrect color if you show any sign of graying things down.

To clarify here's whats's on my palette:

Titanium White
Cadmium Lemon Yellow
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Cadmium Orange
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Red Medium
Napthol Red
Alizarin Crimson
Quinacradone Red
Burnt Umber
Ultramarine Blue
Cereluean Blue
Pthalo Blue
Pthalo Green
Ivory Black

Before I studied in the Russian Impressionist lineage I found an excellent book by Stephen Quiller. He demonstrated finding pure neutrals using specific colors and brands. Blue and Orange don't necessarily make the perfect neutral. But Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Orange do Winsor Blue and Scarlet Vermillion. He spoke in specifics and I think there's some value in that for those who do like working more with neutrals. Check out his Quiller Wheel:

At the end of the day it's about color harmony and making great pictures! :)

Sorry this is so long. :\


Richard said...

I'm from the "Mud is a myth" school. There is no such thing as color in isolation. Put half ping pong balls over someone's eyes and shine a color, say pink, on them and in a little while everything goes gray, brain gray as its called.

But you might also include another analogous problem: chalky colors.

Brine Blank said...

I had professors on both side of the fence as well as those that stood in the middle. I too believe it depends on the context, the media, and how the media is handled. The real part is getting the feel of "when to use what technique" to achieve a desired effect or the most effective effect. The one thing all of my instructors agreed on is beware how you use black (if you have to use it at all because we were NEVER allowed to have it on our palette) since it created visual holes as well 'polluting' the colors. Less experienced painters would try to sneak it in in the beginning and would always cause some sort of visual disaster that was spotted readily. The teachers would then go in and show how to do it 'their proper way' and you couldn't ever argue with the much improved results.

Daroo said...

I side with Schmid and MacPherson, but I must admit to a bias as they're books and DVDs have been one of the major sources of my painting education. I also must admit that while I appreciate a great colorist's work -- I usually place color behind drawing, value and edges in terms of priority (so this might disqualify me).

That said I think Schmid is right when he says it is all relative. As Jim has shown in many of his posts, colors can appear radically different when placed next to other colors. Likewise a (so called)cool color can appear warm when it is placed next to an even cooler color. When you don't get the relative temperature right the color stands out as wrong and often muddy -- like a musical note that falls flat.
Another aspect of color relativity is that those muds (grayed colors) act as a visual counterpoint when placed next to the pure pigments and allow the color to sing out clearly. If all the colors in your painting are "turned to eleven" in terms of chroma then there is no counterpoint and the painting is monotonous.

I do not think you should be afraid of overmixing if you are trying for accurate colors from life. However, once you can handle that, there are many ways to apply colors and I feel a worthy goal is to mix colors less on the palette and more on the canvas. This can be done within a single brush stroke of loosely mixed color (like MacPherson does) or with thick, interwoven layers of warm and cool opaque colors applied in a broken manner (As Scott Burdick does) or with thin transparent initial washes modified with opaque broken color (As Schmid does so masterfully). The color in these artists work vibrates with life.

I think there is something more inherently interesting about separate bits of color that requires the viewer to blend them into a whole -- kind of like a fine entre -- if the ingredients are kept somewhat separate the dish explodes with flavor -- if they are over blended and overcooked it tastes homogeneous.

jeff said...

I studied with a painter who was a student of Frank DuMond.
He stressed learning to find the right values, chroma, and hues in that order.

We spent months mixing up 9 gray steps that were mixed to the values of the palette. For example you had a gray that was the same value as Cadmium Yellow Light.

I am now into using Munsell as this seems to me a natural extension of using value strings and mixing palettes that are closer to the average of what your painting.

Frank Reilly was mentioned and he was into Munsell as well.

I don't think there is any right or wrong, just as I don't think there are warm or cool colors. It's all relative to me and it's about solving the HVC problems presented that I am concerned with.

I find that for myself I like to look for the masses and figure out what they are in HVC, and then develop the effect that I am wanting to paint.

I think that not letting students use black is a little silly, but each to there own. Of course if I was teaching painting I would have them mix 9 neutral gray scales and I think that would help them understand how black and white relate to color in painting.
The biggest problem is chroma I think, how you move through the chroma of a hue is very hard to master.

When one talks of a hue being muddy or dull in context, I think this means that its the relationships of the values, and the chroma that is off. If you hit these two people
wont notice the hue as this is a variable anyway.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

As someone said: "Mud is just the right color in the wrong place."

Like Kevin Macpherson, I too collect my palette scrapings, blend till done, and then save for use in the next painting. This pile of "mud" is perfect for the foundation of many greys.

Jen Z said...

I think about the only thing I'm certain about here is that I don't like looking down on others for their methods of creation, or where they studied, or under whom. That's probably why I would shy away from the "Beware of Mud" school, although I believe that one needs little more than three or four colours to mix a desired hue.
For me, what usually counts in the end is that an artist mixes the colour he or she is looking to achieve, and if they don't, will still find a use for the "Happy Accident". I like Kevin MacPherson's idea to keep the mud colours for later use. It seems like the "Mud is a Myth" School sees things more positively, that the glass is half full and the BOMs are too busy being annoyed that they wasted paint.

Frank Gardner said...

I believe that there are subtle grays not mud and it all depends on the surrounding colors.
It think that it is a lot easier to stay harmonious with fewer colors. Therefore all of those palette scrapings from a limited palette will be more useful and harmonious than palette scrapings from a palette with 15 or 20 colors. Too many hues mixed together.

I Do think that over mixing ( blending the colors for too long) causes a mix to die and lose it's intensity.

Have you ever blended a mix for too long on the palette and then all of a sudden you wonder where all of the color went?

Unknown said...

I was taught to fear mud and I still unconcsiously stick to those rules. Although, terrible as it may sound, I've always been more aware of value and form and colour is a secondary consideration.
I use gouache and it tends to get muddy fairly easily. I rarely use blacks or grays, even the ink lines I use are sepia.
Great quotes Erik!

Alida Saxon said...

I was taught greys and blacks were good-- if you mixed them yourself. Several of my teachers wouldn't allow us to buy white, black or any of the greys. One teacher would only allow the primaries and a purple (as she felt a good purple was hard to mix).

These days I still tend to avoid using industry made blacks and greys, but I'm of the opinion that it's the careless application rather than the use of "mud" that is a problem. You can certainly use mud badly, but it doesn't mean it hasn't a place.

Unknown said...

I forgot too add, amazing, informative article in Imagine FX.
And YOU did the cover for Stranger Tides?!?!? That cover has been creeping me out for years! I can't believe your range.

michelle said...

It seems to me that the thoughtful use of neutrals and grays help to emphasize the more vibrant colors in a composition. Take Vermeers "The Milkmaid", the woman is surrounded by exquisite neutrals which allow the yellow and blue of her gown and the warmth of her face glow. The contemporary artist Daniel Sprick is brilliant in his conservative use of saturated colors amongst lovey neutrals.

jeff said...

Draughtsmen may be made, but colourists are born.

I can't disagree more with this statement. You can learn how to use color as well as you can learn to draw. Color is first a science(the first color wheel was made by Newton) then it is something you can learn through practice, like music. The more you practice the better you will get.

I like Delacroix but if he said this it's a bit much if you ask me.

I still don't understand all this fear of black, which is in the blue family, I mean it's not that hard to master, just paint 50 or so black and white paintings of anything from plaster casts to chrome. Painting spheres and cubes is good as well.

To me the Pthalo's are the hard to control as they are so strongly pigmented. so are Cad Reds and the newer reds and violets, very strong and intense.

Then again it's all relative as some say.

Shane White said...

Nature is the master of color.

All we can achieve is fascimiles.

Like anything creative it can be learned by rote. It can be an informed decision but there are so few who can wield it so effortlessly with gut instinct.

I always likened it to the idea of "chasing the light" when painting from nature. Having traveled with my paintbox some, I really appreciate the idea that everything you know about color changes on any given day in any given setting worldwide.

How could we even think to master such an elusive thing?

Paint on! :)


Anonymous said...

A few years ago I would have sided with "beware of mud"; now, many paintings later, I can tell you that guy (me back then) did not have the control over mixing he thought he had. Mud is poor control of value, chroma, hue.

jeff said...

For me the gray values help control the hues, in other words they help you reduce the chroma while keeping the value. Grays turn edges, and they help you create atmospheric space.

Here's a fun test. Take a tube of yellow ocher, put a little on your palette.

Now mix an orange from Cad Yellow Light and Cad Red Light.(you could also just use Cad Orange, but it's good practice to mix up the orange)

Mix a gray value the same value as the yellow ocher and Cad Yellow Lt. and the Red as well so you can move up or down in value if you need to.

Now mix the yellow ocher gray value into the orange. Keep testing until you can get it to be the same value, and chroma as the yellow ocher from the tube.

You can make a pretty nice yellow ocher this way, the thing is you can't do it with out the gray paint.

One might ask why do this, well it's an interesting exercise and
yellow ocher is pretty close to the middle of the palette value wise, it's about value 5 depending on the brand. That's another issue, how different brands of paint of the same color can be completely different values.

The hard part is keeping it from becoming to green. If it does then your gray is not neutral and is shifting to much to blue.

Unknown said...

I personally was taught that mud is a no-no. And for a couple years that is exactly how I painted. I steer cleared of greys, white, and black, as well as using earth tones to affect my mixtures. But the more I paint, the more I've learned to love the subtleties that having this "mud" allows in a painting. Donato Giancola, during his Art Out Loud demo, claimed to just create a pile of mud on his palette and from there he mixes and modifies his colors. Anyone who has seen his paintings knows his color sense is exquisite. I also read one of Frank Reilly's art books in which the use of neutral grey is mentioned. After that I've been a strong advocate of the mud. I premix my colors on my palette, but I don't stop happy accidents from happening. As far as brush cleaning, I use 2-3 brushes at a time and I only wipe it down or dip it in natural turp every so often. There are subtle nuances and color harmonies that can only really be achieved by the random, yet meticulous, inclusions of "dirty" brush paint. That is my personal experience and as with most of painting, there is no right or wrong, just preference and context really. I think its safe to say I love mud!

Rich said...

My teacher is Graydon Parrish, whom you mention in the color survey post. He has shown me that there are many low-chroma colors and they can be mixed accurately and used to create beautiful color harmonies. Of course, there may be some very low-chroma colors that are less attractive than others, but sometimes "mud" is what is called for.

noble said...

Mud is an illusion. It is all about context. If you keep the relationships correct, you can paint with very low chroma glop and still make a clean image. For flesh it's almost all "mud" (i.e. low chroma") however, if you preserve the right relationships, the effect can be clean and luminous. Bougereau is a case in point.

The three pigment rule is only about efficiency, or to keep students from going off track initially. Once you know how greys work, using mud is fairly easy since mixing low chroma colors can be done many ways. High chroma targets have far fewer mixing options to hit them correctly.

Anonymous said...

Try painting three Indian elephants of different ages in the deep shade of a banyan tree. A love of no-color, of shadows, comes at the end of all the mud variations!

Unknown said...

Hi, fist comment in your wonderful blog,great stuff !! related to the "mud" debate, I found quite interesting the fact that the artist you mention saves the left over paint to make this muddy mixture, I myself bought 4 glass jars and actually made gray mixtures with 2 darker than neutral gray and 2 lighter, I started to notice that since I didn't add any medium to avoid evaporation the paint is nearly dry, what do you suggest I use to solve this issue ?

Unknown said...

What you said at the last paragraph really touched me. I was told by two of my lecturers that my paintings look muddy and should be more vibrant. That my colours were green at light and red at shadow but there were tints of green in red and tints of red in green, it's muddy.
That brought me here. Is muddy.....Bad? I just like it, the feeling of desaturated paintings. Can't muddy look great too?
But after seeing your comment, I am determined that there is nothing wrong with muddy and I should be proud of using them.