Art Questions, Art Tutorials, Painting

Neutral colours vs. muddy mixes

Some watercolourists seem to find it hard to make the difference between neutral colours (especially browns) and muddy mixes. There is a huge variety of browns that are clean, transparent and without a hint of mud in them, not even the detoxifying cleansing spa kind.

Unlike primary and secondary colours that are found on the rim of the colour wheel, neutral colours sit in the centre. They are obtained when a primary colour is mixed with its opposite secondary colour, also called complementary colour.

Depending on the proportions used, most of these mixes are brown, while some tend towards grey. The main complementary neutral mixes are as follows:

  • Yellow + purple
  • Red + green
  • Blue + orange

All of these mixes are clean neutral colours with a potential to turn to mud…

So what makes the difference between a clean neutral brown and a muddy one?

Here are a few things to avoid if you have to put your wellies on every time you try to mix a neutral colour:

  • Poor quality paints. This first one seems obvious but low quality paints are full of fillers, which are made of various substances (mainly chalk) that affect the saturation levels, transparency and brilliance of the paint. Fillers are used to bulk out the paint, filling the tubes or pans with anything but pigments, which are the most expensive component of the paint. This way the manufacturer saves money and the paints are cheaper. Don’t be tempted by cheap paints, even if the manufacturer calls them “artist range’. If the paint is cheap, the ingredients are cheap.
  • Too many pigments. Try to stick to single pigment paints. Every pigment reflects different sections of the light spectrum and too many pigments will fight each other to death and leave behind a muddy battlefield. Imagine mixing a green made of 4 pigments with an orange made of 3 pigments. This gives you a mix of 7 different pigments and it is bound to turn nasty.
  • Opaque paints. These tend to overwhelm the transparent paints and the washes will lose their transparency and delicate finish.
  • Dense pigments. Some pigments (Cadmiums are a good example) are extremely dense as well as opaque. The other pigments simply cannot compete with them and as a result the mixes become heavy and have too much covering power. The transparency and freshness of the washes is lost.
  • Overworking the paint. It is possible to have a clean neutral mix in the palette but ruining it on the paper by overworking the paint. Browns are especially susceptible to this. If the paint is moved around too much, the layering of the pigment becomes uneven and creates unwanted texture that looks dirty and “tired”.
  • Mixing too much paint. Thick washes are definitely not helping when it comes to keeping colours clean. Make sure to use a small amount of paint with plenty of water. It is safer to layer several washes of thin paint than to apply the colour in one thick wash. Remember this only works with transparent paints.
  • Proportion is the key. Any two colours mixed together can produce an infinity of colours. Try to identify the bias of your neutral colour before you start mixing: is it a blue-biased grey, a red-biased brown, a yellow-biased grey green? This will give you an indication of the proportions. This is important because if the proportions are wrong and the colour not what you were aiming for, it is tempting to add more and more paint until the mix becomes thick and muddy and a mountain of frustration.

If you are having trouble with muddy browns, I would bet that you have been doing one or several of the things above.

Hopefully this will help clean your neutral colours!

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