“Why do my colors look muddy?”

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Watercolor students are always asking, “Why do my colors look muddy?”  There are several reasons that cause this to occur.

The most common cause is over-working of the surface. This means that paint has been applied to the dry paper with a brush and then the student has brushed back and forth across the paper to get it “just right”.  By disturbing the surface of the paper, you are breaking off all of the fine paper filaments that catch the paint and forcing it into the paper surface. If paint is left to settle into the paper on its own, the fine filaments will prevent some areas of the paper from catching paint and those areas will add sparkle to the paint.  Less is more in watercolor, so put your wash down and leave it, don’t keep brushing it.

For best color on your initial wash, paint should be floated (with a loaded brush) into clear water on the paper and left to find its own equilibrium.  The artist can tip and tilt the paper to get the paint to move in any direction, but avoid using the brush to scrub the paint on the surface.  I always float in my first wash. Subsequent layers may be brushed on, but use the brush gently and continue to use enough water so that the paint will float.

Another reason for dull and muddy looking color is over-mixing. I watch students stir paint mixtures on the palette for quite a few seconds.  The more that the paint is stirred, the duller the color.  I like to mix the colors on the paper, wet-into-wet and let the colors find their own mixture. This results in beautiful color transitions and lively color mixes.

Try this experiment in color mixing.  Using permanent rose and cobalt blue, try mixing and applying it in three different ways and see how the colors change.

  1. Mix the rose and blue on your palette and stir it on the palette for 15-20 seconds. Apply it with your brush to a 3” square on dry paper.
  2. Mix the rose and blue on your palette but don’t do more than a couple of swirls through with your brush for mixing. You should still see some of each color in the mixture.  Apply with brush to 3” square on dry paper.
  3. Wet a 3” square on your paper with clear water, being gentle with the paper surface. Load your brush with the blue and drop it into the water, letting the water move the paint instead of the brush. (Keep your paper at a slight angle and let gravity help you.) Now load your brush with the rose and drop it into the blue, once again letting the water and gravity do the mixing for you.
  4. Let all of these squares dry completely and compare the results. You should see some significant differences in the final colors.

I will address a couple of other reasons for “muddy colors” in my next blog post.

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