Having taught art for about 35 years and also running workshops for other artists for the last 10, I hear a lot about “rules” in painting and art making, most often from the students. When I teach a workshop I always preface it by stating; “I only have 1 rule in art making – There are No Rules! – Creativity knows no boundaries, there are no rules.” That said, I go on to point out that there are various principles, formulas, methods and techniques, etc. that will yield somewhat predictable results. The more of these you know, understand and master, the more colors on your palette, so to speak, thus the more likely you will be able to “let go and flow” without restraint to achieve whatever you desire when the creative muse strikes, (or you rouse her with long hours of persistence in your studio or the field).
It’s things like the “watch out not to mix mud” we hear so often – “no” I say, “but do know the mud you are slinging”. It’s similar to watercolorists that say “don’t use white”, though history is filled with so many great watercolorists that have, (a whole other blog). It is the context that is so important here. Statements and methods are taken out of context and set up into rules.
Color – (and mud is a color, recognized for some centuries -being mixed up on purpose by many masterful colorists), like all parts of a painting, is relative to what is around it. Delacroix is often quoted to have said; “give me mud and the choice of the surrounding colors and I’ll paint you a Venus”. Our perception of color – well that is so incredibly complex, and I am certainly no expert, between the physics of light and the behavior of pigments, etc. etc…. let us simply say that it is all relative and here I will approach just a couple of points, (for an in depth -and I mean in depth explanation, refer to the extensive writings and research of Bruce MacEvoy, an expert, if not THE expert in the field (you can scroll down to the section on additive and subtractive color mixing if you don’t have a few months to read the rest)). What we see and what we mix with pigments and the shifts between these, is one of the challenges for an artist. We see a color one way when it is surrounded by one color and then another way when surrounded by a different color, (as you will see in the examples I show here), and this is also effected by, for one thing, the type of light(s) hitting it. Pigments also don’t always act the way we expect they might, (for example, white with a little black and yellow make a useful green). Our perception is greatly effected by influences on the colors’ chroma (it’s intensity and purity -meaning without or with grey added -no mud – mud), it’s value (light to dark, think black and white photograph) and it’s temperature, (is it warm or is it cool), perceptions that can fluctuate in different circumstances. We are really just scratching the surface here, the subject, (as MacEvoys’ research cited above attests), is extensive. When we are talking about seeing “mud” in a painting we are really saying that the color in that context is the wrong chroma, value or temperature for a desired effect or that it is confusing to the viewer. 8 out of 10 times, (as good a ratio as any), it has to do with value, because that is what the eye picks up first. You can pretty much make a convincing representational painting with any colors you want as long as you have the values right.

The greys or browns of mud can be mixed from many different color combinations and can lean warm or cool. One effective way to “grey down” the chroma of a color is to add some of it’s complement, or near complement, (mixing complements with pigments is a subtractive method -as you mix the complements they complete the subtractive color mixing process cancelling out, (absorbing) more and more reflected light (color) from the reflective surface of the paint, making it duller, grayer even black with the right colors, as opposed to the additive method of mixing light, as the spectral colors mix differently and add together to make “white”). Colors used for mixing pigment complements are different than colors that are used as visual complements for the purpose of color enhancement, which has more to do with how the eye works, optics and the human brain, (i.e. enhancing a blue by surrounding it with yellow).

With watercolor we change the value by adding more water and diluting the pigment. The example below shows the use of Grumbacher watercolors painted on Fredrix watercolor canvas in the creation of a near neutral grey from the combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, (not exact complements, but a pleasing combination that I like to work with).

On the bottom of the first column, far left, is burnt sienna in its masstone, that is, straight out of the tube, (there is a black ink line in the center of each column that reveals the transparency of the paint layed over it), bottom far right is ultramarine blue masstone. This first swatch has very little transparency as the paint is quite thick and the pigment load is heavy. The second swatch up is again the pigment undiluted but this time laid in with a dry brush with a slightly thinner application than the bottom swatch,(still masstone, just not as thick), more transparency. As the swatches go up progressively 4 times, there is more water added each time, more pigment dispersion, lighter value and greater transparency, till reaching it’s undertone, the lightest tint color. As the columns move towards the center, the opposing color is added in to “grey it down”, decreasing the chroma. Second column in from the left is warmer, (more burnt sienna than blue), second from the right is cooler, (more ultramarine blue than sienna). The center column is a somewhat balanced or neutralized grey. Forgive me for not adding a few more transitional steps between these that would be typical of a good color space chart.

To show the difference in dilution with water and the addition of white pigment, the row along the top starts on the ends with the masstone and then is tinted with more and more chinese white in 5 steps as it moves towards and across the center. The tinting with white will distinctly change the feel of the color.

In the center are 3 grey tints, the bottom warm, more b. sienna, the top cool, more ultra. blue, the center a “neutralized” grey.

As I mentioned earlier, color and our perception of it is all relative, as I will point out in the next few images.

Take for example the white of the Fredrix watercolor canvas these images are painted on…
is it really “white”? Let’s see


The off white of the canvas that in the previous images the colors rested on, now appears “dirty”, a grey compared to the white of this surrounding page and the stark white of the computer generated white squares placed throughout, (actually the canvas is a very good ground color to work on).

Below I have taken from our chart 3 squares of grey, warm on the left, neutral in the center, cool on the right, (the colors when flatened in photoshop loose their transparency and appear more as the tints of opaque colors). They are taken from the 4th swatch up in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th columns. In the top row the smaller square of burnt sienna in the center is from the first column 4th swatch up. The bottom row the smaller square of blue is from the right column 4th swatch up. Stair at each segment for a few moments and notice how the colors appear different when surrounded by different grays. For example, the smaller burnt sienna square in the center on the left, (warm grey) appears darker than when it is surrounded by the other 2 greys

Burnt Sienna 3 greys

Blue 3 greys

The one below is from full chroma columns 4th swatch again and switched on top of their opposite.


Notice how the burnt sienna on the blue field seems considerably darker then when it is on middle grey, (top row above, center). Try staring at one of the squares for a minute or so and then look at the white of the page. What other things do you notice?

I like to use this color combination for doing two color studies as in this watercolor demo below done on Fredrix watercolor canvas. Here I created an imprematura, (an oil painting technique made possible for watercolor with the use of watercolor canvas), through mixing various amounts of the burnt sienna and ultramarine blue and covering the canvas in an uneven wash. I then began lifting off the paint with brushes and rags and then painted dark mixtures back into it.

Magic Falls Demo

I like the way these 2 simple colors can yield such rich darks and also beautiful warms, cools and silvery grays. They really lend themselves to the illusion of depth in the landscape regarding the principle of atmospheric perspective. The principle is based on the fact that our eyes won’t perceive yellows and reds at great distances as the light is scattered through the atmosphere, (unless they are greatly illuminated, i.e. sunset, etc.), and that perception is further effected by greater amounts of dust and moisture in the atmosphere. Thus things appear bluer and grayer (cooler, more dissolved), in the distance and warmer, more saturated and detailed close up. Of course as I said at the very beginning of this article, there are no rules, only formulas, and nature and artists are always breaking them, bending them and reinventing so to speak. Thats creativity.
So to conclude, and since I am heading to Olana next week to paint at the 4th Annual Olana Plein Air Festival, I would like to post a painting by one of my favorite artists, Frederic Church. Here Church “breaks the rule”, turns it on it’s head so to speak. Almost all the saturated – high chroma cool colors are in the front and bottom of the landscape and as it recedes to the mid point it gets warmer and warmer. A masterful work with a lot of beautiful mud..ahm controlled grays throughout.


Frederic E. Church, The Icebergs