When I was a young artist, still feeling my way around the subject of color and composition, I sometimes wondered why my paintings marched across the surface of the canvas and had little “depth.” It took me a while to discover the importance of the neutrals — probably in part because the art teacher was always harping on not letting your painting get “muddy.”
What’s wrong with mud?
Have you ever noticed that really elegant room designs have mostly subdued colors with one or two color accents used judiciously? That’s not to say that bright, busy compositions don’t have their place (and I remember when, as teenagers, we discovered the use by Mexicans of red, pink, yellow and bright green and blue in fabulous swirling skirts).
But mud has its uses.
A landscape that is all green may be particularly hard to paint. Just too much strong green. But choose well — a field with pale brown stubble, a grey lowering sky, a sparkling river going through it with grey rocks and sandy banks — and you may have something more appealing.
Remember your basic color wheel. The concepts used to mix mud are that the outer ring of the color wheel consists of the pure hues, the rainbow colors. As you mix the three primaries (or any complementary pair) you approach black. Add an little white and you get quantities of mud: greys, browns, ochres, earth reds….
The painting pictured above I did years ago. It’s called “Annandale” and was the view from my dining room window. I think it works partly because of the use of neutrals to relieve the strong greens and blues. (Notice the neutrals I used were browns, “warm neutrals” while the blues and greens are cool colors.)