Avoiding Muddy Colors | How to get good results when mixing paint!

Avoiding Muddy Colors

Do you get frustrated when you are mixing paint and end up with mud?  Avoiding muddy colors is easy if you follow these simple rules.

When you mix mud you are simply arriving at a color that has been desaturated to the point at which no identifiable hue is evident.  Paint that has become muddy looks nothing more than an undesirable brown.  Avoiding muddy colors is easy to do and I’ll explain how easy it is to avoid it.  Once you understand why you are getting mud colored paint in the first place, avoiding muddy colors becomes a breeze!

Why You Are Getting Mud

Mixing paint causes two or more colors to create the appearance of a new color.  This process is called subtractive mixing.  Let’s take the color green for example.  You can mix green by combining blue paint with yellow paint.  Why is this called subtractive mixing?  The green is actually present in both the blue and yellow paint already.  When you combine the two paints the resulting mixture “subtracts” the colors not common between the yellow and the blue.  The color(s) common between the two paints is what the new mixture appears to be.  In our paint mixing example it’s green.  The green has been revealed because it’s common between the blue and yellow paint.

Whew! That was super nerdy.  Yes indeed, but it’s important to understand that when you mix paints or any pigmentation together you are always reducing the saturation of the colors involved.  Subtracting is after all the process of removing!

When you start mixing many colors together you are reducing the overall saturation of the new paint mixture.  Each time you add another color you further reduce the saturation even more.  Inexperienced painters usually spend more time mixing many different colors together in attempt to arrive at the desired color.  This in essence is leading them to a muddy color.

How To Avoid Mixing Muddy Colors

There are several strategies you can use to avoid mixing mud.

3 Color Rule – If you find yourself using more than 3 colors to mix a desired color you need to rethink your approach.  This excludes white and black of course as these colors mainly control the value of your paint.

Limited Palette – Sometimes too many colors creates too many decisions.  Have you ever been stumped at a restaurant with too many items on the menu?  I have.  Use just enough paints on your palette to achieve a satisfactory gamut.  Not only will this help you harmonize your painting, but you’ll gain more experience with the paints you use resulting in less mud.

Color Wheel  – There’s no need to guess at color mixtures.  Post a color wheel where you can see it.  A color wheel is a tool for predicting color mixing.  Keep a color wheel visible at all times and use it to decrease the amount of muddy paint you are mixing.  Download a color wheel here!

Gray Palette – Many artists swear by their gray palettes.  Judging your paint on a white palette can often be misleading.  The ultimate effectiveness of a color is how it looks in your painting.  Sometimes when mixing paint it looks like you have mixed mud, but you in fact have a color that will work great on your painting.

Avoiding Muddy Thoughts

Mixing muddy colors seems to be a frequent complaint among artists.  Perhaps you searched online and that’s what lead you here?  If you are willing to look at “mud” from a different perspective, understand that mud is just another color; a color that can be useful.  That mixed mud–colored paint you created may very well be the perfect color under the right circumstances.  It’s really a matter of context.  Not all parts of a painting should be saturated, especially when painting realistically.

I can remember mixing desaturated, brown-grays on my white palette and thinking “yuck”.  Then, those same yucky colors were perfect for shadowed areas of skin.  Those muddy browns worked perfectly for the darker skin tones of the neck shadowed by a woman’s long hair.

You’d actually be better served to stop classifying paint as being muddy and try to identify it’s color properties with more precision.  What is the color’s hue,value, and saturation?  How did you arrive at this color?  Is this color useful in your painting?  As a realism painter I can tell you that I by far use more de-saturated colors than saturated.  As a result when I use a few spots of saturated color it sings like a bird!

Will this keep you from avoiding muddy colors or change your perspective on it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts below!


  1. Very useful article. Colours of organic objects aren’t really saturated in reality, are the?

    1. John Morfis says:

      Most things when painted realistically are quite dull. So colors usually shouldn’t be used straight from the tube, but of course there are exceptions. Some fruits and flowers are very saturated.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I thought it had to do with the quality of my paints – but then discovered it happened with “high quality” paints as well – so it’s me (probably mixing too many colors).

    1. John Morfis says:

      The more colors you mix together the less saturated the mixture becomes.

  3. Anna Newbill says:

    What is the significance of a gray palette? A white palette works completely fine, so there is no reason to switch.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Use whatever gets the results you are after.

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