Get Out of the Mud

In watercolor, the term “mud” means a lack of vibrant color. It’s a problem I see a lot of beginners get into when they’re first learning how to mix colors. But beginners aren’t the only ones who create muddy messes. “Mud” could be the title of my next book, I’ve been in it so many times!

Mud can happen for all sorts of reasons. For example, student-grade paints provide a quick entrance to mudville. Not cleaning your brushes properly (or accidentally picking up an extra bit of color on your brush) can make things muddy. Using too much water with your paint, or jumping the gun and applying paint over still-wet paint are two of the most common ways to create mud. If you’re not making these obvious blunders, you’re more than likely just mixing your colors incorrectly.

Whatever the cause, the problem usually goes from bad to worse when you react to it with panic: “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to fix this now!” You don’t want to wait for the paint to dry–you want to go in with more wet color or more water. You fuss and fuss thinking you’re going to fix it, until the paper no longer takes paint or water.

Take for example, the sequence of events that got me stuck in the mud in my painting Going Home. It was once a very pleasant painting–and almost complete. Then, I began “fussing” with it, trying to make it perfect. The results of my obsession: I got myself into lots and lots of mud! Now, here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: How I got unstuck. In this case, I cropped the painting, editing out the worst part of the mud, and then used white gouache to brighten the white on the cows.

Gouache is a good rescue remedy when you get into mud. It’s very opaque and will sit right on top of your watercolors. Working with gouache is tricky though, so practice with it before you apply it to your paintings. It can also turn to mud–and much faster than watercolor. You can also use acrylic to brighten up your mud painting. Be creative when you apply either medium; make it blend into your painting. You don’t want the acrylic or gouache to stand out.

There’s another lesson to be learned here, too: Never throw a painting away. For me, painting really becomes a challenge–and an opportunity to learn–when disaster happens. I’ve learned some of my best lessons when I had to face the question “Now how am I going to get myself out of this one?”

If you can’t figure out how to handle a problem at that exact moment, put the painting away. I have a pile of paintings I call my “practice pile.” It’s also my “learning pile.” Sometimes, I’ll pull out a piece that landed in the pile because I hated it. I can play with it with no fear of ruining something I like. Sometimes, this freedom leads me to a great painting, just because I was fearless.

Catherine Anderson is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society. Visit her Web site at

You may also like these articles: