How to Paint Rich Dirt

Q. When I need to paint dirt, I use burnt sienna, burnt umber and raw umber—colors that make my paintings dull and muddy. What colors do you use to make great-looking soil without “getting into mud?”

A. When you think of dirt, it’s only natural to think of dark colors. You’re on the right track with some of the colors you’re using now. The trick is not to mix all of these colors or any other dark colors together, because you’ll end up with a muddy color. Also, never paint the entire area of soil with one solid color, even if you add another solid color on top. It’s too boring!

What I’ve found to make earth interesting and alive is this: Begin by layering your darker colors. For example, paint burnt sienna in certain areas (not the whole area), then wait for that layer to dry. Next, add another earth color in other areas (you want a random, patchwork effect), and, in some places, over the burnt sienna you previously painted. Wait for this new layer to dry. Repeat the process until you have a variety of earthy colors.

To vary the image of earth even more, add some sap green and sepia (my favorite combination that results in a beautiful, dark green). The trick in layering is to wait for each color to dry before adding another. To see the effect of layering color in small patches, see my painting And the Angels Lay Their Clouds Across the Sky. Note that I brought down colors that I used in the sky into the earth. Another point to remember when you’re painting earth: Avoid putting in every blade of grass. Your brain may be telling you that there are thousands of blades of grass, but your eye isn’t seeing the entire scene in detail. You want to paint what you feel. After all, you’re painting—creating an illusion.

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