mud7You laugh?  You say, “I know how to make mud!”  If so, why are you still doing it?  You only get mud in watercolor if you allow yourself to do certain things.  Why do them? Isn’t it like knowing that you put on weight if you consume more calories than you burn in a day?  Pretty simple but sometimes hard to live by. Let’s just worry about no more mud.

creeping edge
First worst reason! You make mud when you keep working after the shine has gone off the paper.

You have to pay attention.  You have to STOP!  No you can’t just do that one more little bit of painting. Stop.  Dry the painting or walk away until it is dry.  If you still need more wet-on-wet effects, soak the painting after it is completely dry and do another layer of wet-on-wet.

What happens if you don’t stop is that you get a crawling edge.  If you try to fix it, you start picking up mud2color and causing a creeping, out-of-control ugly. You are in trouble.  You should have walked away. It is not the paper. It is not the paint.  It is you.

An example of a on purpose creeping edge, see May, 2010 Technique
I probably shouldn’t even tell you this, but you may work LONGER as the paper dries the LESS water you have on your brush.  The creeping edge is caused by you bringing more water (on your brush) than is already on the starting-to-dry paper.  It sucks up this water like a thirst victim.  As the new water is sucked onto the page it pushes the pigment ahead of it.  You can’t fix it because more water will just make more of a problem. But how do you know how much LESS is enough?  Better to walk away when the shine goes off.

Fast Finish was painted with only two layers of wet-on-wet — with very carefully timed saturations of thalo blue, thalo green, quinacridone violet to get the dark shapes to hold and preserve the soft white wave edges.


All of my sedimentary colors: cerulean blue, ultramarine violet, cobalt teal, ultramarine blue, Indian red and cobalt green with one brush of quinacridone gold (okay) then two more and see how the undercolor is disolving.
You make mud when you use sedimentary pigments in your first layer and later glaze over them. I’ll give you three strokes: one, two, three. After that, when you are painting over a sedimentary layer, you have dissolved the binder holding the sediment and have the color stirred into the soup.  That’s what you get — an opaque bouilebaisse.

mud3clear water disolving the sedimentary colors
A lot of people are afraid of the “stains” because “they are so strong,” or “because you can’t change them.” Let’s call them “dyes” instead of stains.  When you start out wet-on-wet the dyes flow easily with the water making smooth hue changes as you put down first washes of sky, water, or background.  If there is anything that occurs which you don’t like, you can brush it right off with water.  The dyes don’t dye the paper until they are dry.  They are really easier to get off than the sedimentary (think thalo blue rather than ultramarine blue) because the particulate hasn’t settled down in the pits in the paper surface.

mud8Get your wet-on-wet start looking the way you want it. Stop when the shine goes off.  The dyes will then bond with the paper and you can paint on top of them as many strokes as you like without having them dissolve and turn to mud.

Here staining colors are glazed over with cerulean blue and ultramarine violet
You make mud when you glaze over a layer where the paint was applied (too) dry.

shadowsofahardday45(1)Be careful about slathering on watercolor as though it were tempera. If you want an opaque area, save painting it until the very end.  The paint sits ON TOP of the paper and will dissolved when any water comes across it.  Back into soup!  We need water to make watercolor work.  For example:



  1. If you are painting an area, say a tree trunk, wet it first and then float the color onto it. Later, if you want to glaze (say a cast shadow) you can come across the earlier color without any fear of it dissolving into mud.
  2. If you want to start with a hard, dry edge do so but as you move away into a larger area be sure that you have enough water traveling with the color that it will soak into the paper.  Then you may glaze another hue across it later.

This is the technique used with the door in the above, Shadows of a Hard Day’s Work.  The paper was stretched, dried, and then I wet the area of the open door.  I saturated it with thalo blue charged with some quinacridone burnt orange, particularly in the lower area, and some additional ultramarine blue in the upper area. When the shine when off the area, I dragged out the color for the white clothesline with the back end of my brush.
mudstainStay away from stains (dyes) in late, saturated glazes.  There are no bad pigments: just the wrong time to use them.  You want your dye pigments to BOND with the paper.  If you have a strong dark (strongly saturated area) and come back at it with another layer of stain, that hue will try to bond and will hide the first color making an ugly dark.  Wet the area and “float” you sedimentary hue choice across the dark dye area.  As the pigment in the sedimentary color separates, it allows the under color to show through and rather than flat and dead, you have a lively dark.

On the left a strong concentration of alizeran crimson had been glazed by staining thalo green and blue  and sedimentary ultramarine blue — all in strong saturations. Notice the two stains dye or hide the red while the sedimentary lets the earlier hue show through.
Stopping on the railroad tracks. This is a “duh” but it is amazing how often it happens!  I will hear a student say, “Ugh! I am getting mud.”  When I go and look, the student has a neutral area.  When I ask what color they wanted instead of “mud,” the student will name a hue — say green. Well then, just add some green to your neutral and tip it toward the hue. Dulls are useful but if you don’t want a total neutral, re-introduce the hue you want and it will be the dull green, dull red or what ever else you wish.  Get off the railroad tracks! Now!! There is a train coming.


After painting the lily, I glazed the water, wet on wet with warm golds and orange dye hues.  When that was dry, I wet the area of water and glaze it over with all of my cool sedimentary hues — more ultramarine at the top and bottom, cobalt green, cobalt teal and touches of additional quinacridone gold.

How to learn to not make mud?  Get out some old dead paintings and try each of the glazing issues  with them.  Put down some sedimentary paints vs. some dyes and compare.  Put down some saturated color (wet and also dry)  and, after it is dry, compare what happens when you glaze over it with a stain and a “floated” sedimentary.


As far as walking away when the shine goes off, maybe you just have to do it wrong enough times.  Or imagine the ruler coming down on your knuckles.  Or if you can tell me how to walk away from that piece of chocolate, I’ll tell you to do the same when the shine goes off your paper.


© Caroline Buchanan, 2011