Vivid colors usually get all the attention, so this post is dedicated to the subtle beauty of muted colors.
I find that one of the most common problems of beginner painters is that they completely overlook the importance of muted colors in favor of the more flashy vivid reds, blues, oranges, purples, and so on. If you find yourself rarely using any muted colors, then this post should be an eye-opener.
What Are Muted Colors?
Muted is just another word for grayed, dulled or desaturated. It refers to colors which have a low saturation (or chroma). The opposite of a muted color is a vivid color.
How To "Mute" A Color
To mute a color, you can just mix it with any of the following:
- Black (this will also darken the color);
- White (this will also lighten the color);
- The complement of the color (for example, you can desaturate blue by mixing it with orange); or
- An earthy color such as raw umber or burnt sienna.
Each of these methods will produce slightly different results, but the saturation of the color will decrease.
Why Should You Use Muted Colors?
Vivid colors sure have their place. But it is usually far more effective to use vivid colors sporadically, in combination with muted colors.
The impact of a vivid color is greatly diminished if you surround it with other vivid colors. For example, take the red below which is surrounded by a vivid green. The vivid red and vivid green fight each other for attention. You may find this color combination to be jarring and uncomfortable to look at.
If I half the saturation of the green, the color combination is much more pleasing to look at. The green recedes and the red takes center stage.
One of my favorite painting techniques is to combine a base of muted colors with small bursts of color. For example, a base of dull blues, purples and browns with some splashes of vivid orange at the focal point.
When you use a base of muted colors, you have much more control over where you direct people to look in your painting, as you can use relatively more color and detail around your focal point.
If your whole painting is created using highly saturated colors, the colors will compete for attention and people will not be sure where to look.
This is not to say you should only ever use vivid colors sporadically. There may be times when it is perfectly suitable to let vivid colors dominate your painting. Vincent van Gogh comes to mind here. But few people would be able to get away with using such vivid colors like van Gogh did.
In a technical sense, van Gogh's use of color was extremely adventurous and unrealistic. But that is part of the appeal of his artworks.
Some Master Paintings Which Feature Muted Colors
Here are some of master paintings which effectively utilize muted colors. I find these paintings have a completely different feel compared to the vivid paintings of van Gogh and other expressive artists. The paintings are generally calming to look at and demonstrate a subtle dance between colors.
Anyway, enjoy these beautiful muted paintings. Let me know your favorite in the comments.