In Fear of Mud

A blog post about Christine's opinion about the fear of creating muddy colours in watercolour, and some solutions.

Qu: When is a watercolour not a watercolour
Answer: When it’s a painting.

There are many opinions about what constitutes a “watercolour”. There’s fine lines that must not be crossed about opacity or percentages of body colour. There’s even the historical situation of watercolour being once considered a sketching medium – the hierarchically inferior cousin of the more oily arts.

The word watercolour describes the medium a painting is created from. But it’s also about how it’s used. At the pointy end, it’s a way of painting that is about transparency.

In fear of Mud.
A blog post about Christine's opinion about the fear of creating muddy colours in watercolour, and some solutions.
In grade three we learnt how by mixing three “primary” colours we can make brown. The world of colour theory purports to be more sophisticated than that, but this is still the reality for so many of us.

One of the greatest fears instilled into many beginning watercolourists is the fear of creating mud.

Yes, perfectly clear, crisp, transparent watercolour is something to aim for, but mud is not the worse thing that can happen to you.

Living in fear of mud is.

It’s like stalling a car with your L-plates on. All that’s happened is that you’ve stalled the car: it’s part of the experience of learning to drive. Making mud is part of the experience of learning to paint with watercolour. To misquote Tennyson: “it’s better to have painted and made mud than never to have painted at all”

I encourage artists to take watercolour to its extremes: thick paint, opaque paint, strong colours, too wet, too dry – then ease back when it doesn’t work.  Learn through your own life experiments rather buying a ready made rule book. You may think you want to paint like X, but if you work it out yourself, it will be about U.

Make a painting first and a watercolour second.

You get to choose if you are making a “painting” or a “watercolour”. (Where you exhibit or sell it is another matter.) The world has changed. Art is no longer just one version of the truth. Make the art that you want, even if it doesn’t follow the “rules” or different to what other artists are making.


1 Leave it
A blog post about Christine's opinion about the fear of creating muddy colours in watercolour, and some solutions. Though perhaps don’t enter it in a watercolour contest; you can never be sure of your judge beliefs.

2 Call it a painting rather than a watercolour
If you’ve broken some watercolour “rule”, but your painting still works then accept it and change it’s label. In a competition situation, it would be entered into another section and labeled  for example: watercolour with body colour.

 3 Use it as the prep sketch for another version.
Often murkiness has happened because I haven’t been sure about the composition and I’ve made too many changes. I use the failed painting as the starting point of the next version, working between both until the image is resolved.


1 Always use transparent colours.
Learn to read the labels on your paints, and to test for opacity.

2 Limit the number of different colours.
I’ve heard mention magic rules like “only put three coats of paint on your page”. However, if you use colours from the same part of the colour wheel, there is more leeway.

3 Limit the thickness of your layers.
Experiment with how thinly or thickly your paint can be applied before transparency is compromised.

4 Plan to get it right the first time.
I paint directly then glaze thinly to adjust tone or contrast. Even if work with carefully planned layers, try not to fiddle-faddle too much.

5 The medium of watercolour is water
Paint that is flowing is less likely to turn to mud

6 Use the white of the paper for whites
Paint the negative spaces. Allow the paper to show through.

7 Try not to scrub too much out.
Once the surface of the paper is compromised it won’t clean back to white or allow a crisp edge.

8 Use the heaviest rag paper you can afford.
Rag papers are generally more forgiving, although experiment with all papers.

9 Don’t make changes at the end of the work day.
I’m a morning person, so I make important decisions then.

10 Remember that you are the artist.
You get to create your own rules. The more you paint, the more you’ll learn, the more it will be yours.


Studio Door Art workshops by Christine Porter at her home in LismoreNSW Australia. A variety of single day classes about watercolour, printmaking and art-business

First published as part of the Studio Door Art Workshop Series
For more information about classes in 2019 contact Christine directly, or follow her on Eventbrite.

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