Muddy color is one of those criticisms that is hard to define, falling into the "I know it when I see it" category. I would like to share my recent experience into how I identify muddy color in my work by using a camera.
This insight developed as I was multi-tasking: working in Photoshop with images of a new painting while also listening to a podcast from AMO Art Chat, featuring David A Leffel and his concept of Abstract Realism.
(If you haven't listened to this podcast, or taken advantage of the resources available to you on Kevin MacPherson's Artist Mentors Online , including the Art Chat programs with Blanche McAlister Harris, Barbara Coleman, and Linda Fisler, then explore the links above.)
In the interview with David A Leffel, the question was raised about muddy color: what is it, how do you identify it, and more importantly, how do you fix it. While artists often define muddy color as one that does not belong to a specific HUE (ambiguous color identity), David's answer really clicked for me, in part because I was looking at the photo of my painting and wondering why I was so dissatisfied with the sky.
The definition was this: color should have a clear edge where it ends, and where it begins.
So now we are also talking about edges - that other thing that is "I know it when I see it."
Below is a section of my painting titled "Rabbit Tracks," the painting I was studying while listening to the podcast. I realized there were at least three major areas that could be described as muddy color, or not having a clear beginning and ending. These areas were far more noticeable to me as I studied the photograph than they were when I looked at the actual painting - not sure why except that the camera picks up every detail while my eyes (and the graduated lenses of my glasses) often soften and blur what I am looking at and it isn't until later, when I view the painting again, that I realize I've missed the mark.
Once I had identified the muddy color I spent time repainting the areas. As I did so I was reminded again of how the important idea of "unifying masses" is actually another way of talking about using edges and avoiding muddy colors.
In my rework, I was paying attention to the entire mass of the cloud, background, foreground, and clearly defining the color through the use of the edges - where one color ends, and another begins - even if those colors are close in hue and or value. The other massively important change - at least to my eye - was that by removing the pinks and purples from the sky, and darkening and unifying the background (using raw umber and Hansa yellow medium) the color harmony was defined and now makes a clear statement of warm slanting light on the reds of the foreground vegetation.
In the earlier version, as you can see just by looking at the small sections, there was a competition between the yellows and the reds - neither was dominant. As the artist, I had to make the choice as to what was more important and subdue what was not, so that the entire painting communicated a single message. This was another lesson from listening to the Abstract Realism podcast.
The image below shows the same general area after the rework. (You can click on both images for a larger view.)
I see the most important improvement in the cloud mass that now reads visually as I was seeing it, without distracting from the center of interest. The color in the background vegetation is unified - don't need to get too expressive in this subordinate area. The pinkish brush mark in the lower left against the yellow highlight defines that area without being distracting and helps to keep the viewer within the painting and not wandering off to the side.
The compositional pathway is the circle, with the center of interest the foreground plants, but there is also a definate S or Z sub-composition at work here too.
The finished painting:
Rabbit Tracks, 18 x 24, oil