One of the biggest problems that can come up when you are learning your paints is going crazy with the color. It’s easy to do and certainly produces some fine work, but color doesn’t always have to jump off the page to get your attention.
Today I’m going to talk about muted colors and putting them to good use. They’re easy to do once you know what they are all about and the effects can really be quite striking.
Let’s start with a clear description of muted colors and we’ll go from there and you can see what you think!
What are muted colors, anyway?
Muted colors are simply colors that have been dulled down to reduce their chroma. This adds a bit of gravitas to a scene where vivid colors simply won’t do. Muted colors also give a more realistic tone to a serious depiction, be it the sea, the interior of a lonely home, a winter’s day… you get the picture!
Making use of muted colors is actually quite easy and I recommend that you explore them in-depth. After all, art isn’t just about using the most vibrant, eye-catching color, and learning the subtle arts of muted colors can really enhance your work so that it’s the subject, and not the bright colors that are drawing the eye’s focus.
It also increases the effect of more vibrant colors, too!
How do I produce them on my own?
The easiest way to produce muted colors is the simple addition of white, black or gray. Black always darkens your color, or white lightens it up, but that’s not the only way to mute colors. Burnt sienna or raw umber can also be used if you want to add a little starkness to your color schemes.
Finally, you can achieve muted colors by contrast, too. Mixing complimentary colors can have the effect of dulling them down, so break out your color wheel and experiment. Orange and blue, for instance, mix together nicely without ‘screaming’ out their core colors.
Give it a try on your own and see what you think!
How are muted colors best used?
Muted colors can be used in a number of ways, though chiefly you are going to use them to add a little gravitas to your work or to make your more vivid colors much more powerful. Sometimes strong colors can be a bit much together, and while you can certainly use that, the contrast of muted colors is less jarring on the viewer and can really pack a punch.
Some of the more exotic animals, such as Macaws, display a very bright coloration that certainly sticks out, but that’s not always the effect that you want (but imagine if you painted one in mostly black and white, with only the eyes and a light color shading!).
It’s all about drawing the eye. To drive the lesson home, let’s consider a few famous examples.
Famous examples of muted colors put to good use
Some very famous works out there take advantage of muted colors to amazing effect and we’re going to take a look at a few of these so that you can see what I mean. It’s subtle, but if you learn to do this then you’re really adding some powerful tools to your arsenal. Just be patient with the learning process because like all fun techniques, this is something you’ll need to experiment with.
The results that you can get on the way are enormous.
Edgar Degas “The Ballet Class”
The color selections in Degas’s ‘Ballet Class’ are a great example of muted colors being utilized to the fullest. It gives you a feel of looking back in time, with the figures just
“It gives you a feel of looking back in time”
slightly out of focus, and the dance room is quite bare so that you’re drawn to look at the form of the figures.
Degas actually used mirrors to illuminate the room so that he could capture the simple elegance of the dancers but the work is hardly simple. The architecture depicted in the picture reflects the elegance of the art and age, the stern teacher is centered, but you find yourself glancing at the dancers all around.
Now pull out of the scene and look for the colors. You see the fans of the dancers, golden bows on the dresses… Each little use of color is small, but powerful, and all because the artist chose not to paint a ‘photo’, but rather a personal interpretation of the dance.
Vilhelms Purvitis, “Winter”
If you haven’t seen the work of the man described as ‘the greatest Latvian painter of the 20th century’ then you are doing yourself a disservice. In this example you can see a quite masterful use of muted colors. The water, of course, is perfectly reflective and you can even see the light bouncing off of it, but watch the color scale from top to bottom to really be impressed.
We have snow surrounding, yet the white clouds somehow have a little bit of sun inside them, and a small amount of ice on the waters introduces subtle blues that shadow the stark trees which lighten up the sky! It’s a beautiful mix simple colors that manages to make the water feel real, even when it’s obviously ‘out of focus’.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler “Whistler’s Mother”
Whistler’s Mother is a famous piece of art that just happens to be the first time we got the attention of the French. This piece of work was purchased by the French state and there is a good reason. The colors are so masterfully combined that this little bit of late 1800’s history is still adored today.
It’s currently hosted in Paris, but you can see Whistler’s Mother at any time, and let’s take a look at what this masterful painter really did with this work.
Take a look at the sheer variety that he somehow expresses in simple grays. Whistler knows a thing or two about color, and muted colors and simplicity are hallmarks of his work. You can see a thin, black outline on the woman’s face, where the most color of the work is displayed. Despite this, it’s obviously an arrangement of muted colors that are designed to be hyper-real, rather than real.
Whistler called it ‘Poetry of sight’ and it’s hard to disagree. Try taking a long look and breaking it down into colors. The way he harmonizes such a seemingly-stark palette of colors is really quite amazing. You know he’s telling you where to look, but the depiction is so deceptively easy on the eyes that you can’t help yourself.
Try making something of your own with the same hues of color and see what comes up. You don’t always have make your color scream at the viewer. Sometimes a little subtlety goes a long way.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot ‘Bouquet of Roses’
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot is another artist that understood the power of muted colors in a work that has stood the test of time. The focus of the painting is properly centered for easy viewing and it’s also where the richest color is concentrated. It isn’t vibrant in red, but you know immediately it’s a perfect rose-hue and the stark, dark greens around it still look alive. It’s not even that detailed, but when you take a look at it, the life of the colors is what catches your attention.
The artist has taken something simple and given you a delight by providing the real colors with an unfocused image and that’s incredibly fascinating when you think about it!
Color doesn’t have to be vibrant to be effective
These are only a few famous examples, but I think that you definitely see from them exactly what muted color can do. Limiting your range of vibrant colors forces you to get really granular with the content and to think very hard about what it is that you are actually trying to express in your work.
A lot of people can sketch a realistic portrayal of a person or a place, but art is also about shapes, colors, and composition. So, learn how to wield a little subtlety with muted colors and you’ll see it for yourself. Less is sometimes very much a case of so much more – The next step, of course, is practice, practice, practice!