Playing in the Mud

To watercolorists, “Mud” is a really bad 3-letter “M” word and something to be avoided in paintings at any cost. I used to find myself dabbling in the mud sometimes as I painted.  “Mud” is what happens when we mix too many pigments, the wrong types of pigments, or scrub and rub the pigments into the paper rather than allowing them to flow gently into place on the surface.  Mixing and applying two slightly opaque pigments can make a painting look as if I bungeed it to the back bumper of my car for a road trip to Niagra Falls during a rainy season. Simply allowing the colors in a palette to become adulterated and too mixed together can make muddy paintings inevitable.

Like most artists, I sometimes need to adjust a value or a color as a painting progresses.  At that point every artist needs to remember that the freshest wash is usually the first one. It would be great if all of us could paint a watercolor in one or two steps, and never sully or dull that with added layers. While there are a few very successful watercolor artists whose trademark style involves as many as 100 or more layers of very diluted watercolor, that is an exception. For all but those few, adding layer after layer, adjustment upon adjustment can easily result in ever more mud – areas that appear to be dull, dead zones or black holes in outer space.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I have long been acquainted with mud , one puddle in particular. My two younger brothers and I used to don rubber boots (well, most of the time!) and slosh in a puddle that often appeared at a bend in our graveled lane. We had no particular “game” and no “rules” to playing in this puddle. We were just kids sloshing around, having fun - bonding to shore up against our next serious sibling fight. Mud puddles work well for that.

When they were still small, my brothers would sometimes pull their red wagon into the middle of that puddle, climb in, and hold sticks with strings dangling into the muddy water. They were “fishing” in a puddle they knew had no fish and they made an adorable photo snapped in secret from the porch.

An unmarried aunt of mine often came to stay a few days for a visit. She was a wonderful person, but for the series of young hired men who stayed with us, she was an absolute magnet for teasing.  As an adult I realize the temptation to tease her rose in direct proportion to the decibels of her protests and laughing shrieks. Not to worry! My aunt was not scarred for life, and she clearly enjoyed the attention of a nice young man now and then.

My brothers’ fishing hole played a role in one of the noisiest pranks played on my aunt. Usually our household went outdoors to eat watermelon where we kids wouldn’t mess up the kitchen with spilled juice and seeds. The hired man, with a glint in his eye, would threaten to pick up my aunt and dip her backside into that puddle, and the ensuing chase and shrieking would begin! Even our dog Shep began to bark with the excitement. The man would eventually catch my aunt and carry her “across-the-threshold” style toward that puddle, and then slowly stoop so her posterior was ever close to the surface of that puddle.  It was all a game, of course, and everyone including my aunt knew it. In fact, she never actually got her butt wet.

Once, while packing to attend a watercolor workshop with a master, I realized my palette was in dreadful shape. It would have been embarrassing to lift the lid on my palette and have the instructor see all that mud, hardly able to tell one color from another! So on the eve of my departure I brought out the package of Q-tips and a box of tissues and worked into the wee hours to clean the surface of every single blob of watercolor pigment and the larger mixing area in the center.

The next day I drug myself to the opening day of the workshop with gritty eyes and a serious need for more sleep, but confident that my palette would no longer be a muddy embarrassment. My eyes widened, though, when the instructor opened her own palette. MUD! Her palette looked far worse than mine had before I cleaned it. I’ve always marveled since at how she created beautiful paintings with jewel colors and lovely, clear neutrals from that palette – with no trace of mud.

Over time I’ve learned more about the nature of individual pigments and which don’t work well together in mixtures. I can now see the difference between an interesting neutral and a thick wash that has no life, and know how to accomplish the first and avoid the latter. A messy, well-used palette is no longer worrisome or cause for embarrassment. I do confess that I feel the need to give it cursory swipe with a clean paper towel more often than I used to in order to avoid “mud.”

So, happily, I now pretty much know how to avoid the bad 3-letter “M” word in my paintings. If I want to play in the mud I’ll have to get out my rubber boots. Or maybe try my luck at fishing with a string on a stick.