This is Why Your Acrylic Colors Look Muddy


Are you feeling disheartened due to acrylic paint colors looking muddy? You;re not alone. This happen to everyone early on. In this post we’ll get to the cause and what can we do to remedy it.

Probably the best piece of wisdom I ever got from one of my art instructors was “Nothing is ever all one color”

So true. It doesn’t matter what the subject or object is, it always comes down to knowing how to blend colors effectively. Most of the time, the reason you are ending up with colors that look muddy or unappealing is faulty color mixing. To fix that, we have to take a look at some of the rules of color theory.

When you have a set of paints which usually contains about 12-20 depending on the brand you select, these are the main colors I always end up with:

Alizarin crimson, Cadmium red, Yellow ochre, Lemon (or cadmium) yellow, Pthalo green, Viridian green, Pthalo blue, Ultramarine blue, Payne’s gray, Burnt umber, burnt sienna,Titanium white, Black

What is the commonality here? There is usually 2 shades of red, Alizarin crimson being the deeper one, Cadmium is more of a brighter, “pure” red. Yellow Ochre is a brownish shade and Cadmium yellow is more of a canary like “bright” yellow. Well, you get the idea.

mixing paints muddy

I used to have trouble mixing flesh tones a good bit.I think I remember mixing up two parts white to a part of Yellow Ochre and a teeny tiny part of Cadmium red. It took a little while before I got the “right” mixture.

A lot of getting the “right” combinations means an understanding of the Color Wheel. If you will recall form my earlier post, if you were to mix all the 3 primary colors together you’ll end up with brown, or “artist mud” as I call it.

probably not what you are after, intentionally, that is.

And I also mentioned that if you were to attempt to draw out a color using its complement, you would be on the right track, because a major color’s complement is what will de-saturate it, enhance it or modify its intensity. But that is where that stops – if you were to actually mix two of these colors together, as opposed to applying a small amount to a certain area of the object, you would end up with, yep, you guessed it, something muddy.

In other words, a little dab of orange can enhance blue, but if you straight out combine them you’ll get -yuck.


So how do we prevent this? By mixing colors together that are in the right alignment, which happens to be those that are nearby each other on the Color Wheel, and have a good “bias” towards each other. These are sometimes referred to as “analogous ” colors. Also something called “tertiary” colors, which are combos of primaries and secondaries combined.

A bias is the “other” color in the mixture that is influencing the main one, kind of like an undertone.  Aqua is a good example of a blend of green and blue which are close together on the Color Wheel.

Another way to prevent muddy color going forward? Create for yourself a color chart like this one and if you’ve already done so, refer to it as you work. Often. Hopefully you’ve labeled each square with the colors you combined so you will know what to expect with each of them. You could also get yourself an actual color wheel if you wanted, not just a printable “basic” one but a more advanced one that shows all the tones and shades of each color.

So the long and short of this is….

When you go to mix individual colors, choose those that align close to each other and have a good “bias”…Good luck to you and let me know how it goes.

Updated: 09/18/2023 — 1:17 AM

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