How to Fix Muddy, Overblended Colors with Colored Pencils

By Carrie Lewis in Art Tutorials > Drawing Tips

Muddy colors are an artist’s worst nightmare. What’s worse, it’s oh-so-easy to create muddy color. All it takes is a little too much blending, adding the wrong color, or just using too many colors. We all know how to make muddy color, don’t we?

But how do you fix muddy color once it happens?

It’s easy with oil paint or acrylics. Wait for the paint to dry, cover up the muddy color, then repaint it. You can also scrape off most of the wet paint first, if you really want to speed up the process.

But what about colored pencil? Most colored pencils are naturally translucent, so once the color is on the paper, it’s very difficult to cover up. So how do you fix it?

Here are some tips that will help—at least enough to salvage the drawing.

1. Stop adding color

This may seem obvious, but when you discover you’re creating mud, just stop. Put down the pencils and set the drawing aside if you have to. The worst thing you can do is to try to fix it in the heat of the moment.

The best solution I’ve found for muddy color (or any mistake that threatens the life of a drawing) is getting away from the drawing long enough for frustration or despair to settle. Stepping back keeps you from doing the first thing that may come to mind (like throwing the drawing away) and gives you enough time view the drawing with an unbiased eye.

Whenever possible, I let the drawing sit overnight because most of the time, all I need is a good night’s sleep. The problem usually doesn’t look so bad the next day and many’s the time I’ve gone back to the drawing, and the problem has disappeared altogether.

Whenever I’ve tried to fix a mistake immediately, I usually end up making it worse. So don’t do that! Give yourself (and the drawing) a break!

2. Lift any color you can

So you’ve given yourself and the drawing time. When you look at the drawing again, the colors still look muddy. Maybe they’re not as horrible as you first throught, but they’re still bad. They definitely need to be fixed.

Try lifting a little color before you do anything else. There are several ways to do this. Sticky stuff, low-tack masking or transparent tape work well for larger areas. Careful use of an electric eraser is ideal for small areas.

(You may want to read 2 Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings for more specific information on lifting color.)

Whatever method you use, lift color slowly and carefully. You won’t be able to remove every bit of color, but you don’t need to. You only need to remove enough color to get past the color that made the mud. It’s best to remove small amounts and take a look at the color underneath one step at a time. When the muddy color is gone or reduced, you’re ready to start shading again.

3. Cover with opaque colors

Some brands of colored pencils are more opaque than others. Luminance wax-based pencils by Caran d’Ache are one of the best colored pencils available and they are quite opaque. Derwent Drawing Pencils are also fairly opaque, and both blend very well, which makes them ideal for “covering up.”

Neither pencil is completely opaque, but they are opaque enough to help conceal muddy color. If you use them after lifting some of the muddy color, you can restore clearer, better color.

TIP: Caran d’Ache pencils are on the expensive side, so if a full set is outside your budget, get a few basic colors. White is a must, but you might also consider a few neutral earth tones, lighter grays or other lighter colors.

4. Add workable fixative

Occasionally I’ve been able to restore enough tooth to the surface of a drawing to continue drawing. A workable fixative made for colored pencil is best, but I have used retouch varnishes made for oil paintings. That is not recommended, but it will work in a pinch.

Put two light coats of varnish over the drawing, letting the drawing dry completely between coats (usually about 30 minutes.) Then layer color over that after the final coat is completely dry.

TIP: If you’re thinking about using this method, try lifting color first. It will be difficult or impossible to lift color after spraying the drawing.

5. Try a texture fixative

Brush & Pencil makes a product called texture fixative, which can be sprayed over a drawing-in-progress to restore tooth.

Lightly spray the drawing with fixative, let it dry, then draw over it. The fixative restores paper tooth almost to original, so you can layer fresh color as easily as you layered the first color.

For muddy color, apply the texture fixative after lifting color for best results. You can use this product an unlimited number of times if necessary.

6. Use “Touch Up Texture” & Titanium White

When you need to completely cover up muddy color and start over, the best solution currently on the market is also from Brush and Pencil. Touch Up Texture can be brushed onto a drawing in small areas. When it dries, the drawing surface is toothy enough to take more color.

It’s clear, however, so it needs to be mixed with Colored Pencil Titanium White, which is an opaque dry pigment. When mixed with Touch Up Texture, Colored Pencil Titanium White brushes onto a drawing like paint, concealing whatever is underneath. Wait for it to dry completely, then draw over it again.

Both products dry to a stiff film, so they work best on rigid supports and with papers that are toothy to begin with.

I’m confident that one (or more) of those tips will help. . . in almost every case of muddy color, if you don’t panic and work carefully, you can restore the drawing and finish it. Just remember, it took several layers to create the mud, so it may take several layers to get rid of the mud.

But take heart! It is possible!


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