What Are Muted Colors & How to Use a Muted Colors Palette

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It goes without saying that flashy, loud bright colors often get noticed first and receive more attention over muted colors. It can be easy to overlook muted colors and their prime importance in painting as they they are much quieter and softer than their bright saturated counterparts.

There is a world of incredible beauty however, to be found in a muted colors palette. Which far surpasses what bright colors alone have to offer. If you find yourself using primarily bright color tones on your color palette or perhaps not really knowing what muted colors are, then this article is for you.

What are muted colors exactly?

Muted colors are: subtle colors, that are not bright or have been subdued, dulled or grayed. The opposite of a muted color is a bright, vivid, saturated color. Compare the colors that you see in the sky on a cloudy day to the colors you see on a bright and sunny day. The tones of color found in the cloudy day are typically less bright, duller and more muted compared to those of the sunny day.

How to make a color ‘muted’

There are several ways to take a bright saturated color and make it into a more muted version:

  • Mix a color with its complementary color to create a more muted color (for example, you can make a less saturated red by mixing it with green)
  • White (this will also lighten the color)
  • Brown or any earth tone color
  • Black or gray

My favorite method of creating a more muted color is to mix a color with its complementary color. This creates much richer colors than simply mixing brown or black into your color!

However, each method has different results and it is good too experiment when learning what muted colors are. As it all depends on what kind of color tone you need in a certain situation. The best way to create the perfect muted tones for your muted color palette, is to mix and experiment until you find what you need.

Why use muted colors in my painting?

I have a favorite quote by C.S. Lewis ‘Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.’ Though C.S. Lewis was not a painter, this statement could not be more true when talking about color.

What are muted colors in art good for…

If you use bright colors everywhere in a painting, then nothing can really stand out or ‘pop’, as the entire painting will be one level – bright. Then perhaps the element that is supposed to be the central point of the painting, is washed out by its surrounding colors that have the same brightness level.

However, when you incorporate muted tones from a muted colors palette, you then have contrast for the bright color tones in your painting to stand out.

Take this as an example of the power of muted tones

Here we have an image full of bright saturated colors all competing for our attention – bright green, bright purple, bright yellow and finally bright red. They are all bright!

saturated colors diagram

Now look at the image below. It is the exact same image as the one above except that all the bright color tones are substituted for muted colors – save for the yellow. The yellow in this image is exactly the same as the image above. However, we notice it so much more because it is not competing with a bunch of other bright colors. The image has more of an impact on us visually, as our attention is now focused.

muted color vs saturated colors diagram

Examples of muted colors in art

The above images are simply diagrams – not really art works! To fully understand the richness that muted colors in art provides, one must look at some real paintings.

Painting of a bouquet of roses by camille corot
Bouquet of Roses, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Above is a ‘Bouquet of Roses’ by Corot. Notice how your eyes are drawn to the red rose immediately. This happens because the color of the red rose is the richest most saturated color in the painting.

If the red rose was alone in the painting by itself, its color would probably not look very bright. However, because the rose is surrounded by muted colors, the rose shines!

We experience the painting in a much richer way because of the subtle build up of the muted colors palette. It is a delicate, harmonious balance of slight shifts in tones that are muted. Which in turn, helps to highlight the importance of muted colors in art.

Another example of a using a muted color palette

Painting with muted colors and bottles, by giorgio morandi
Still Life, Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi is the master of tones and colors that are muted. Notice how the reddish object stands out so much to us in the painting because it is the most saturated color.

However, the reddish object is not a bright red. In fact, if we took it out of the painting and put it against something else it would probably look like a very muted red – and would not stand out at all. It is because of the muted tones that surround the object, that the object stands out.

If Morandi had painted a very bright saturated red in place of the muted reddish color that exists, it would ‘kill’ the painting and not have the powerful effect that it does have.

Subtlety is everything with a muted colors palette

Subtlety helps give muted colors meaning. It is because of the subtlety in the painting, that we can see and feel all of the beautiful color harmonies happen. If there was a loud, bright red it would wash everything else out! Imagine if a loud rock band started playing during an adagio movement performed by a string quartet. The rock band would surely drown out the sound of the string quartet and we would never be able to hear beautiful and subtle harmonies.

How to begin using a muted colors palette

The best place to begin using a muted colors palette is to just start color mixing a lot more. Really try to not paint from photographs but rather paint from real life studies. You will not be able to see the richness of a color from a photograph. Also steer yourself away from color mixing formulas. Try instead to mix colors from what you see, and trust your eyes.

I have a free color mixing guide that will help you learn the basics of color mixing. You will have everything you need to know in order to start mixing muted colors!

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

Art Studio Life exists for you to be able to stay inspired, learn, and improve your skills.

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      4 thoughts on “What Are Muted Colors & How to Use a Muted Colors Palette”

      1. Warren Petherbridge

        I enjoyed reading your muted colours article. inadvertently I have been using muted colours in my landscapes to make the foreground trees stand out . Makes for great paintings Thanks
        Warren

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