Mites, mud, and a microscope.

I spent a glorious day yesterday outside with my dog Lego. We fished in my inflatable boat. We walked through the woods. She sat while I painted a church. We drove for an hour and a half through Amish country to my favorite camping grounds. And, she lolloped through tall grass as we climbed a hill in the middle of nowhere and I tried to paint a landscape.

Lego was filthy when we got back to the car, and she got mud on pretty much every inch of the inside of my car. When I got to the hill where I get cell reception, I found a tick crawling on my shirt. Calmly, I got out of the car to brush it off, but couldn’t find it – so I called Rachel to tell her I was on my way home.

Lego and I got home around midnight, muddy and exhausted. So, I crashed on the couch and posted about my day. Then, I found another tick on my arm.

So, I grabbed Lego, and drew a scalding hot bath, which I climbed into with my dog. I found one tick in the tub, and one bump on my arm that I thought was probably a tick bite.

Then, I did what any human would do at 1 AM after taking a bath with his dog – I sat at the kitchen table looking at the nearly dead tick wiggle under a microscope for an hour.

Seeing those claws snapping at the ends of its legs, and the barbed head pulsing in and out, scared me enough that I burned the tip of my pocket knife and tried to dig out the tick in my arm.

I couldn’t get it out, or really see it all that well, so (seeing as it’s Mother’s Day weekend) I woke up my wife at 2AM and asked her to help me take a tick out of my arm.

She was pretty bleary eyed as she walked to the kitchen table and had the presence of mind to use tweezers instead of a knife to explore in my arm.

The good news? There was no tick in my arm. The bad news? There was no tick in my arm. So the 2AM self-surgery was needless. And now my arm hurts.

I told Rachel how I found a tick in the car, and how I found a tick on my shirt while I was laying on the couch. I was proud of myself for handling it so calmly so late at night. I even put my clothes in a garbage bag and put it on the counter labeled “Not Trash. Tick Clothes.”

“Why don’t we put those outside?” She suggested.

“Good idea.”

Then she recommended, “Next time you go out all day fishing and walking through the woods, maybe take a shower before you lay on the couch.”

The next morning, I woke up to find all the couch cushion covers in the laundry. Did I mention it’s Mother’s Day weekend? I have no idea how she puts up with me.

I then spent two hours vacuuming every inch of my car, and wiping all the mud prints away with an army of paper towels and a pint of Windex. Then I drove to the car wash, and just as I was driving away – I found another tick on my shirt.

Anyway – I didn’t get a good painting of the landscape. So, I looked at the three attempts and saw a lot of mud. Today, I figured I’d try to sort out why. So, I took a bit of time to try to make mud on purpose because the best way to defeat your enemy is to know your enemy.

If I’m right, it’s all about application.

I started by mixing pigments to try to find out which pigment “causes” mud. I tried Cad Yellow first because in my mind it’s the biggest offender in my palette. I mixed it with Indie Blue and Antraquinoid Red, and it turned into a dull green grey. I added some more Indie Blue and it became cooler, but not really muddy. I added some Raw Umber and New Gamboge, and eventually every color on my palette. Each time, I covered the entire spot with the new pigment, and every time the color leaned warm or cool but never got what I would consider muddy. It wasn’t a pretty color, but it wasn’t that streaky brown granulated wash that I’ve come to dread so much.

It ain’t pretty, but it ain’t mud.

I realized, maybe that’s not how it works. Maybe there is no magic color combination that creates mud. It seems if you apply the pigments on top of one another and mix them thoroughly enough, you don’t end up with mud, you just end up with a flat lifeless color. All of the luminosity is gone, but it’s not quite mud.

So, what does?

I noticed that on my landscapes all the mud was in spots where different washes were mingling together. Maybe the mud doesn’t come from the color of the pigment, but from the application of the pigment.

I mixed some blues and browns on the paper. I know these make a really nice silvery grey when mixed on the palette, so I tried to make the same grey by mixing the colors on the paper, but not quite completely. I wanted to save some blue on one side and some brown on the other. If I was careful, they mixed ok, and still didn’t make mud. But, when I worked the space between, adding more water, more pigment, generally doing what you shouldn’t – no surprise… Mud.

Mud on the left, clean grey on the right.

This is what I think is happening:

On the left, the pigments are mixed on the paper. On the right, the same pigments are mixed in the palette and then applied to the paper. In order for the pigments to mix on the paper, I have to paint each pigment separate, and then use clean water in the middle to make them blend together.

Osmosis causes the damp paper to suck the water from the wet paper. As it does, the particles of pigment slide across the paper like silt in a river. As the water is absorbed, the puddle gets shallower. Eventually, the water is so shallow that the peaks on the textured paper stick out above the water like mountain tops in a catastrophic flood. The pigment particles continue to move with the water, but some hit the edges of the mountain, and don’t move any more. The water continues to be absorbed, growing more and more shallow, causing more and more of the mountain peaks to rise out of the flood. Every peak collects more pigment, until the water is completely absorbed.

When that’s done, the pigments are distributed across the paper in a haphazard chaos of scattered fines. Instead of the blue and brown pigments being evenly distributed, there are pockets of blue on the northern face of those mountains, and pockets of brown on the southern face of the mountains, and a slur of the two in the valleys. This doesn’t cause grey – it causes confusion. The human eye is so refined that we can see these minuscule differences, and they read like mud.

Our eyes are amazing, but those pigments are ground so fine that we can’t distinguish the blue from the brown. Our eyes see both at the same time, which creates an even silvery grey.

Does that mean you can’t mix wet on wet? Of course not. Wet on wet is an enormous part of what makes watercolor so special. This chaotic interaction of the pigments in unplanned microscopic flooded rivers generates a dynamic, organic feel completely unique to this medium.

What I think it does mean however is that you should never try to use the wet in wet technique to create a color. If you want grey – mix it on the palette. If you think the blue on your painting is too saturated, wait. Let it dry. Then when it’s dry, paint brown on top. This will help ensure the blue doesn’t get washed off the sides of the mountains and start to mix unevenly with the brown. The dried blue will stick where it was placed (more so if it’s a staining pigment) and the brown will mingle evenly with it to create a grey. It won’t be as even as if you had mixed it on the palette, but it’ll be a hell of a lot less muddy than if you had tried to make grey by mixing blue and brown on the paper.

To test this, I’m going to go take a look at the colors I made in the example above under my microscope to see if I can see the pigments distributed as I described … BRB.

Wet-in-wet on right

I think I’m correct. The wet-in-wet is on the right, pre-mixed on the palette on the left. You can see the individual brown pigment particles distinctly on the microscopic view on the top right. On the bottom left, the particles are distributed enough that you can’t even distinguish them at a microscopic level. The result is a muddy color on the right, and a luminous even grey on the left.

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