Ned Mueller: Painting Spots of Color

12 Jun 2007

Teaching students about color is essentially teaching them how to see—and then explaining how to paint beyond the literal. According to students, Montana painter Ned Mueller succeeds in doing this in his plein air workshops.

by Bob Bahr

Ned Mueller helped
Jim Mossman with a
scene just outside of
the TE Ranch, which
“Buffalo Bill” Cody
established in 1895.

One of the hardest things in art is learning to properly mix the right colors with which to convey a scene.  A harder challenge might be teaching someone else how to do it. That’s the task Ned Mueller tackles in his painting workshops—and he seems to have found the right tactic.

Some concepts are nearly impossible to visualize without physical examples. Mueller understands this, so when he is adjusting a color or a value problem in a student’s work, he verbalizes his message then picks up the brush and makes the change on his or her canvas. When it comes to color issues, there may be no other way to effectively teach the lessons Mueller has learned over decades of creating art. “Painting is learning how to see,” Mueller said on the first day of a recent workshop held outside of Cody, Wyoming. “Is the sky blue? Maybe it’s greenish blue. Maybe it’s pink today. We think we know what color the sky is, but you get into trouble when you paint what you know instead of what you see.” In his workshops, Mueller is less concerned about drawing problems and more concerned with good composition and effective color. Composing plein air paintings is about correctly bracketing the scene—and moving elements around to strengthen the design on the canvas. Then the task turns into “painting spots of color,” according to Mueller.

Student Work
Mueller praised this student’s
ability to see and depict the
scene—a bridge over colorful
blue-green water—in a less
literal way, using interesting
color relationships. The large
color masses were put in
quickly, but care was taken in
regard to perspective, proper
size, and color relationships of
the larger masses. “Note that a
fairly large brush was used at
this early stage,” says Mueller.
“As simple, rough, and abstract
as this is, it shows considerable
perception and experience in
getting the early color and value
relationships quite accurate.”

The problem begins with the very first brushstroke. Unless one tones the canvas, the first stroke of pale blue for the sky or grayed blue for distant mountains will look too dark. The solution is to cover the canvas quickly with big shapes so more accurate color comparisons can begin. During the workshop, Mueller blocked in such color studies nearly every day. Once the shapes and the basic color relationships are established, the artist can interpret the subject by pushing value and color further—perhaps beyond what is actually in the scene. “This is the stage where you paint what you feel,” said Mueller, “when you do what your painting needs. It will tell you what it needs. Painting is learning how to hear this.” The sky may have more pink in it than usual on a given day, but an artist could exaggerate this further, and the painting could be stronger for it, if the heightening is done tastefully. In essence, there are three stages in a painter’s development: in the first, artists paint what they know; in the second, they paint what they see; and in the third, they paint what they feel. Mueller stressed that these stages take years to complete. “The creative part has to come out of you,” he told the workshop participants. “I have to draw this out of you. A lot of people are painting landscapes alike these days. Try to see more abstractly—try not to see things so literally. That will help you to find your own voice. You will see something different than anyone else. Once you start thinking that way, you really start to become an artist, and your work will start improving. You have to unlearn a lot of stuff to find your own voice.” He continued by giving some dangerous advice: “Imagine a painting while you are driving, based on what you see outside your car,” he said. “Train your eye. You don’t actually have to be painting to learn how to paint. It’s amazing more artists aren’t killed on the roadways because of this!”

Mueller painted a
demonstration at the
Open Box M ranch.

In part because of Mueller’s no-nonsense yet gregarious nature, in part because the workshop organizers at Open Box M created a productive and nurturing environment, and in part because the participants all seemed willing to listen and learn, the group that gathered in the dry, bright mountains in Northwest Wyoming last August made significant progress over the course of one week. The tight painters loosened up. Stingy artists slathered on the color. The literal found the expressive in themselves. Still, the mastery of color eluded them. “It took Monet more than 60 years to learn color,” Mueller would say when a student expressed frustration. “This stuff is not easy.”

A good example of the challenge of painting color en plein air is the changing nature of sunlight. Any watercolor instructor—and your common sense—will tell you that a thin wash of light yellow suggests sunlight on a surface. Fair enough. But when you want to suggest sunlight at a particular time of day, the exact hue becomes much more important. Directly overhead noonday sunlight is nearly white because it goes through the minimum amount of atmosphere possible before hitting the subject matter. Plus, the blue in the sky is reflecting off the exposed areas. Early-morning and late-afternoon light is the sunlight with the most color—usually yellow—because it cuts across the surface of the earth through the maximum amount of atmosphere. The result is that direct sun at midday actually makes sunlit colors cool and shadows comparatively warm. In contrast, sunlit areas at the beginning and end of the day look warm, with the shadow areas cool. Photographs from a good camera will prove this.

Student Work
The instructor felt this was a
successful block-in
demonstrating mature
painting and showing how
the student felt about the
scene. Color temperatures
and values are good. “There
is a nice balance (or
unbalance) of values, with
about one-fourth of the
painting in dark values and
three-fourths in midtone,”
commented Mueller. “The
foreground darks could be
more interesting, but, for an
initial block-in, it has some
very beautiful color
Participants painted
en plein air.

An artist will push colors to make a statement on the canvas, and, as a result, the rest of the colors in the painting can’t simply reflect the actual colors in the scene. All the colors on the canvas must be judged relative to the other colors there. This is why, when a student seemed skeptical about a piece of advice from Mueller, he recommended comparing the disputed color with the others already laid down. The mountains may not seem so blue until you compare them with the color used in the middle-ground hills. The yellow that’s appropriate for the distant grasses seems too cool—until it’s compared to the appropriately warm yellow of the yarrow blossoms in the foreground. This is another reason why Mueller urges students to fill the canvas early on with big shapes of essentially correct colors. It allows the valuable comparisons to begin. And establishing the darkest dark and lightest light early in the painting process will help immensely with the value system of the painting.

During the painting process, values will also need to be adjusted, which will change the colors. Mueller spent about 30 minutes explaining one particular example of this kind of adjustment: the changing value of a form crossing in front of both a light and dark shape. In this case, it was a tree trunk that passed vertically through the picture plane in front of dark-green grass in shadow, then a patch of sunlit background grass. He adjusted the student’s tree trunk so the relatively dark trunk was lighter in the portion that was in front of the lighter plane. It looked better. It looked right. “If a dark is traversing a dark area into a light area, you need to lighten the top, then blend the transition,” he explained.

Another view
outside Wapiti.

Mueller’s work on the students’ paintings was the crucial difference. “You can talk about this stuff all day, but you still don’t get it,” commented one workshop participant. “Then Ned will come up and say, ‘See, if you put this color here, it changes the relationship of these other colors.’ And he’ll do it—zip, zip, zip—and it makes the whole thing work.” Such are the returns gained through painting for clients and for oneself for more than 40 years, as Mueller has. The 10 students who learned from him in Wyoming last summer were thankful he’d put in the time, as they all benefited from it. Mueller’s instruction allowed much faster progress, but everyone realized mastering color is not something that can be rushed. It takes time—and a lot of filled canvases.

Mueller's Work
0611muel10_450x600 0611muel11_600x465 0611muel12_600x482 0611muel13_600x469
Summit Lake
2003, oil on linen, 16 x 12. Private collection.
Wind River Summer
2005, oil on linen, 20 x 24. Private collection.
Cathedral Lake
2006, oil on linen, 18 x 24. Collection the artist.
Montana Magic
2004, oil on linen, 12 x 16. Private collection.

About Open Box M Workshops
Although pochade boxes can certainly be used indoors, their portability makes them ideal for plein air work, so it’s not surprising that nearly all the workshops organized by Open Box M, a maker of finely crafted pochade boxes, are outdoor painting excursions. It makes even more sense when you consider that the company is based about 20 minutes outside of Cody, Wyoming, in some of the most beautiful cowboy country in the United States. As Open Box M program director René Huge says, “I often feel that I am one of the fortunate few who actually gets to live in a landscape painting.” This part of the country benefits from intense, clear light that renders shadows in the taupe mountains and rocks a deep blue and turns the green leaves of the area’s asymmetrical, rugged cottonwood trees a light gray-green. The air is dry and the nights are cool during the summer in Northwest Wyoming, but the hot days suggest that workshop participants wear easily peelable layers. Wind and sun are near constants; some local sources assert that Cody gets 300 days of sun per year. The instructors are well-known artists from the region and beyond. Past instructors have included George Strickland, Richard McDaniel, Geoff Parker, and Carol Guzman.

While the participants at last August’s Open Box M workshop made a point of praising Mueller’s instruction, they also mentioned the food they ate during the week. Every lunch was a home-cooked meal of soups, salads, and sandwiches that supplied light, healthy fuel for serious painting, but never at the expense of taste. Halfway through the week, Open Box M also treated the students to a dinner that could not be found in any restaurant in the Cody area: roasted shrimp with Thai lime butter, wasabi mashed potatoes, ginger-soy salmon encrusted with sesame seeds, and marinated carrot salad. The students were very appreciative, and the Open Box M staff promises that this level of hospitality is standard.
Open Box M generally schedules about six weeklong workshops each summer. Lodging in Cody ranges from affordable motels to quaint boutique hotels, but the area’s popularity in the summer means reservations are recommended regardless of the establishment’s accommodations.

About the Artist
Ned Mueller was raised in Montana, so the palette of the scenery for this Wyoming workshop was familiar to him. A graduate of the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, Mueller worked as an illustrator for years before devoting himself to fine-art painting full time in 1984. He studied with Harley Brown, Richard Schmid, Bettina Steinke, Del Gish, and Sergei Bongart and is a signature member of the Oil Painters of America, Plein-Air Painters of America, the Northwest Rendezvous Group, California Art Club, and several other pastel- and oil-painting groups. He is represented by Howard/Mandville Gallery, in Kirkland, Washington; Grapevine Gallery, in Oklahoma City; and Sage Moon Gallery, in Charlottesville, Virginia; as well as his own gallery in Renton, Washington.


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