Most of us learned the three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – in school as young children. We were also taught that by mixing these primary colors, you could achieve secondary colors – green, purple, and orange.
Color theory education ends there for a lot of people. Without taking any sort of art or creative class in middle or high school, you probably wouldn’t be familiar with warm or cool color tones, or vibrant and muted color saturation.
So, what are muted colors? Muted colors are colors that are created with lower saturation, or chroma. This means they have less pigment and appear lighter or darker than their vibrant color base. When should you use them? You should use muted colors to achieve contrast or create a look that is softer and easier to view.
Consider this article your guide to all things pertaining to muted colors. We’ll review how to use them effectively not just in painting art, but in painting your home, glazing pottery, designing clothes, and other crafts.
How To Make Muted Colors
If a color is muted, this essentially means that it’s greyed or dulled or has a low saturation of color. When colors have high saturation, they have a high level of pigment saturated in the color mix which creates a more bright and vivid effect.
Muted colors can be muted to a lighter or darker hue. For example, a color like cerulean blue would be the vivid version. A light muted version of this color would be a misty sky blue, while a dark muted version of this color would be navy blue.
There are several different ways to make your own muted colors. The method you choose will depend on what tone of muted color you’re looking for: light, dark, earthy, etc.
The first option to create a muted color is to mix black or grey in with your chosen color. Adding black will give you a dark muted version of your original vivid color. This could take a bright orange down to an orange that more closely resembles autumn leaves.
The second option is to mix white in with your chosen color. Adding white will make your color a lighter muted version, also referred to as a pastel. This would be the difference between fuchsia pink and baby pink.
The third option for making a muted color is to mix an earth tone like brown in with your color. This creates a more earthy version of your color. A good example would be taking a bright base like chartreuse and adding brown to tone down the vibrancy into a more earthy, leafy color.
Your final option for creating a muted color is to mix in that color’s complementary color. To find a color’s complement, simply look at a color wheel that has red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The color directly opposite of your chosen color is its complement.
For example, to create a more muted version of red, try adding a little green. These colors are directly opposite each other in a color wheel with the 6 primary and secondary colors.
When mixing colors, it’s important to remember that a little goes a long way. You can easily ruin any color by pouring too much of your additive. Add just a little bit at a time and mix as you go.
You can always add more paint if the color isn’t quite what you’re going for. Once you’ve added a huge dollop of black in with your blue, though, you can’t take it out. Instead, you’ve wasted paint and will likely have to start over.
These mixing tips go for other mediums, too. You can use this same rule of thumb when dying fabrics muted colors.
However, the “little goes a long way” rule is even more important here. A single drop of black in with the rest of your color dye will likely be more than enough to achieve the desired muted effect. Always test a little dye on a swatch of fabric before dying your main piece.
The Effect Of Muted Colors
In today’s world full of blue-light screens, muted colors are being used more often by marketing and advertising agencies. Why? Because they’re more aesthetically pleasing when viewed on the bright backlight of a computer or cell phone screen.
In general, muted colors have a calming and soothing effect. They’re not as jarring as bright colors and therefore give the viewer a chance to take their time evaluating everything on the screen or canvas in front of them.
This calming effect is why muted colors are often used on interior walls of a home. By choosing the right muted tone, you can help guests (and yourself) feel instantly relaxed stepping into your home.
When you use muted colors effectively in art, you’ll be able to draw the eyes of your audience to a specific point or item in your painting. You’ll also be able to better show the mood of your artwork.
In fashion, you can use muted colors to dress in a way that draws attention to statement pieces and allows other pieces of your outfit to stand out. This is another way to draw the eye in the direction you want it to go.
Using this high contrast idea of one or two bright colors over a backdrop of muted colors can also help in other crafts, such as pottery, scrapbooking, woodworking, photography, and yarn arts.
Muted Colors And Art Painting
There are many fundamental principles and theories in art, but among the basics is color theory. If you don’t fully understand color as an artist, it can lead to a piece of artwork that feels disconnected or disjointed from itself.
One of the aspects of color theory is saturation, which is the aspect we will focus on when discussing muted colors. Many artists utilize high contrast, combining a background composed of muted colors and then adding vivid colors in specific parts of the painting to draw your eye to those areas.
Take, for example, a painting with an overall muted background and a woman dressed in earth tones. Give her a vibrant red for her lips and gold for her hair, and your eye is instantly drawn to her face; the rest of the painting feels as if it fades into the background.
As you stare at the painting longer, you’ll notice that you’re able to take in the details of the background better after having given her face proper attention. It allows you to take your time admiring the autumn leaves, the grey sky, and the brown forest floor behind her.
Painters also use muted colors to set the mood of a painting. Imagine a painting of the beach, with bright blue water and a brilliant blue sky. The sand is a vibrant hue, nearly gold in the sunlight of the painting.
Now, imagine a painting of the beach with a darker, muted blue for the ocean – like a grey-tinted navy. See the sky covered in grey storm clouds, the sand a muted, dark beige that almost appears brown in the shadows of the clouds.
These two paintings of the same beach offer different moods and perspectives, simply by changing the colors from vibrant to muted.
Artists who have employed muted tones beautifully in their artwork include Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent. To view these muted tones in action, try looking at The Ballet Class by Degas or Street in Venice by Sargent.
Muted Colors And Home Painting
Anyone who has ever decided to repaint a room in their home has undoubtedly encountered the seemingly endless options of paint colors. From one to the next, sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference.
Upon first look at all the options, it may feel overwhelming to try to pick just one. However, as you look closer at individual sections, you may feel yourself gravitating towards more muted tones and away from the vibrant magenta pinks and lime greens.
As we mentioned earlier, muted colors are often more soothing to look at. When you walk into your home after a long day at work, you probably don’t want to have your eyes overwhelmed with a vibrant canary yellow on the walls (even if it is your favorite color). There are certain colors that work great in certain rooms based on the moods they create.
Here are some ideas on how you can use muted colors for the rooms in your house:
- Living Room – The living room is a fairly neutral room, so you can use almost any color. However, muted greens, browns, and yellows tend to work well here. These colors often create a sense of warmth and coziness.
- Bathroom – Try a muted pastel blue in your bathroom. Probably because of its connection to water, people tend to view blue as a “clean” color. This makes it a popular choice for bathrooms.
- Kitchen – The same cozy, warm idea with the living room applies to your kitchen. Soft yellow is a popular color for kitchens as it brings a brightness to the room. Muted greys or darker muted colors are also top picks as they make for great contrast with the common white and black design trends in kitchens.
- Bedroom – Cooler muted colors such as greens, blues, and purples work great in bedrooms, especially when they’re mixed with grey. These colors tend to put your mind at ease and help you feel relaxed. Beige is also a good choice for the way it brings a sense of warmth.
- Office – No specific color is best for a home office, but it does usually work better to go with darker muted colors rather than light muted colors like pastels. This helps the mind focus on your work tasks more than the bright colors on your wall.
Muted Colors And Pottery
The color appearance of a glazed piece of pottery can be tricky to get right. Some color methods can look the same before and after firing, and some can look very different. It all depends on what type of color you use.
When using ceramic stains and ceramic pigments, what you see is what you get. These methods for coloring a piece of pottery will look the same before and after firing, giving you the ability to choose a little more wisely.
Ceramic oxides, however, tend to look very different after firing. These can include iron oxide, cobalt oxide, and copper oxide.
There are techniques to achieving certain colors in pottery. For example, certain warm colors can only be achieved at low temperatures, so you have to use layering to get the right color. This can take more time and effort but will produce beautiful pottery.
You can achieve color on your pottery easier by simply painting it with pottery paint and then firing it in the kiln.
Taking the time to get muted colors just right on pottery can make a world of difference. You can create a dynamic and visually stunning piece of ceramic art simply by glazing it in a muted color and then adding on a vibrant accent design of swirls or polka dots.
Muted Colors And Clothing
Fashion and costume designers alike will tell you how important color theory is when designing clothing. In theatre, the color of a costume can tell you a lot about that character’s mood, personality, relationships, and even societal rank.
In both theatre and fashion, color is used to tell a story, highlight the drapery of the fabric, create eye-catching contrast, and pull together a cohesive look from head to toe.
Muted colors can help tell that fashion story. A common fashion trend is to dress in muted clothing pieces, then add bright pops of color through accessories such as jewelry, handbags, and shoes. This helps draw the person’s eye to those accent pieces and creates a stunning focal point.
This focal point doesn’t have to be an accessory, though. By utilizing muted colors in the accessories, too, you can create a focal point out of the clothing itself, whether that be a dress, skirt, shirt, or more.
In theatre, dressing a quiet and reserved character in drab, muted tones can help you better feel their withdrawn nature through visual representation. Dressing their unrequited love interest in vibrant colors can help illustrate to the audience how the other character seems brighter in their eyes and highlight that contrast in personalities.
For those of you looking to make your own muted clothing pieces at home, we’re here to help.
The best way to create your own muted fabric through dyeing is to add the bright color’s complementary color. We mentioned that earlier as a potential way to make a muted color, and when it comes to dyeing fabric, it’s the best way.
As an example, add some green to a bright magenta fabric dye. This will help tone down the magenta in a natural way and help give you a more muted tone of pink. Add a drop of black and you’re well on your way to a burgundy shade.
Muted Colors And Crafting
Beyond painting, pottery, and clothes, muted colors can be used in a variety of crafts.
Try using a muted color scrapbook paper background, then adding brightly colored accent stickers, washi tape, or colored pen for captions. Using muted colors for background pages also helps the colors in your pictures stand out more.
Muted colors are also great for woodworking. Using muted tones of wood stain or paint can help make a furniture piece blend in with its surroundings and give your room a cozy and coordinated look. Photographers know better than most how helpful muted colors can be.
The colors of objects in raw photos are hard to adjust, but in the editing stage after a photo has been taken, you can adjust the contrast to give parts of your photo a more muted look.
Just as with painting and fashion, this will help draw the viewer’s eye to a particular area or aspect of the photograph. In yarn arts such as crochet and knitting, muted colors can be used to create patterns in the finished product.
With a hat, for example, a knitter can use a dark muted red yarn such as crimson and a light muted pink yarn such as soft pink to create a pattern of hearts in the hat. This would make for a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!
Muted colors often make for great autumn and winter knitted or crocheted accessories, while bright colors can be utilized for springtime or summer yarn projects.
What Do Muted Colors Represent?
Although there is no one way to interpret colors, dark muted colors are often used to represent either calm or dark emotions. This can be anywhere from content to reserved, from shy to depressed, from peaceful to upset.
In historical theatre or media, muted colors can be used to represent a lower societal ranking. Before mass production of clothing, everything was dyed and sewn by hand. Only the rich and upper-class could afford vibrant colors such as purple, red, and gold.
Muted colors such as beige and brown, however, were more common among the poor and lower-class citizens. Costume designers today still use this historical fact when dressing characters in a historical play, movie, or television show.
As you’ve probably seen firsthand, light muted colors have been used to represent youth and childhood. Light muted colors such as pastels are often used in nurseries and children’s bedrooms, as well as baby clothes and blankets.
Are Pastel Colors Muted?
Yes! Although the term “muted color” may bring to mind a dark, grey-tinted color palette, this isn’t always the case.
Muted colors tend to look a little grey, this is true, but there’s a spectrum of light to dark greys. There’s a difference between heather grey and charcoal grey, and it’s the same with muted colors.
Depending on what color you add to your vibrant base color, muted colors can be light or dark.
Light muted colors are what people refer to when speaking of pastel colors. The baby pinks and blues you’re used to seeing in a nursery are just lightly muted tones of vibrant fuchsia and cerulean.
What Do Muted Colors Look Like?
Muted colors can look light or dark, as mentioned above. They can give a grey-ish tint, though this isn’t always the case.
Muted colors in general simply look like less saturated versions of their original color. If you compare candy apple red with a sample of wine red, you’ll notice that the wine red looks similar to the candy apple red, just a little darker.
The same principle applies to a lightened version of red, such as salmon. While the color salmon looks like a pink/orange, that’s because it’s a lighter and sometimes muted version of red.
Why Are Muted Colors Popular?
More recently, muted colors have begun to rise in popularity. This could be due to any number of reasons, but one we’ve noticed is technology.
On a computer or cell phone screen, vivid colors in images appear more scratchy. It’s hard for the eyes to focus when bombarded with an image composed entirely of vivid colors, and the borders of different shapes don’t stand out.
With muted colors, however, designs can appear more natural and be easier for the eyes to take in. This helps potential consumers stay longer on a company’s website, making them more likely to purchase their product.
Think of music. When the music is playing too loudly, all the musical instruments together sound like a cacophony. It’s impossible to pick any aspect of it apart because it all feels like it’s smashing together in your ears.
If you mute the music down a bit by lowering the volume, you can better appreciate each note separately. The instruments are easier to pull apart. It’s a smoother, more relaxed sound.
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