Interview with Ned Mueller

by Paint Tube 6 Minutes

Interview with Ned Mueller

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Montana, Ned Mueller ("Making a Painting Work") has been drawing and painting all of his life. He is one of the few Artists that have been designated as a "Master Artist" by both the American Impressionist Society and the Oil Painters of America. He graduated from the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles where he also taught drawing while still a student. His love for life and art is reflected in his superb paintings of a wide range of subjects including Portraits, Figures, Animals and Landscapes, both studio and plein air.


Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?

When I’m working from photos, my visual process for studio painting is to work up a few value studies, using anywhere from one to fifteen photos.

I will either use oils, conte or compressed charcoal to work out a design using about four different values. For example, on a scale of one to ten, I will use a one or two for my lightest lights and an eight or nine for my darkest values. I will then use two values (about a four and a six) in between.


I generally work from large shapes to small shapes. I’m trying to get an interesting and compelling arrangement of values, shapes and edges. I’m trying not to get too literal and instead keep a little more interest in my concepts. 

After I figure out my values, I will then work up a color study. Again, I’ll focus on getting an interesting or compelling arrangement of lines, shapes, colors and edges. 


I find it works best for me to get away from these studies for a few hours or even a few days. I’ll return to them later to get a fresh look and to see what is looking good and bad. When I see something that I can make better, I make improvements.


I find this process helps me to eliminate more "clunkers" and to have something that I feel excited about to turn into a larger painting.

There are always adjustments to make when I take a color study and turn it into a larger painting. 


Where do you do your thinking? What does that look like?

I do my thinking all over the place. Laying in bed. Going through photos. Working from a model or en plein air. Adjusting a model’s pose, costume and lighting. Doing plein air- scouting around for an interesting point of view or how something is lighted from a certain angle.

For example, I had this great street photo from Mexico (see "Patzcauro Morning" above) and worked up a value study in image eight, but I was not happy with it and set it aside. I must have thought about it for almost a year before I finally came up with a solution, which is the finished version below.

For your reference: What do you take more or less directly and what do you translate? Why?

I tend to use my reference, whether from life or photos, as exactly that: a reference or inspiration. I don’t want to copy it. My job is to try and make it better. And I tend to follow my instincts.


With a figure, for example, I might exaggerate the movement and rhythm of the figure. In a portrait, I may exaggerate the look of a nose, the flow of a beard or hair, or make the nose and cheek more red, the forehead more cool or warm. I’ll change whatever I feel works for the painting at the time.

The same is true for landscapes. I may make elements like trees, rivers, clouds etc larger or smaller. I am constantly editing. I’m adding and subtracting things to try and make a better painting.


I think that is our job - what artists its just good to be in a beautiful location and in the fresh air... painting!

I am trying not to copy something, but to create a work of art, the way that I see it, guided by my style and concepts.


What does a painting need to have from a value standpoint to make it a strong painting?

Value is just one part of a strong painting. I think a painting needs interesting or compelling arrangement of value, shapes, and edges. This is true for classical paintings or abstract paintings.

Monet was one of the greatest colorists of his time. When you see his paintings in black and white, they are quite boring, as he was all about color temperature and their relationships.


How do you approach color? Do you use only local color or do you change the color to make a better painting? 

I will always look to change color if it enhances what I feel about what I am painting.

Painting what we see is fine for a learning process, but eventually we want to paint what we feel! 


Where does plein air painting fit into your practice? What does plein air painting give you as an artist?

I used to do a lot of Plein Air Painting. I belong to The Plein Air Painters of America, which started most of the Plein Air Movement in the country. Many of us were doing it before it got started back in the early 80's.

Due to physical health issues, I just don't get out as much as I used to. That said, if one wants to paint landscapes well, one needs to paint on location to understand how light affects the color of everything.

Painting plein air made my studio painting better and my studio painting made my plein air painting better. 


When a painting isn’t working, what questions do you ask yourself?

When a painting isn't working, I try to ask myself why?

We all have strong points and weak points and often it is probably those weak points that are causing the problem.

One of my weak points is that I often try to get too much into a painting, and so I usually have to re-orchestrate it into a simpler, more unified composition.

That is my most common issue but there others too. Color relationships may not be working. Maybe somewhere my composition has gone awry.

That is why value and color studies, can work out many issues ahead of time.


How important is drawing? What does being able to draw give you as an artist?

I truly believe that drawing is the most important thing we can do in improving our painting.

I do a lot of figure work, and I have done thousands of figure drawings, both nude and clothed. I do not, however, think one needs to draw the figure to draw well (unless of course one wants to do good figurative work).


I see drawing as something that sharpens your eye. Drawing anything, trees, chairs, lampposts etc. will sharpen the eye. It also sharpens our they are pretty much the same thing when it comes to drawing and painting. That good judgment affects the quality of shapes, values and edges, and how they work into a good composition or design.

I am fortunate as I have always loved to draw, and it certainly has served me well! 


What’s the biggest challenge you see with your students? What advice do you give them?

The biggest challenge for my students is to get them to not just copy what reference they are using but instead to interpret it in their own voice.


In the beginning, students see things as literal. They see (and paint) a tree, a mountain, a creek etc. Once they can start to see things less literally and instead interpret them more as an interesting and compelling arrangement of shapes, colors and edges, then they start seeing as an "Artist." That’s when they start doing some meaningful work.


I try to get them to do more smaller value and/or color studies so that they can more easily see how important the value, shapes, color and edges are, in relationship to each other, and smaller elements in the composition. Images eighteen, nineteen and twenty.

See Ned Mueller paint first hand by checking out his video "Making a Painting Work"!