These days there’s an almost religious enthusiasm for gray palettes. Painters have rediscovered that a neutral gray mixing area helps in sorting tone values as well as determining hue and chroma. Gray palettes don’t dazzle — they may even rest the eyes. In the old days, you had to paint your gray palette yourself. Generally they were table-toppers under glass. These days they’re made of plastic, wood and porcelain. You can even buy gray disposables. Many pros don’t care for disposables, white or gray, but you have to admit that they give a feeling of “fresh clean start.”
White palettes show the potential of transparent colours and blends. They are of particular value if you’re taking your brushload to a similar white painting ground. Another approach is to have the palette the same colour as your toned ground — for example another gray or a bright red. More than once I’ve bumped into small schools of black paletted painters.
Then there’s the traditional round or oval palette with the finger hole. This type has remained the same since the 15th century. You can make brilliant ones yourself. Quarter-inch mahogany plywood is good. They need to be well sanded, shellacked on both sides and edges and finished with varnish. Classic palettes keep painters on their feet. They give courage to stand with the greats. They invite bravura. Even when overloaded with dry paint they hold a magic that makes them difficult to discard. When you think of it, colours — pigments — are one of the truly remarkable gifts of the gods. These gifts ought to be given a noble stage on which to be introduced to each other.
There are two main systems of colour placement on a palette — “ordered” and “random.” An ordered system generally ranges pigments from warm to cool or in the form of the colour-wheel. Random invites discovery and serendipity. “Blind selection” is one of the paths to “The Land of Happy Surprises.”
All choices make sense to their advocates. There’s no “right” way in art. It’s a personal matter. We’re all in pursuit of some elusive “truth.” Your palette might just be a neglected tool in your search.
PS: “Any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences.” (Josef Albers)
Esoterica: Pierre Bonnard said, “Color has a logic as severe as form.” Colour isn’t easy. Crudeness of colour is one of the main amateur boo-boos. It’s valuable to think of your palette as an exercise area — a place to make tests and swatches. A day of swatching is worth a year in an academy. Mix colour-wheel opposites. Mix black and white (and both) with all the locals. Think “sophisticated” and you and your colours will get that way.
Palettes in contention
by Lorrie Williamson, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, USA
When I’m using oil paints and painting in a public forum, I use my classic palette with my colors arranged along the edges, from warm to cool plus neutrals and so forth. It feels sophisticated and fits the artist persona. When I’m in the studio I often use the Covino Controlled Palette particularly when I’m doing value studies. For those interested in gray palettes, it is divided into nine values between black and white and is an excellent color mixing as well as teaching tool.
(RG note) Thank you to those who wrote to tell about the Covino palette. Also, many painters are currently using the Quiller palette (not gray, but based on Stephen Quiller’s valuable Quiller wheel) which we have discussed previously here. For those who were inquiring about a disposable gray palette — a 25-sheet model is made by Athena and can be found here (ViaVon.com). Also several painters mentioned the View Catcher, an interesting gray format framing device which you can see at ViewCatcher.com
Recycled styrofoam palette
by Andrea Pratt
After looking at all those wonderful “Self-Portraits with Palette” illustrations, I feel like a bag lady with paints. I am a “committed” recycler and finally found a use for those white styrofoam meat trays. Better yet, I don’t have to clean them. They may live on in the landfill until the robo-cows come home, but at least they got used twice. What will I do if I decide to become vegetarian?
by Martha Greenwald, Winona, MN, USA
I use a random palette. Since I work in acrylic, which dries quickly, I only put down the colors I have in mind, usually one or two at a time. I use disposable palettes and put new colors on top of old colors. When the palette is filled and the colors have dried, I may pull the dried paint off the palette and look at the pattern on the back. It often reveals exciting color combinations that I would not have come up with on my own.
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have recently switched to using a piece of masonite as a palette with good success. I oiled it a few times and now at the end of my painting sessions I just wipe off the excess paint and then rub the residue into the palette until it is smooth again. It is a nice dark neutral color. I have also gone to a limited palette for about a year now with 2 blues, two reds, three yellows, paynes grey and two whites. I always lay out my color in the same way so I don’t have to stop and search for the color I want. I press the paint out in long ribbons rather than blobs. It keeps the paint cleaner and less contaminated by other colors.
Swatching for profit
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I took a color class in college taught by a Mr. Sillman who worked closely with Josef Albers. He was quite the severe teacher. Color was serious business. When he was frustrated with the work the class produced he would call the students cows (all herding in the same direction). One day a girl in class was wearing tinted glasses. He was appalled and he told her to leave the room. We practiced making gray scales mounted on gray chipboard, again and again using paper found in magazines, etc. We also used the chipboard for numerous exercises in color changes. I sat on the floor surrounded by color-aid paper. The exercise was to have two different colored papers for the ground and then find one color that when you put a swatch of it on the two different papers it would look completely different on each paper. The colors of the ground behind have a remarkable ability to change how we see the color it surrounds. Josef Albers’ book on this effect is called The Interaction of Color.
Scraped cherry wood palette
The right palette for me is a 1 1/2 inch thick cutting board made of numerous pieces of cherry wood. I clamp it to my taboret (a simple homemade table) with carpenters’ wood clamps for reliably firm placement and easy removal. I use a high quality paint scraper (an awesome instrument) to remove the paint with gusto, and the scraped surface is lovely: light brown/red, a tad soft, living (well previously anyway), with nice intermediate tone that’s generic in hue.
Little did I realize how much the palettes are an extension of one’s own art environment. Mine is white with a sheet of white palette paper on top. This paper serves as a keeper of the color. When I am done with the painting for a particular piece I can clear wrap the paper flat and put it in a ziploc and come back to it when I care to, colors still intact — a habit developed from my poor and lazy days (save paint and easy clean-up).
My favorite palette was the one I saw as I peeked into a little artist’s hut in Laguna Beach about 5 years ago. In this very small outhouse-sized round hut, no door, there was only canvas placed high and low, paint and paint tubes gathered like firewood, a drop cloth nestled on the floor and in the middle was the artist palette. This palette was a simple piece of wood the size of a table place mat. I stood in awe at the months, maybe years of paintings that had accumulated the globs of paint on this board. It was amazing in depth, nearly four inches, crossing the width of the palette tapering at the ends. The colors, lots of grays, strips of many colors, the whole thing was primal. It was beautiful, it told a story.
Created by artist, not chance
by Laurie Dematteo, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Any color is going to look great next to black because black does not reflect light like colors do. Unless you’re painting on velvet I wouldn’t recommend it. Gray is okay but your best bet is to focus on the paint you are applying. A color on the palette will always differ from itself when applied to the canvas. I sign my name at the bottom of my paintings because they are created by me and not chance.
by Cole Paterson, Sun River, MT, USA
My table serves me well and the chair is an incredible machine that has more bells and whistles and can morph into a great many shapes and levels and that makes it really good to sit and paint. I can no longer stand at easels and the gray backdrop has improved my color harmony immeasurably. In addition, I have also studied very hard reading great books on the subject and then learning by using my brushes… There is much more to quality color harmony with paints than I really expected. I knew that some paintings I see look wonderful and others — well not so wonderful… and really didn’t understand why. Now I understand and am pursuing color, composition and drawing for the rest of my time.
And, that is north light streaming in the window behind my chair. Also overhead is a good mix of spendy sun balanced bulbs… both incandescent and fluorescent.
The shelf is for reference photos and the paints and homemade color chart is tucked right under the shelf. I lean larger canvases against the shelf and use push pins as stops at the bottom of the canvas… adjustments are only a matter of moving the pins. For smaller canvases I have piece of “peg board” painted #5 gray that I lean against the shelf and then use wooden pegs to keep the smaller pieces where I need them to be comfortable. With my injury, the main focus has to be that I can continue to change positions rather quickly… I used to be able to work for hours without changing my posture much now it is minutes. But whatever works!
The formula for a perfect “not cool and not warm” neutral gray using the Harbil 48 parts per ounce machine. Harbil machines come in three flavors — 32 parts per ounce, 48 parts per ounce, and 64 parts per ounce. The precise model is critical because with each “punch” of the machine, each model dispenses a different amount of color so the following formula is only good for the 48 parts per ounce Model. A “part” is never defined here so if you want to know more, ask the paint store worker or Google Harbil Paint Dispensers.
Money invisible and remote
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
Money does not appear in my mental landscape. It is as invisible and remote to me as one of Jupiter’s moons. At my last job, the accountant was amused at having to chase me down to deliver my paycheck. I forget about money being connected with work. I especially forget about it being connected with my art. Even doing commission work, I’m doing it without thought of money. It’s always surprising to me that someone actually pays me for art. I think of my 40 years of experience as financially related to 40 years of being a monk.
Up to 5,000 but no developed style
by Gayle Konantz
I must be up to 5,000 but still haven’t developed a “style.” How do I find a mentor who can point me in a direction and critique my work, someone who understands my direction beyond flowers and barns?
(RG note) Your three best mentors are yourself, your work and your books. You may be on a plateau because you are looking too much to others.
One to another
by Val Stephenson
I wondered what would happen if I painted the same thing over and over and over again. So I formed a set of rules for myself. I would paint the same small metal bowl 30 times every day using Chinese ink and a particularly ugly fat brush and only one brushstroke. I number 30 sheets of paper and just complete the task in one session. I am now the owner of a huge pile of drawings and an even more hugely interesting experience. I go from boredom to intense periods of concentration. There are times when I hate the bowl and times when I cheat on my rules and try to ‘get away with it’. Each day I get to the end and feel as if I am just barely beginning to get an idea of what this bowl is all about.
No need to paint 100 masterpieces
by Angela Treat Lyon, Hawaii, USA
Everyone seems to hear “paint 100” with the ear of “oh-no-it’ll-take all-day.” Did Robert say to paint 100 masterpieces? — paint them all 48″ x 60″? — to finish, carefully detail, pick and lick and snick? No. Best to listen to the expectations in your head and throw them all out, so there’s freedom to paint as you will. Make them big, small, black and white, color, warm, cold, sketchy, perfect, abstracted, smootched, realistic, on board, on canvas, on glass — with oils, acrylics, watercolors — you get the idea.
I’ve done a series of paintings of one subject over and over and over just to see how many feelings I can evoke, how many stories from the same idea, how many movies to run in the viewer’s head. It isn’t just to perfect your painting skills that it’s great to paint that many paintings, it’s to develop your passion, your intent, as a storyteller, a color master, a dreamweaver, a player, a serious person — you name it. If you don’t love it enough to commit to giving it your all, with all the time you can make for it, go do something else!
mixed media piece
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Charlotte Abernathy who wrote, “For a cheap and almost unbreakable glass palette with no sharp edges, try using an old microwave tray. They’re easily found in thrift stores.”
Also Dave Wilson who wrote, “My palette is a piece of cardboard covered by whatever coloured paper I choose. Then, over it I simply staple a sheet of waxed paper. So cheap and easily replaced.”
And also Jenny of New Zealand who wrote, “I’d never even heard of a grey palette, and now I’ll certainly try using one. Adventures, adventures! … and here’s to worldwide creative connection!”
And also Lesley of the UK who wrote, “Palette? — I use old dinner-plates.”
And John D. King wrote, “I’m a newcomer to your letters and responses — this is most welcome and helpful. I know nothing.”