A two-day workshop last weekend refreshed my memory of how artists often go the recipe route. Some, not all, asked regularly and took detailed notes of colours used by the beleaguered demo-doer. Some noses came awfully close to picking paint from my palette.
Of interest was the particular mixture of grey imprimatura. I frequently repeated that this recipe was changed daily depending on mood, degree of experimentation, and the needs of the work. Artists needed to know, nevertheless, and asked persistently. I’m here to tell you that white gesso, carbon black, yellow ochre and a touch of magenta to a grey scale of almost 50% is not carved in stone.
And then there’s the palette. My backpacking sorties have taught me to keep it light and simple. Actually, a limited palette is a big plus because it teaches creative mixing. In opaque media such as oil or acrylic a pretty good range can be had from Phthalo blue, Hansa yellow, magenta, Cadmium red, sap green or equivalent, yellow ochre, raw umber, titanium white and carbon black. While it is amazing the sophisticated purples and earth tones that can be mixed from this palette, it’s not the Holy Grail. While some palettes are unique to individual artists, yet others are even simpler.
Materials do not make the work of art, it’s the craft of handling them. Great art is not born in art stores. I once knew a travelling painter who carried more than 700 brushes in his truck. I’m sure it gave him a sense of security, but it didn’t improve his art. No, five is enough for most of us mortals. As far as tube colours — he had at least one of each of everything Golden and Liquitex made, and some others to boot.
Keeping it simple may lower the number of possibilities, but not by much. The nine pigments mentioned above are still plenty. As I tried to emphasize to my weekend group, the palette is a matter of individual choice, determined after trial-and-error. Recipe gatherers are not always open to the trial-and-error part — I call it “commit and correct.” These days folks often feel they need to save themselves some time. This can be false economy. Selling everyone on commit and correct is not easy. It’s all about creativity, and that’s the fun part.
Esoterica: Pierre Bonnard, no slouch in the colour department, said, “You reason color more than you reason drawing. It has a logic as severe as form.” Understanding and mastering colour requires thought, diligence, experimentation and commitment. Taste plays its part — a sip here, a sip there — and simple ingredients often make the best soup. “Color is like cooking,” said the granddaddy of colour knowledge, Josef Albers. “The cook puts in more or less salt, that’s the difference!”
by Darr Sandberg, Desert Hot Springs, CA, USA
The happiest choice I have made as a painter to date, was to ditch the seven tubes of green, five different yellows, as many blues and reds, and all the pre-mixed oranges and purples and grays and whatnot. Now, I usually work with just five colors, raw umber, titanium white, Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue and Turner’s Yellow — and any color or color relationship I want — I can get with just this handful of pigments. Sometimes a little transparent mixing white — the acrylic equivalent of zinc white — and my needs are completely met.
I used to spend almost as much time digging through tubes of this red and that yellow, or trying mixes from a bewildering range of combinations, as I did actually applying paint to canvas. All those extra colors are in a drawer now, and I haven’t missed ’em once. My experience has been that the colors I mix from a tightly limited palette never clash — gone are the days of primaries that fight to the death, secondaries that just never ‘fit’ and tertiaries that are lifeless, plastic and dull. I could see myself using a limited palette built around one of the beautiful pre-mixed purples or magenta’s, someday, for a work that was more or less monochromatic. But otherwise — there’s an innate harmony possible with a limited palette that I wouldn’t part with if I had a team of pack mules to cart my stuff around for me.
Don’t put the cart before the horse
by Diane Palomba, Portland, OR, USA
I think the problem with the recipe-seeking workshop takers is that there has not been an education in the basics. I know that formal education is kind of out of fashion these days, and I hate to sound dogmatic, but what these fledgling artists need is formal art training. I had the great fortune of attending a well-regarded and rigorous art school, and I can tell you that for the first year in color class, all we did was mix colors, and work with limited palettes. Never mind learning the various schools of color theory. It was invaluable information that has informed every color choice I make. It would behoove the avid learner not to put the cart before the horse. Basics first; future creativity will benefit.
Inexhaustible possibilities with limited palette
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
I’ve whittled my palette (oil) down to the three primaries and white (4 pigments in total), getting to the exact specific pigments that bring me colour I want. Not just any old primaries can do the job.
The pigments are transparent. I use underpainting and painting with more layers until the result does it for me. This simplest palette seems to give me everything I want. Since no pigment out of the tube is close to what I want on the canvas, I must mix all the time, and be aware exactly of what I want and see and thus develop greater sensitivity to small differences in hues. Since these three work so well together (they are actually parallel to the primaries used in colour printing), no muddiness is caused as opposed to would happen using earth colours, and you can always pull the mix in the direction you want. A lot of non-verbal colour awareness and intuitive thinking develops with this. I would be hard put to give formulas and exact proportions. It’s like cooking to taste. I find I’m constantly discovering more nuances and colours, and I am led to think that the combinations and possibilities are inexhaustible.
A simple palette
by Tracy Bagnall, Stoke-on-Trent, England
When I returned to painting in 1998 I was overwhelmed by the choice of colours and so I chose a palette of Red, Blue and Yellow with White and some black but tried not to use the black if I could. Even then I did not know if colours were the correct hue or tone as there are loads of reds etc. so in the end I just went for it. With simplicity, the whole painting is going to be in harmony whatever colour you mix from your base colours. I went back to the colour wheel that we were taught in college. We learned to mix as many colours in between the primaries as we could. Some people could do it, others could not. It’s all in the creativity you put into it.
Two colour palette
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada
My own palette is largely limited to two colours — ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, which give me wonderful blacks, blues, and greys. Limiting myself to a limited palette is incredibly liberating — and frees me to explore process. I have three shows coming up in Toronto’s Distillery District ( Balzac’s and Red Eye galleries) and all the work, some thirty paintings, have been produced using those two colours, with an occasional hit of other hues. Fun!
Paint around the wheel
by Jean David
The palette I currently use has evolved over the last ten years or so primarily in the pursuit of portrait and figure painting. I too scoured books and journals to find out what the ‘secret’ mixtures may be, but eventually arrived at the inevitable conclusion that there are no secrets, just experience and sound technique. Currently I use:
A warm yellow and a cool yellow (normally Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Yellow)
A warm red and a cool red (warm can range from an earth red such as Venetian red, terra rosa etc., and for cool I can go all the way to Alizarin Crimson)
A warm blue and a cool blue (warm is Ultramarine, and cool is either Cobalt or Cerulean)
Titanium for an opaque white, and Zinc for a transparent one.
From here, I find I can reach far enough in either direction to just about paint my way around the wheel. Since I have now turned to the landscape with gusto, I have added Viridian as an essential green, I find it’s the only one I need, as I can mix just about anything I see in font of me with it and the blues and yellows above.
What more is there?
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
The cellist Yo Yo Ma said, “Each day I move toward that which I do not understand. The result is a continuous accidental learning which constantly shapes my life.” Bravo. This describes my life. There are no formulas. You cannot replicate someone’s color pallette and mixing and make it sing. It cannot come from the outside. It MUST come from the inside. This automatically means enduring, and learning from a certain number of failures. Experimentation, experimentation, experimentation — until it finally flows from within you. It is a hard road. But the result is also a deep inner satisfaction. It is the same with simplicity. Complicated is easy. It always seems to me that the simpler my paintings are, the better they feel. How much information do we need to convey a feeling? Not a heck of a lot.
Testing the waters
by Terry Adams, Kennoway, Scotland
Simplicity is a gift not often recognized. When I took a few paintings into the gallery, the assistant said “Ah! Now there is the Terry we have come to know and love, simple and yet so complex. I have often tried to copy your work but somehow it just never works.” I recently put up the same images on an art critique site. One is done in soft brush work, with the other by knife. I ran an online poll initially for preference between the two. Votes came in for the soft treatment work. However, at the end of the month the vote was evenly split. Demonstrating that there is a market for whatever your work is. The difficulty is getting it to market.
Tri-Tones Gallery Show
by Nan Ream, Santa Rosa Beach, FL, USA
Tonight, I have my first One Man Show opening at a local museum. My theme is “Tri-Tones.” Each painting was completed with the use of a three color palette — and the occasional addition of white or gray. Having worked in this mode for the past year, my creativity level has soared. I wasn’t so hung up on all those tubes of paint lying around. I had to do it myself. It was hard work, but a wonderful experiment that has forced me to grow as an artist.
(RG note) Thanks, Nan. Painters may wish to investigate the Nelson Tri Hue System. Dick Nelson is a brilliant colour guru who pontificates from a high volcano on Maui.
Materials don’t make the artist
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
There are a lot of similarities between music and golf. A great artist can create masterpieces with pretty much anything, even a colorless pencil. I used to play golf and I noticed that good golfers could play a good round with cheap golf clubs. I purchased a pretty expensive set of golf clubs myself and they didn’t make me any better. A very good musician can sing or play their instrument and do a pretty good job even with cheaper equipment. The better gear will make a great golfer better, but it will not necessarily make a lousy golfer better. A $5000 guitar will sound excellent in the hands of a great guitarist but for someone who cannot play it doesn’t make that much of a difference. In art, the better paints and brushes, including having more of them, may make a great artist better, but they may not do much for an inexperienced artist.
Skills take time
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
I think it takes both talent and experience to use a limited palette when painting plein air. If you don’t have enough experience painting outside, an awful lot of time can be wasted trying to make the right earth tones, when you could just get them out of a tube and warm or cool them according to your needs. If you spend too much time mixing, the light is going to change on you. I think it is just fine to start with more paints. As time goes on, you sort of naturally learn the mixing of colors. Your palette gets smaller with experience. I use a lot fewer colors now then I did in my first years. Not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a useful thing to know about the value of tube colors. Sometimes a few extra tube colors can help you save the critical time you need to really bring home that painting that sings. When you are fighting the speed of light, I say use what works. Eventually, one learns to mix quickly and accurately but it is a skill. Skills take time.
The colour black
by Carlana Lane, Mississippi, USA
Would you comment on different blacks? I usually try to mix my own (would love your formula for that) and when I use tube blacks, I usually go to Payne’s grey or Mars black. I would love to know the differences in all the acrylic tube blacks.
(RG note) Thanks, Carlana. To know what people are really like, you have to put them to tests. It’s one of the great life lessons, often overlooked. Black’s the same. Squeeze out a bit of all you can find. There are plenty: Ivory, Bone, Oxide, Carbon, Mars, and many others, and then there are the greys: Payne’s, Illustrator’s, Davy’s, etc. See which are warm, nuanced or cool. What do the tints (white added) look like? How smooth is each? How do they blend and gradate? How opaque? — test this by thinning and thinning. My favorite lively blacks are had with combinations of Phthalo blue and umber, Magenta and green, and other “seat of the pants” experiments.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Keeping things simple…
Wine and Words
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, 2013.
That includes Rick Rotante of Tujunga, CA, USA who wrote, “Please don’t waste money on any flesh tones. They are the biggest money wasters of all time.”
And also Melissa E. Keyes of Christiansted, US Virgin Islands who wrote, “I am concerned that you say oils and acrylics in the same manner as folks make one word out of fruits and vegetables. As if Bananas are no different from Broccoli!”
And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic who wrote, “I beat the hell out of K.I.S.S. as a motto. ‘KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID.’ ”
And also Marti O’Brien who wrote, “I am working with pen and ink. Tonight I took all of my ‘mistakes’ and cut them into bits and slices, and put them in separate envelopes. With these bits and pieces I create my collages.”
And also Joan Folinsbee of Thornbury, ON, Canada who wrote, “Since I am a painter who uses spectral colours, and refers to Ralph Meyers Artists’ Handbook (any edition) for info about permanent, non-fugitive pigments, I wonder what you think about the permanence and quality of materials used in making artworks?
(RG note) Thanks, Joan, and everybody else who asked this. Degrees of permanence are listed for most brands and most pigments, both current and extinct, in Ian Hebblewhite’s Artist’s Materials. Ralph’s time-honoured book is good too, but not as exhaustive as Ian’s. Fugitive colours are one thing, toxicity is another. Generally speaking, things are improving and I feel comfortable for the most part with the goods of the better manufacturers.