Keeping things simple


Dear Artist,

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.

The Dining Room in the Country, 1913 Oil on canvas 64 in × 797 inches by Pierre Bonnard (1867 - 1947)

The Dining Room in the Country, 1913
Oil on canvas
64 × 797 inches
by Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947)

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.

Two Dogs in a Deserted. circa 1894 Oil on panel Dimensionsheight: 13.8 x 10.6 inches by Pierre Bonnard

Two Dogs in a Deserted. circa 1894
Oil on panel
13.8 x 10.6 inches
by Pierre Bonnard

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.

La Charmille, 1901 Oil on panel 11 by 14 3/8 inches by Pierre Bonnard

La Charmille, 1901
Oil on panel
11 x 14 3/8 inches
by Pierre Bonnard

Best regards,


PS: “How difficult it is to be simple.” (Vincent van Gogh)
“Brevity is the sister of talent.” (Anton Chekhov)

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!”

Fruit Bowl on a Table, circa 1934 Oil on canvas 16.1 x 25.7 inches by Pierre Bonnard

Fruit Bowl on a Table, circa 1934
Oil on canvas
16.1 x 25.7 inches
by Pierre Bonnard

This letter was originally published as “Keeping things simple” on May 30, 2008.

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“Less is more.” (Robert Browning



  1. I am a firm believer in a limited palette. Looking at the scene, will I need a cool or warm red? Choose one and the same with blue and yellow. My black is phthalo green and alizarin or raw umber and phthalo blue–no black. Plus white. If there are no whites in the scene then buff titanium. This works well when you have to hike a ways. One of my students premixed her chromatic black and packed it in tubes so she only had to carry one instead of two tubes. Even in the studio when I have dozens of tubes to choose from, I usually only use the three primaries I have chosen, chromatic black and white. I set those out and paint from there. Occasionally I will put some special color for pop in the painting, cobalt turquoise, vermilion, transparent orange, opera pink or such. I have seen my students muddy up good paintings by mixing too many colors together. Browns, rusts and greys are easy to make so I seldom use them. The raw umber was a gift, so I will use it up but probably not purchase it again. My motto, keep it simple.

  2. Today’s letter made me chortle. Oh how I love good strong neutrals with a splash here and there of bright hues! I have never found the need for a green that I didn’t mix and my darkest darks are almost always acquired on the palette. I feel for Robert and students looking for the “right” formulas. It is such a challenge if one doesn’t have a clue where to begin and equally a challenge to share if one has been painting for years. Then too, I think some people’s brains work differently. Some people love a light box type set up with a still life or live model and measured colour mixes because the lack of control in a plein air setting with sun, cloud, rain (and likely bugs) along with a limited palette while mixing on the fly, just seems like a ridiculous setting to paint! Neither is right or wrong. Just different and suited to different human beings. For me, the wilds of painting under changing natural conditions and time in the studio fed by these excursions is my groove and I find it exhilarating! If something doesn’t work, well, I scrape it off and start again or paint over it. When students would ask me how to mix a specific colour, I usually had to show them rather than tell them because my hand and eye knew but not my cognitive brain. But this approach is for those living at the edges of possibilities. It is for those that know that a mistake might be the learning needed for a future painting or the curious star of a current one. It is the way to discovery and disaster, usually in equal amounts. Yet, we trust the process and get ourselves unstuck again and again and again… until something satisfying emerges or we start over. This is the part I love most about being a painter… the endless discover and uncertainty of it all! Happy painting!

    • I have been reading Twice Weekly by Robert and Sara for years and as a result have read many of your replies. I have read your very appropriate replies , like this one I just recieved. Now I routinely search for your replies. They ,like the letters from Robert and Sara, have contributed to my better understanding of our art
      form, Thank you ,Jack Monk

      • What a kind thing it acknowledge Jack! As you have likely guess, having read so many of my replies, I am a life-long learner with a passion for taking my landscape painting and art business seriously. Robert and Sara’s letters offer so many great opportunities for building on both of these in a shared community. Thank you for being part of my exploration and sending a nod in my direction. Most appreciated.

  3. I think I was one of those nose-to-palette students Robert speaks of. I remember asking teacher artists WHAT COLOURS??, and, since I took many lessons and workshops from a variety of different artists, have ended up with a collection of paint tubes unused. Trial and mud was my way of painting for a long time when it came to oils. Using pastels I made successful pieces of art, which told me I had a lot to learn about mixing and choosing what pigments to use in oils. The breakthrough happened when I reduced the number of squeezes of colours onto my palette to half of what I put there before. Stuck to the basic primaries and mix mix mix. Learned to love mixing grays, learned to allow my hunger for punchy brilliant primary colours to play their part in the scene. How we use colour reflects who we are in the deepest parts of our artistic souls. Good thing I started young, waiting til after retirement would not have given me enough time to make all those messes. :) Great letter, thank you!!

  4. Robert was so wise and amusing. This made me smile (and wince!) with recognition. A pet peeve of mine, actually. Happens in every single workshop. Every. Single. One. And I only take advanced level workshops these days. People obsessed with colors and materials, rarely asking more important questions. Sure, materials make a difference, but they’re not going to get you to the promised land. There’s no magic tube of paint. Wish there were!

  5. Learning to experiment in art is as fun, if not more so, than experimenting in science. When doing plein air workshops, I learned that a stick could make marks as interesting as the finest sable brush, if I was willing to try it.

    The excitement of experimenting continues to fascinate me, and as a painter it brings work alive using imagination and energy.

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