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.

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.

Best regards,


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

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!”


Innate harmony
by Darr Sandberg, Desert Hot Springs, CA, USA


original painting
by Darr Sandberg

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


“Arroyo Side”
oil painting, 63 x 83 cm
by Ron Gang

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


oil painting
by Tracy Bagnall

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


“Oriental Eye I”
original painting, 33 x 28 inches
by Elsha Leventis

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


“Crows fishing… and a dog”
original painting
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


“Catboat with Pink Sky”
acrylic painting, 26 X 38 inches
by Jack Dickerson

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


“Whispered moments”
original painting
by Terry Adams

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


“Blue bug”
original painting
by Nan Ream

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


“Fresh catch – Bald Eagle”
oil painting
by Dustin Curtis

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


“Pairs of Pears”
acrylic painting
by Carlana Lane

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.

There is 1 comment for The colour black by Carlana Lane

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 04, 2008

You can mix any two complementary colors to get black. Each will be different depending on the complementary colors used. But black will result. Think of a wheel, the outer edge is your complementary colors, as you move to the center axle (in varying amounts with both colors) you will achieve black. Using this method makes even your blacks… more colorful and not “dead” black. Try it.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Keeping things simple



From: Amy Markham — Jun 02, 2008

Aloha Robert.

I’m really loving your twice weekly letter. Something to read and re-read or forward to my friends, and it’s useful stuff that makes my brain switch gears, and to clear away cob webs.

From: Lyn Cowan — Jun 02, 2008

The best demonstration I ever saw was one by Gerry Puley who was a very fine watercolour painter. She demonstrated how to mix greys. She took every colour on her palette and mixed it with its opposite and made an amazing range of greys. That demonstration has stayed with me for many, many years. When I talk about painting I urge people to experiment with mixing their colours. The greys separate the men from the boys, in my opinion. All of those tube colours are just the ingredients to make the greys.

From: Shirley Moss — Jun 02, 2008

I, too, have learned that less is more. it is also a lot less weight on one’s back.

From: D.Tamayo — Jun 02, 2008

I am a Special Educator. My career for the past 30+ years has been teaching students who have learning disabilities, mental impairments, autistic labels and speech/language impediments. Believe me when I tell you that to teach these students one must keep it simple. My experience is replete with music, sound, pictures, and practice in order to teach the above mentioned group to read. Each one has their own channel of receptivity so the process is tedious and long. Students are often “written off” by the “system” b/c of a low IQ or another reason will learn to read with us.

We teach ART 2 afternoons a week to our students. A few local artists come in to volunteer and demonstrate techniques to the children. Our visiting artists are valued. Although they often do not have a background in special needs children they do their best to help the children understand.

The students follow along with the assignments to the best of their ability. Some show natural ability. My office is overflowing with students’ works. The color combinations and strength of their drawings are often amazing.

From: Joseph Guggino — Jun 02, 2008

Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

From: Jill Charuk — Jun 02, 2008

It is the “promise” or the sense of promise that each new colour or brush holds. You just never know when this will be the key that unlocks the door to big time art. The prince’s kiss could be in that tube of magenta blue-violet.

From: Sharman Owings — Jun 02, 2008

Mark Twain said something to the effect, “This letter would have been shorter if I’d have had more time” Guess the arts have much in common.

From: Dee — Jun 02, 2008

For me, a very timely and appreciated article as keeping the palette simple and mixing my paints is what I am working on. I just finished what I call “The Experiment” oil painting where I mixed my paints. Mixing the paint is so much fun. I also made a Tints, Tones and Shades chart of my paints. It was so interesting to see the results when making this chart. Now I am going to make a chart mixing just my paints with each other. The most fun is seeing it come together on your canvas, surprises happen all the time that may lead you to something you hadn’t really thought about. I paint from the head after making a sketch of my idea. Meaning I don’t keep referring to a reference photo or even to my original sketch. Once started (now that is the hard part) I let the painting develop its self.

From: Darrell Baschak — Jun 02, 2008

I enjoy working with a limited palette for the simple reason that it keeps my life simple, especially when I am working out of doors. I find it quite enjoyable to experiment with two colours, say Raw Sienna and Ultramarine Blue plus white. It is amazing what range of hue and value one can achieve, and variety as well by using these colours. Doing one hour studies of simple objects in the studio or workshop are invaluable aids in achieving a colour sense and more importantly, tonal ranges that are believable. Moving around the colour wheel and experimenting with those colours provides hours of intense study and one can gain a technical proficiency, as well as a less scientific approach to picture making. Simple palettes also allow the artist to return to a painting after some time has lapsed because it is much easier to remember what colours were used on the piece.

From: Philip Mix — Jun 02, 2008

I think you could also say simple is nothing but the essentials sublimely stated… but it is amazing how we think the more complex a thing is, the better it is. I am struggling with this in an intense way at the moment, and feel sometimes I’d like to grab reality and shake its stubborn neck. For years I have been pleased to create the brilliant illusion of space, now I just want the tyranny of distance to let go of me. I’ve been informed of course that to choose this route is to abandon ship and succumb to the abstractionists, and God forbid, since no doubt my clientele would never cross that threshold with me. What a price, simplicity.

From: Doug Brown — Jun 02, 2008

Less is more, more or less!!! I tell my watercolor students you can mix the color you want with 2 not more than 3 colors after that your going to start to get a little muddy.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jun 02, 2008

I agree that the supplies should be simple, but hopefully of best quality. I know a guy who threw his flimsy easel from a plein air vista cliff, with fist threats and shouting obscenities. Talking about a quest for simplicity – he used to tantrum over the bottles of turps and oils with child-safe caps!

From: Sherry Maghsoodloo — Jun 02, 2008

I understand your disdain for the recipe gathering but as an person who has taken art classes, that is the reason we go. Most of us out there making art for our own pleasure (because we do not sell it), are too inexperienced to realize that gathering recipes doesn’t make for success, it is the practice of daily painting that makes us understand more fully how to use those recipes. After purchasing many art supplies, chasing that magic bullet that I thought would make me a better painter, I finally came to realize that the practice did more for me than the magic of what someone else uses. We see the things surrounding the art that seem to be neat and we think that if we had that, we would paint better. If we had that color, our art would look better, etc., etc. All the same excuses for not painting on a daily basis. I now have the time to devote something everyday to painting and have seen such an improvement in my own work.

From: Bruce Meyer — Jun 02, 2008

Yes, artists go the recipe route. I’m guessing that they are also the ones who make a living at what they do. It takes a lot of work to go to the extremes you mentioned. I’m supposing that the more mainstream artist approach is to “not let anyone tell me how to paint.” These more mainstream artists, with the bohemian ideal if not lifestyle, turn their back on teaching and advice, because they think that’s what an artist does.

I’m still a learning artist, and I imagine it will be quite a while before I stop needing to pay attention to recipes, either in form or matter, either in artistic content or handling and arranging the materials. And if I stumble on a formula that makes me wealthy–as so many of the greats of recent times seemed to do–it’s easier to spin off something creative inside financial success and popular acclaim, than to do it while poor and overlooked.

From: Sue Belcher — Jun 02, 2008

I really enjoyed your letter re keeping it simple. I have been teaching painting and drawing for the past few years and will be doing a colour workshop this month. You echoed my experiences and thoughts with humour. Thank you. You brightened my day.

From: Jacquie Scuitto — Jun 02, 2008

Among your quotes you left out the old Shaker hymn ‘Tis a gift to be simple.’

From: Hans Mertens — Jun 02, 2008

Besides the primary colours I use 3 other colours and, okay, I add a little white. I teach my pupils how they can make all the colours from the primary colours.

Great art isn’t born in art stores.

From: Annette — Jun 02, 2008

I like matching personalities to style of painting….not methods… or techniques… If you study artists…who they are…their style of person comes out in their work.

From: Kate Lehman Landishaw — Jun 02, 2008

Oh, your comments on color made me smile -“commit & correct” is just exquisite as The Formula! And oh, how those of us in workshops who do NOT pursue every shred of divine dictum from the leader are often looked upon with multi-hued askance – ‘Tis a puzzlement, how it is so hard to learn there’s no pat answer to learning… Thanks for that “commit & correct” phrase, a formula for freedom to explore – aHA! You’ve unburied the treasure map!

From: Gene Black — Jun 03, 2008
From: Susan Connelly — Jun 03, 2008

A limited palette creates harmony in the finished piece.

From: Becky McMahon — Jun 03, 2008

I too, work in a limited palette. With Oriental Brush painting I can choose to work in black ink and shades of black. I usually use indigo, yellow, scarlet, carmine, white and light blue. Chinese watercolours don’t have the same number of choices as Western ones. I can mix all the greens and browns I want. I have other colours I use occationally but with theses I can paint almost everything, from flowers, to landscapes to bird and beyond. I don’t remember learning how to mix colours. I just know that this colour needs a little of this and that. Maybe I got it from my Mother. She says she doesn’t remember learning how to mix colours either. I’ve been working with colour for as long as I can remember.

From: Marjorie Turnbull — Jun 03, 2008

I teach a colour class. The first class is using two complementary colours and white. The second class is three analagous, one complement and white. The third is a triad and the fourth is putting everything together called using a dominant hue. The students are amazed at what they can paint and always agree that the first three classes were more fun and more challenging.

From: Lynda Pogue — Jun 04, 2008

This is friggin fantastic

From: Susan McCrae — Jun 04, 2008

You might not have had middle-of-the-night sojourns in mind when you wrote this column but for years I have been guiltily doing some of my best art when I awake at 4 in the morning – not recommended for everyone, as you say. In fact, I don’t think I’ve openly confessed this to anyone, let alone published this guilty pleasure. Although I don’t wake up every night – on occasion, I’ve been found still working in my ‘jammies’ at lunchtime.

From: R.G. — Jun 08, 2008

Robert G. If you have an email for Burton Silverman tell him his studio site is infected. Tried on two dif computers and get “multiple infection”. Ron Grauer






Wine and Words

oil painting
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy


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.




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