Thursday, September 3, 2009

Limited Palettes

For a long, long time now I've been scoffing at the idea of a limited palette.  I would read about authors extolling the virtues of the limited palette, then further on they'd all cite a few 'other colors' they use for 'convenience', thus losing all credibility. It's not a limited palette in my opinion if you pull out the old cad green light, red gold lake and sheveningen blue whenever you feel like it. I've also seen artists claim they use a limited palette, but when I counted up their colors we're talking 12 - 14. Not exactly limited.

Maybe limited is a state of mind? Perhaps.

But...(big but), I'm reconsidering a limited palette for various reasons. Let me take a stab at this. How about: tit white, black, transp oxide red, yellow ochre, cad red, ultramarine blue? That's six colors, about halving my normal palette. The two problems I'm having with this palette are yellow ochre and black.

I've tried a few different yellow ochres. Williamsburg offers quite a variety, though pricey for a color that can look like diahrrea.  For a while I banished yellow ochre from the sacred surface of my palette. It crept back. On my palette now is Gamblin's version. I dislike them all.  Wednesday I mentioned this to Jackie and Bruce so they pulled out a raw sienna and gold ochre. I liked the raw sienna, and ordered a small tube. We'll see. 

Black. Does any other color elicit more opinion than black?  Painter's get passionate about their whites, but nothing polarizes more than a discussion of black. I did a quick search to find the differences between the various blacks. 

Mars Black: a lean black with a slightly cool undertone.
Lamp black: middle-of-the road. Cool undertone.
Ivory Black: very rich and fat. This black is supposed to have a warm undertone - but I don't see it. I've tried Daler-Rowney and Gamblin - both were the coolest of the three. Someone, somewhere on my search said they think some Phthalo is being added. I believe it.

Then there are the mixed blacks: chromatic (Gamblin) and transp. oxide red + ultramarine blue. Chromatic black is a bit fat and transparent. But it stains really, really bad. Probably the phthalo green in the mix.  TOR + ultr. blue is beautiful and transparent, but add some white and it loses its lustre. Plus transp. oxide red is so powerful that it's a real balancing act to take it up or down (warm/cool).

A whole lot of artists say you don't need a black. I think this goes back to the Impressionists, and that tired old story about Sargent asking Monet for some black. My retort to that is the Impressionists weren't tonal painters. One can argue they were even leaving the fold of representational painting.

Back to my blacks - I'm trying Mars and will experiment with lamp when it arrives. (wow this discussion would be mindnumbingly boring to anyone who wasn't a painter.)

Why am considering a limited palette after all these years? Various reasons. Right now I'm trying to acquire a deeper and broader knowledge of value. Color - and matching local color and hues - tends to get in the way. Also I've been studying various photographers and their use of both color and tone. Photography and photographers really have a lot to offer painters in  different, yet compatible ways of seeing.  Georgia O'Keefe subtracted all color from her art very early when she was learning her craft. When she felt she had a handle on tones she gradually reintroduced color into her work, starting with blue. I don't feel the need to banish all color and work exclusively in value, just a need/desire to explore a limited palette further.


  1. I know nothing about brother got that gene, but I do know beauty and talent, and you possess both. Ever so happy Bella introduced us to you.

  2. Thank you Deborah. That's really nice of you, but truthfully I don't believe in talent. I think everyone who can sign their names can draw. It's all in how much work you put in. I've got a very very long way to go, and comments like yours are a little push to keep me going. Thanks!


About Me

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Elmira, New York, United States
In many ways I think like a photographer. The image itself is becoming more and more important to me; the actual application of paint less and less. Blasphemy in some painterly circles. I choose to paint figures and portraits because I consider them the most difficult subject.