Monday, December 29, 2014

Three-Color Oil Palette

"Mitten Ridge Reds" 12x16 oil/canvas
Made with the three-color palette described below.

Much basic knowledge is given to children at an early age.  I don't remember when I learned about the three primaries—red, yellow and blue—so it must have been a very long time ago indeed.  The concept, as we all know, is that you can mix just about any color you see with these three colors (plus white.)

Or so the theory goes.  Once we start seriously getting into color-mixing with our first real painting course, we learn the limitations of red, yellow and blue and pigments in general.  For example, if you don't have the right red and blue, you can't mix an intense violet.  You may be better off simply buying the intense violet you need, like quinacridone violet.  (By the way, Gamblin makes a great series of intense, light tints in its Radiant series.)

In fact, maybe you should just buy all the exact colors you need.  Pastelists end usually up doing this, and as a pastelist myself, I can say it is an expensive addiction.  Some painters* do this, too.   Unfortunately, this can lead to color chaos, especially if the artist doesn't understand color harmony or how to properly adjust color mixtures.  Some of the truly garish, carnival-like work we see in "contemporary art" galleries today is probably not the result of artistic vision but a lack of fundamental color-mixing skill.

As many of you know, I've used a limited oil palette for some time.  It's a split-primary palette with a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries.  I also teach this palette in my workshops.  However, it always takes an effort for me personally to get my color mixtures where I want them.   With all the practice I've gotten with the palette, I do know what I'm doing with it, but it does take work. Lately, I've decided to simplify my palette a bit.

I'm limiting myself further to just the three primaries—red, yellow and blue.

Yes, I know this limits the gamut of possible color mixtures.  But therein lies its beauty, literally.  The more limited the possibilities, the more likely the resulting mixtures will be harmonious.

For a three-color palette, you can pick any version of red, yellow and blue you wish.  The idea is to have the three primaries in some form on your palette.  I've chosen burnt sienna, yellow ochre and Prussian blue.  The two earth colors are already naturally muted, and the Prussian blue, though a strong color, greys down nicely with burnt sienna and yellow ochre, yielding some beautiful neutrals.

Here is what the color possibilities are for my six-color palette.  Everything within the polygon is possible; everything outside can't be mixed.  (Keep in mind that this is only a gross approximation and is limited by computer graphics, etc.)

Six-color palette.  (Based on information from

Now here what's possible with my three-color palette.  I'm more limited in the mixing possibilities.

Three-color palette.  (Based on information from

You might ask, What is the most harmonious palette?  It would be a monochromatic one.

*Yes, pastelists are painters, too.  But for the sake of brevity, here I distinguish pastelists from painters who work in oil, acrylic, gouache or watercolor, who mix color on a regular basis.

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