Friday, August 9, 2019

Master Class: Color Palettes and Color Gamut

Left: "Mitten Ridge Reds" 12x16 oil/canvas.  Made with the three-color palette consisting of burnt sienna,
yellow ochre and Prussian blue. Right: Color gamut of my three-color palette used in the  painting.


Much basic knowledge is given to children at an early age.  I don't remember when I first 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 any color you see with these three colors (plus white.)

Or so the theory goes.  Once I started seriously getting into color-mixing with my first painting course, I learned the limitations of red, yellow and blue and of pigments in general.  For example, if I didn't have the right red and blue, I couldn't mix an intense violet.  I'd be better off buying the intense violet I needed, like quinacridone violet.

One might think that maybe one should just buy all the exact colors needed.  Pastelists usually end up doing this, and as a pastelist myself, I've done the same, but I will add that it is an expensive addiction.  Some painters of liquid media do this, too.   Unfortunately, acquiring a virtual candy store of color can lead to color chaos, especially if the artist doesn't understand color harmony or how to properly adjust color mixtures.  I would argue that much of the truly garish, carnival-like work we see in "contemporary art" galleries today is not the result of artistic vision but from a lack of fundamental color-mixing skills.

By the way, this essay isn't just for painters of liquid media.  It does apply to pastel painters, too.  Although pastel painters won't necessarily be mixing colors as much, they can still plot out color options as noted below.

An easy path to color harmony is to use a limited palette.   The fewer the colors, the less trouble you'll get into.  A one-color palette, as boring as it may be, is the safest.  A two-color palette is safe, too.  Having just one warm color and one cool color is enough to create an effect of brilliant sunshine.  In fact, years ago, when color printing was in its infancy, illustrators did stunning work  with just orange (warm) and black (cool.)  Stepping to a three-color palette gives you a broader range, but it still is relatively safe.  Beyond that, though, and you really need to know how to handle color.

I've used a limited oil for some time.  My "go-to" palette consists of seven colors, plus white.  Basically, it's a split-primary palette with a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries, plus one more:  Hansa yellow light, Hansa yellow deep, napthol scarlet, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue and -- here is the addition-- sap green.  I'm thinking of ditching the sap green.  More about that later.

But that's not the only palette I use.  I often simplify my life by returning to a three-color palette.  Mine consists of burnt sienna, yellow ochre and Prussian blue.  (See the illustration at the top of this post.)  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.

Really, though, you can pick any three versions of the primaries you wish.  Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920) is reputed to have used a variation on this, but without any blue.  The "Zorn palette," as it is called, consists of vermilion, yellow ochre and ivory black.  The black functions as a blue.  Putting warm colors beside it, especially blue's complement, orange, will make the black seem even bluer.

But a limited palette can't do everything.  It restricts the gamut (or range) of possible color mixtures.  Understanding the gamut of your palette is important.  It'll keep you from being frustrated when you can't mix a certain hue.  It'll also give you an idea of what colors you can mix.

Lately, I have been plotting my color choices against a color wheel to help see the gamut of possible mixtures.  I won't go into the mechanics of a color wheel here, but the idea is simple.  If you plot your colors on the wheel and connect them with lines, the resulting polygon contains all the possible color mixtures.  (And how do I know where to plot my colors?  Check out this color wheel from HandPrint.com.)

Let me show you how this works.  Let's start with a very simple palette, the three-color palette.

Three-color palette:  Prussian blue, burnt sienna, yellow ochre.
This is my favorite three-color palette.  It consists of mostly earth pigments, which create beautifully muted, harmonious mixtures. You'll note what a narrow wedge of possibilities this represents. Weighted toward yellow and orange, this palette doesn't allow for a proper violet mixture, or for many greens, either.



"Zorn" palette: Ivory black, vermilion, yellow ochre.
Now here is the "Zorn Palette," which contains just earth pigments and also creates beautiful muted tones.  Covering just a little more area than my three-color palette, it's heavily weighted toward red and orange. Green is a possibility, but it's a very greyed-down green. Violets? Nope.


Three-color palette of mineral colors:  ultramarine blue, cadmium red, cadmium yellow.
This three-color palette, which uses richer mineral pigments rather than dull earth pigments, offers a larger wedge of possibilities and is weighted to blues, violets, red and orange. But it's weak in the greens. More intense color mixtures are possible with this one.



A split-primary palette: ultramarine blue, phthalo green, hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, cadmium red, permanent alizarin crimson.
This is the split-primary palette I used up until recently.  This offers many more possibilities—and more trouble!—than the three-color palettes. High-chroma mixtures are possible. It's weighted toward the yellow, orange and red. Yet although violets and greens are possible, but they won't have much variety and will be somewhat dull. Instead of two blues, I have just one; I replaced the second blue with phthalo green.  This opens up more possibilities for greens more than a palette with just two blues. 



My "go-to" split-primary palette of today:  ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, sap green, hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, naphthol scarlet, permanent alizarin crimson.
Here's what I'm using today.  I gave up the phthalo green and replaced it with sap green.  Why?  Phthalo was such a strong color I just got tired of it; it was like eating garlic in every meal.  Sap green, being duller with a low tinting strength, is easier to digest.  I also added cerulean blue.  Why?  I had been using the phthalo green to create a cerulean blue, and I need that color for both the Maritimes and the Southwest.  You'll note that this palette offers fewer green possibilities than my earlier palette.

Another observation: sap green sits on the line connecting cerulean blue and Hansa yellow light. This tells me I can mix sap green with these two colors and dispense with tubed sap green.  But sap green is a convenient color to have, so maybe I'll keep it.



A more-balanced split-primary palette:  ultramarine blue, cobalt teal, permanent green light, hansa yellow light, naphthol scarlet, cobalt violet.
And finally, here's a more balanced palette.  While writing this blog post, I looked at the HandPrint color wheel and tried to pick out six pigments that would give me the most balanced gamut.  There were several choices for my six pigments, so this is just one configuration.  The palette I've chosen is slightly weak in the violets and a little strong in the reds.  But overall,  it offers many possibilities of less-intense to more-intense mixtures for each of the six color families.

So here's your winter project, and mine.  While waiting for the snow to stop falling and for pleasant outdoor painting weather to return, reconfigure your palette so it yields the largest gamut and the most color possibilities—and at the same time, practice with it so mixing becomes a joyful, intuitive process.

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