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Sunday, January 1, 2023

New Blog Series on Color, Part 1: My Palette

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My Basic Oil Palette
(and exactly how I lay them out)


Winter can be a dreary season.  Why not brighten things up and start off the New Year with a series of blog posts on color?  Over the next few weeks, I'll go through the whole spectrum, and at the end I'll even address those much-forgotten colors, black and white.

Before I get into individual hues, I thought I'd let my first post be about my palette.  Like many painters, I use a split-primary oil palette, and when I work in pastel, I expand this to include secondaries..  Unless you're working in pastel, the simpler the palette, the better.  If I'm painting in a small format with a small pochade box with a smaller working area (such as Guerrilla Painter's 6x8 ThumBox), I cut down my oil colors to just three, plus white.  But first, my oil split-primary palette for plein air:
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Napthol Scarlet
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cerulean Blue Hue
  • (plus Titanium-Zinc White)
These are all Gamblin colors, which make up the bulk of the paints in my studio.  Of course, like most painters, I have other brands, but I only use them if I can't find the right color in Gamblin's list.  All of their colors play well together and do what I need them to do.

I also use this limited palette in the studio, but there I will often supplement it with secondaries, most often Cadmium Orange, Dioxazine Violet and Phthalo Green.  Also, I reserve space on my palette for "guest" colors—usually Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber—though I will often invite Gamblin's Radiant series of colors if I want special punch in my lights.

For an even more limited palette of three colors, I use:
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Napthol Scarlet
  • Cerulean Blue Hue
  • ( plus Titanium-Zinc White)
Do I ever change out the colors on my palette?  Sometimes.  If the "guest" colors seem particularly useful, I may add them to my core family or even bump out some of the regular members.  For example, for years I used Cobalt Blue, but I always felt it was never, to my eyes, different enough from Ultramarine Blue.  (I suffer from a degree of deuteranopia or red-green colorblindness, and maybe that's why.)  I replaced it with Phthalo Green, which had been one of the guests.  Yet over time, I grew tired of constantly trying to weaken that strong color, so I bounced back to blue, but a different one: Cerulean Blue Hue which, again, had been one of the guests.  It seems different enough from Ultramarine Blue to work for me.  I also experiment with colors, especially if I need to liven up my studio time.

Like most pastel painters, I don't get obsessed with what pigments are in my pastel sticks.  Most times, you don't know what's in them.  My only qualification is that they be reasonably light-fast.  Thanks to Michael Skalka, now retired as the Conservation Administrator for the National Gallery of Art and who worked diligently over the years on standards for art materials, and thanks also to the other volunteers at ASTM who contributed, we now have a standard for pastels—something oil paint has had for a long time.  (Michael also writes this wonderful blog called The Syntax of Color.) Hopefully, manufacturers will now eliminate the fugitive pigments from their pastels.  But other than that, I have a basic set of intense colors, which includes the three primaries and three secondaries, in four or five steps of value, and in both hard and soft versions.  I supplement this set of 48 (or 60, depending on how many steps in value) with other colors that vary in intensity, location on the color wheel, and softness.  Neutrals, especially, are important supplements to my basic set.  To the field, I'll take 100 or so sticks.  In the studio...I have thousands.

In my next post, I'll write about yellow—its history, the various pigments available, and how I use it in plein air painting.

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