My palette

A few people have asked about the palette I use, so I thought I'd do a post on it. Keep in mind that my remarks are from the viewpoint of a realist painter, and the concerns I have are not necessarily those of artists working in different styles.

I use lots of colors... Lots... 60+ these days.

It wasn't always so. When I started off, I followed the standard art-book advice about limiting the palette to between 8 and 12 pigments. The rationale behind that suggestion seems to be two-fold: first, it's easier to manage fewer colors, and second, with a limited palette you can still mix every color you see. I suspect it's also a hangover from the 19th century, when chemistry simply had not provided the spectacular range of stable pigments now available to us.

I do have some sympathy with the first part of that argument. Particularly for newcomers, mixing paint is difficult and intimidating, and the greater the number of choices, the greater the confusion. Given that, I would even tend to agree with those teachers who start beginners off with monochromatic paintings... at least there the student is having to study the values very carefully, without the agony of trying to mix the proper color.

I have a lot more trouble with the claim that you can mix any color you need with a palette of 8 to 12 paints. A more accurate statement is that you can kinda-sorta-approximately-get-it-in-the-ballpark with a restricted selection. Anybody who carefully looks around on a bright summer day will quickly see that there is an endless variety of green in front of them; mixtures of viridian, cadmium yellow, and cobalt or ultramarine blue will only crudely reflect the reality of this spectrum. I was recently struggling to mix a specific turquoise color. I tried forcing a mixture out of of all the blues and and some of the greens I had: cobalt blue, cobalt green, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, phthalo turquoise (misleading name!), phthalo green, prussian blue, viridian... even experimenting with differing amounts of zinc, titanium, and lead whites. I just could not get what I needed. I finally went out and bought Gamblin's cobalt teal and was able to get pretty darned close. Many, many, many colors simply cannot be accurately created from combinations of the typical dozen basic pigments these books suggest.

Rough approximations of color are perfectly appropriate to certain plein air and impressionist styles of painting, for instance. However, with the more strictly realist approach I follow, the goal is to produce color notes that are as accurate as observation allows... and this means a larger palette. I once attended a talk by Ted Seth Jacobs in which he stated that a range of 25 pigments seems to be the low threshold to allow artists to begin to capture true color.

A few words about mono-pigments vs. convenience mixtures and hues... mono-pigments are just paints that have only one pigment in the tube; for instance cadmium red or cobalt blue. These are attractive because they're typically very crisp tones, and with some experience, the artist will become very familiar with the behavior of that pigment in combination with others. Most of my paints are mono-pigments. Convenience mixtures are paints where the manufacturer has pre-mixed other pigments, providing an easier starting point for the artist. Cadmium green is a very common example; it's always a combination of cadmium yellow and a strong green or blue; usually a phthalo. I know some artists look at the use of these mixtures as a sign of laziness, but I don't. Like any other tool, they're just fine providing the limitations are understood; these mixtures often don't combine with other pigments as cleanly and crisply as mono-pigments. I do use a good number of convenience mixtures, but most of them are combinations I've made in large batches and tubed up myself. Hues are typically mixtures of cheaper pigments attempting to emulate more expensive ones - for instance a lot of manufactures have hues designed to replicate the pricier cadmium colors. I don't care for hues, since they lack the very properties that make the more expensive paints worth their price. The one exception I currently use is Gamblin's manganese blue hue. Manganese blue is a gorgeous color which is unfortunately no longer made as a raw pigment. A couple of paint manufacturers did purchase the last stocks. As far as I know Old Holland is the only one that offers it in oil, but it seems to be an inferior quality batch of the pigment; it's frankly kind of muddy and ugly. The Gamblin hue is a distinct phthalo blue formulation - different from the standard phthalo blue. It's crisp, clean, and beautiful; I've since put the Old Holland authentic tube back in my Dead Paint Box and only use the hue.

Manufacturers... I like some more than others, but I don't have one particular favorite and am always open to trying new lines. Of course, it's very important to select the "artist's" series; most manufacturers also offer a line of student or academy paints, which contain a high percentage of fillers and are not suitable for professional work. These are the brands I'm currently using, in no order: Michael Harding, Gamblin, Holbein, Old Holland, Utrecht, Blockx, Rembrandt, Sennelier, Winsor Newton, Daler Rowney, Graham, Grumbacher, Williamsburg. Michael Harding and Williamsburg both make absolutely superb paint, and being the smallest manufacturers in this list, I think are worthy of particular support.

In addition to the colored paints, I also use a series of 9 neutral greys graded to the Munsell scale. These are really invaluable both for my underpaintings, and also in controlling the saturation (intensity) of my colors. This was inspired by my friend Stuart Dunkel, who used to manufacture and sell complete sets of Munsell greys. Unfortunately, he no longer does, so I had to mix and tube the range myself... an easy afternoon of effort.

Toxicity... I'm not a physician or scientist, and presume to offer advice to nobody... but... I personally think there's a lot of overblown and exaggerated concern about the safety of oil painting materials. It largely seems to stem from a certain paint manufacturer, who (although he makes paint that I like very much) seems to be shamelessly fanning this paranoia in order to sell his line of "studio safety" products. Yes. Certain common sense precautions should be taken. I don't eat, drink, snort, smoke, or shoot any of my paints or other materials. I had a decent ventilation system installed in my studio. I usually wear a pair of rubber gloves when I wipe down my palette at the end of the day. I always properly dispose of oily rags. Again, I'm only speaking for myself, but I freely use lead, cadmium, and cobalt paints along with turpentine when needed, and I'm much more concerned about my diet and lack of exercise than about my exposure to studio poisons. 'Nuff said...

There's a lot of good information about pigments, paints, and color theory online, and there are also a lot of artists who write descriptive pages like this one. For me, however, by far the most useful resource is the amazing Handprint site. Though Bruce MacEvoy is a watercolorist, and gears his discussions to that medium, there's a fantastic amount of information that's applicable to pigments in any media, including oil. I've rarely had a question that I haven't had answered there, and color geeks like myself will probably lose hours scrolling through it.

Most days, I squeeze out almost all of the colors, which takes about 30 minutes. In a typical painting, I probably end up using 80-90% of what's squeezed out, since the mixtures end up getting fairly complex. In other words, most of my paintings have 50 or so colors in combination.

Finally... the list, in the order of placement on my palette. Manufacturers are noted in the case of a convenience mixtures. Most but not all appear in the above image.

Red family:
pale red (my own mixture)
pale pink (my own mixture)
brilliant pink (holbein)
red grey (my own mixture)
chinese vermilion (I may soon remove this)
cadmium red light
cadmium red medium
cadmium red deep
quinacridone red
permanent alizarin (gamblin)
english red
burnt sienna
burnt umber
raw umber

Yellow family:
nickel yellow
naples yellow
pale yellow (my own mixture)
yellow-grey (my own mixture)
cadmium yellow light
cadmium yellow medium
cadmium yellow deep
indian yellow
coral red (holbein)
cadmium orange
transparent orange (gamblin)
transparent gold ochre (gamblin)
yellow ochre
transparent oxide yellow
raw sienna

Green family:
pale green (my own mixture)
green grey (my own mixture)
cadmium green (my own mixture)
emerald green (daler rowney)
chromium oxide
terra verte
cobalt green
phthalo green
ultramarine green (unusual mono-pigment from rembrandt: pg24)

Blue family:
very pale blue (my own mixture)
pale blue (my own mixture)
blue grey (holbein)
royal blue (rembrandt)
cobalt teal
cobalt blue
ultramarine blue
manganese blue hue (gamblin)
phthalo turquoise (gamblin)
phthalo blue
prussian blue

Violet family:
violet grey (holbein)
cobalt violet
thio violet (unusual mono-pigment from grumbacher: pr122)
permanent madder deep (unusual mono-pigment from rembrandt: pr264)
manganese violet
ultramarine violet
dioxazine purple

Whites, Greys, Blacks:
lead white
zinc white
titanium white
set of 9 neutral greys keyed to the munsell scale (my own mixtures)
palette scraping (a mixture of all the unused pigment at the end of the day - odd but sometimes useful)
payne's grey (rembrandt)
lamp black
mars black

So there you have it. This was certainly more than I intended to write when I sat down. Hopefully anybody who's bothered to slog through to the end has found something of use or interest.


I should be painting...

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