My Palette

There is a "programming note" at the bottom of this post regarding one potential blogging project I have in mind. If you'd like to weigh in but skip the technical discussion, please scroll down to the last paragraph.

People often ask me about the palette I use, so several years ago I wrote an in-depth blog post about it. Rather than just continuing to refer readers back to the older article, I thought it would be good to update it and talk about my current color usage.

I use a lot of colors... there are currently 65 individual paints on my regular palette, and about a dozen others that I use infrequently.

That wasn't always so; when I began painting, I followed the typical advice of using a limited palette of between 8 and 12 pigments. There are sound reasons for doing this. The world's museums are full of masterpieces created with such a palette. Before the advances in modern chemistry, there simply weren't all that many colors available; artists were by necessity restricted. There's also a good argument for beginners using a smaller selection; too many choices are simply overwhelming for novices. Furthermore, small palettes make it much easier to achieve a harmonious color scheme.

This approach worked well for me, particularly when I was doing a lot of plein air landscape painting (and for my watercolor sketches, I still follow it). However, as my main work moved towards realist still life, I started to realize its limitations. While it it true that red plus blue will yield purple, in reality, there are many, many variations of purple that an artist might wish to capture - there's a broad range of temperatures, transparencies, and strengths. In short, purple is never just purple. Of the 5 violets I regularly use (plus 2 others in reserve for special uses), each has very different characteristics. Also, mixtures that use fewer pigments tend to be clearer than those to use more. For instance, if I need to mix a purple plus a green, I could in reality be using as many as 4 different base pigments if I first need to mix the purple and green individually. This will most likely result in a dirty color. However, if I begin with the correct green and purple monopigments (paints that use just one pigment), I will only be using 2 base pigments, and my mixture has a greater chance of being clean and clear.

I once heard a talk by Ted Seth Jacobs where he said that a minimum of 25 pigments was required to start truly capturing natural color and light effects. That does seem to be a magic number; with 25 well-chosen paints, an artist is equipped with a powerful and flexible array of color. That number is a lower threshold, there is of course no reason to stop there if one is so inclined.

Another advantage of broadening the palette is the inclusion of convenience mixtures. These are paints that mix frequently used pigments serving as a base for fine-tuned mixtures. There are some artists who look down on their use, viewing them as a crutch. I'm personally not averse to using any crutch, as long as its strengths and limitations are fully understood. In general, I would recommend that artists prepare their own convenience mixtures. That way they will know exactly what it contains, and what it's mixing and handling properties will be. They will also be creating mixtures based on their own personal usages. Of the 65 paints I use daily, about 20% of them are convenience mixtures; most of which I've prepared myself.

In addition to the colored paints, I also use a series of 5 neutral greys very loosely graded to the spirit of 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 9 Munsell greys. Unfortunately, he no longer does, so I had to mix and tube them myself. It was an easy job that only took me an hour or so.

I always lay out my entire regular palette, regardless of whether I'm likely to use a particular color for the current painting; it's just easier that way (I don't normally squeeze out the rarely-used paints, though they are close by if required). To set up the palette, I squeeze a very small amount (called a nut) of each paint onto the wood. Into each nut I then mix a few drops of clove and poppy oil. These slow the drying time of the paint, and improve the handling characteristics. This does take me about 45 minutes, but the result is a palette of paints at exactly the right buttery consistency, that are a real pleasure to work with. The only other medium I ever use is a very thin layer of linseed oil applied directly to the support before I apply paint (this is called "painting into the couch"). When paint needs to be diluted, I only use spike oil. I now purchase all of my oils from Natural Pigments, which is a wonderful source for hard-to-find artists' supplies.

About the physical palette itself, which you can see it in the above image: It's a simple piece of construction-grade plywood, about 10 x 24 inches. After cutting it to size, I sanded it well and applied several coats of linseed oil. I've used this particular palette for about 5 years now. Strictly speaking, the pronounced grain of the wood can be a very slight distraction while mixing, so I have from time to time thought about replacing it. However, over the years, it's developed a deep rich patina, and it's actually a real pleasure for me to mix color on it. I'll be keeping it for the foreseeable future.

As far as paint 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; some manufacturers also offer a line of student-grade paints, which contain a high percentage of waxes and other 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, Lukas, Da Vinci, Graham, Grumbacher, and Williamsburg. Michael Harding and Williamsburg both make absolutely superb paint, and being small manufacturers, I think are worthy of particular support.

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 learned a great deal by spending time at his site.

Finally, if one adopts this approach, I feel it's very important (and exciting) to continuously experiment with new colors. For instance, within the last few months I added metallic colors to my regular palette - Winsor & Newton silver, gold, and renaissance gold (though I may eventually drop the latter). Like any special effect, they could very easily be over-used, so I'm very conscious of that. But, when a certain type of glint is required, they're perfect for the job. For the future, there are a number of earth and traditional paints I'd like to explore offered by Da Vinci and Natural Pigments.

Here is the listing of my regular individual colors in the order of placement on my palette, as seen in the above image. For convenience mixtures and unusual pigments, I've included the manufacturer I use. There is also a list of rarely-used paints.

Red family:
pale pink (my own mixture)
brilliant pink (Holbein)
red grey (my own mixture)
cadmium red medium
pyrolle red
quinacridone red
permanent alizarin (Gamblin)
caput mortum (Sennelier)
venetian red
burnt sienna
burnt umber
Van Dyke brown (Gamblin)

Yellow family:
naples yellow light
nickel yellow
pale yellow (my own mixture)
yellow-grey (my own mixture)
yellow lake
cadmium yellow lemon
cadmium yellow medium
cadmium yellow deep
indian yellow
transparent gold ochre (Gamblin)
yellow ochre
transparent oxide yellow
raw sienna

Orange Family:
coral red (Holbein)
cadmium orange
permanent orange (Lukas)
transparent orange (Gamblin)

renaissance gold

Green family:
green grey (my own mixture)
cadmium green (my own mixture)
emerald green (Daler Rowney)
chromium oxide
cobalt green
terra verte
phthalo green
ultramarine green (a rarely-seen monopigment from Rembrandt: pg24)

Blue family:
royal blue (my own mixture)
cobalt teal
manganese blue hue (Gamblin)
cobalt blue
lapis lazuli genuine
ultramarine blue
phthalo turquoise
phthalo blue
prussian blue

Violet family:
radiant violet (Gamblin)
permanent madder deep (a rarely-seen monopigment from Rembrandt: pr264)
manganese violet
ultramarine violet
dioxazine purple

Whites, Greys, Blacks:
titanium white
set of 5 neutral greys very loosely keyed to the munsell scale (my own mixtures)
payne's grey (Rembrandt)
lamp black

Rarely-used pigments:
pale red (my own mixture)
chinese vermilion genuine
cadmium red light
cadmium red deep
raw umber
Turkey umber (Williamsburg)
cadmium yellow light
pale green (my own mixture)
very pale blue (my own mixture)
pale blue (my own mixture)
blue grey (Holbein)
cobalt violet
thio violet (a rarely-seen monopigment from Grumbacher: pr122)
lead white
zinc white
mars black

So that is the overview of my palette. One thing I've considered is doing a more detailed discussion of the characteristics and usages of each individual pigment. To keep things manageable (and not turn off readers with too-frequent technical discussions!), I'd probably write these on a once-a-week basis. Would you all find this useful? We're all in it together, so if you're interested in seeing this, I can take it up as an ongoing project. Let me know in the comments section. Thanks!

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