Color Overload

Simplifying My Palette!

Over the years I have amassed a collection of paints with a dizzying array of color choices. Increasingly I find this to be a distraction. Most artists have been told, or heard, that painting with a limited palette, especially when you start, brings great benefits as it forces you to observe closely and learn color mixing. Many experienced artists stick to a limited palette, sometimes as limited as one each of the three primaries (Red, Yellow, Blue) and white and black. A greater number choose to use a warm and a cool hue of each of the primaries.

I find I have come to rely too much on handy color choices that allow me to be lazy. One of the downfalls of having too many color choices is a loss of harmony. Not all color hues mix well or work well together. Relying on a new color can actually disrupt the rest of the painting. Not to mention the difficulty of keeping all those different colors stocked and on your palette.

So I am choosing to pare back the number of colors I rely on in different situations. I still don’t plan to go minimalist, and I have a few colors I have come to rely on and know their properties well, but I intend to use a fixed base palette of just a six colors, plus white and a deep grey, and a few earth tones. I will augment this with some reserve colors for when the situation calls for something not easily mixed from the base palette.

Choosing which two reds to use on my base palette was the hardest choice. I have tried so many reds I can’t keep track of them all. So limiting reds to two, a warm and a cool, was a difficult challenge. In order to tackle it I created a color chart using several reds and some of the possible yellows I planned to choose from. The image below shows some of this process.

Mixing Reds with various yellows (and two tints)

I have chosen Quinachridone Red Rose for my cool red. It mixes nicely with many yellows to give a strong orange, and nice purply-pink when lightened with white. For my warm red I have chosen Napthol Red, which is a strong tinting red. Both are semi-transparent. The choice of Napthol Red is in place of Cadmium Red, which is more opaque, but I hope to, over time, move away from the Cadmiums due to their health properties.

Base Palette
So here is my “Basic” palette.

Quinachridone Red Rose (cool red)
Napthol Red (warm red)

Cadmium Lemon (cool yellow)
Cadmium Yellow Deep (warm red)

Ultramarine Blue (warm blue)
Cerulean Blue (cool blue, situationally replaced with Cobalt Blue)

Base Palette

Added to the based palette of a warm and a cool primary color I have chosen an ‘earth tone’ color for each color group.

Burnt Sienna – this gives me a nice red-leaning shade that will mix well to create some good earthy browns and tone down some of the other reds.

Yellow Ochre – is a versatile yellow that I use a lot when mixing greens. When mixed with reds it also creates the nice rusty oranges that dominate the autumn landscape here in Vermont.

Paynes Grey – which is the closest color I have to black, has a dark blue undertone and is almost always my starting color for mixing my greens.

Olive Green – for a long time I did not have a green on my palette as I choose to mix my own from my other colors. However I have found this Olive Green from Winsor and Newton to be a versatile dark green that is very close to the greens in the landscape right out of the tube and that I can push in different directions. I can also mix it with red for a rich, warm dark color.

Raw Umber – I don’t know of anyone, unless they limit themselves to just three colors, that does not have Raw Umber on their palette. A versatile deep, opaque brown it is great for sketching on the canvas, bringing the tone down in ultramarine blue, and mixing neutral colors and grey. Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue is my go-to mix for a deep black color.

Earth Tones

Those 11 colors above, and white, are the ones I plan to rely on for the bulk of my painting, and will be the only ones I take with me when painting en-plein-air. However there are some colors which I have come to love in certain situations. These are my “Extended” or “Supplemental Palette”. These are not so much necessary colors as ones that are really nice to have in certain situations.

Continue reading “Color Overload”

Switching to Oils (part 1)

Recently I decided to give oil paints a try. I thought it worth sharing some of my experience and frustrations with the medium. I’ve been working in acrylics exclusively the past few years. And even though I painted using oils in my late teens – that was a long time ago and I don’t remember any of it.

I haven’t actually switched to oils 100% but I want to be able to work in both mediums as the situation and mood demands. So I picked up some Windsor & Newton Water Mixable Oil paints and mediums (water mixable thinner and Liquin) and have been doing a few paintings to get a feel for them.

Coming from acrylics there are some basic things that make oils a challenge. First, the dry times. Since oils take much longer to dry, the approach to a painting has to be different. Unless you paint wet-into-wet with acrylics and use a medium or acrylic paint that stays “open” or wet longer, then you have to rethink your approach to a painting. Instead of layering and correcting colors, values, etc. all in one sitting as you can easily do with acrylics, you have to either scrape off your mistakes, wait a long time between layers, or get very good at painting thin layers that you can then carefully apply a thicker layer over in oils. The challenge is that your paint will readily mix since it stays wet. So careful planning, accurate mixing of your colors, and precise brushwork become more important when using oils.

I will probably anger some acrylic artists with this next statement, but I almost feel that working in oils forces you to be, if not a better artist, a more careful one, than working in acrylics. I know it depends on your style of painting, but in general you will want to have more control over your paint and its application when working in oils, at least working in the “alla prima” (all in one sitting) method. Certainly if you wish to develop a painting slowly over time in layers you can do that in oils, just like with acrylics but over a longer timespan. You have to develop patience. With acrylics I like that I can paint whenever I am in the zone and keep painting for as long as I want. Oils force you to take more time.

Continue reading “Switching to Oils (part 1)”

Painting Luminous Trees

I recently received a question on how I painted some trees in the painting you see below. So I thought I would walk through this painting to illustrate how I went about getting the luminous quality of the backlit tree which is the focal point.


To start with, since the whole purpose of the painting was to capture that moment when light hits this group of trees creating a backlit glow, I thought about how best to capture that effect using paint. The three things I knew would help in this were the concept of simultaneous contrast (the effects of two colors next to each other), contrast (light and dark) and saturation.

But before working out those details I knew I wanted to start with a colored ground for my canvas, using a color that would enhance the vividness of the orange tree. So I chose to cover my canvas with a combination of Cadmium Red Light and Burnet Umber. I could have chosen to use Yellow Ochre, but I wanted the red ground to add some energy to the hills and greens so I went with this choice. I knew the orange/yellows on top would pick up some of the undying redness and energy of the ground anywhere it peaked through and would maintain its brightness on top of it. Continue reading “Painting Luminous Trees”

Bluebirds & Dogwood (in 12 steps)

Here is a breakdown of how I approached my latest painting. The painting itself was a request, and for guidance I had an idea of the color palette and that it should be calming. I also knew it should be fairly large, and in landscape orientation. So I first drew a number of sketches, to get a general idea of the composition. Then it was time to paint. I chose a 15″ x 30″ canvas and paint the edges (1 1/4 inch deep)

Step 1: Blocking in the background.
For the background the initial step was just to get color on the canvas. You can see in the photo below that first I blocked in a lot of color in the general color family I wanted for the final result, but without worrying at all how it looked. The photo below shows the end of that block in and the start of step 2.

Step 1: Background Block-In


Step 2: Working the background for atmospheric effect.
For this step I worked with the same color palette I used for the blocking in of the background, but now started applying final color in blotches using a 1″semi-soft synthetic brush that let me blend the splotches as I went. As I worked I would adjust the colors, lighten some areas, and go back over areas to soften or adjust the colors and values. I kept my sketch handy to inform me where I would be putting elements on the canvas so that the background would compliment the focal points. I keep the corners darker and light in the center to draw attention to the middle of the painting and keep attention from leaving at the edges. Continue reading “Bluebirds & Dogwood (in 12 steps)”

Finding Your “Style”

About a year ago I was slightly obsessed with figuring out what my “Style” was. I had read that to be successful it was important to develop a unique style. An artist that is recognizable by their style of painting is, so they say, worth more, since buyers know what they are buying and what they can expect from that artist in the future. At least I think that’s the theory. Wikipedia states it like this: “The identification of individual styles is especially important in the attribution of works to artists, which is a dominant factor in their valuation for the art market, above all for works in the Western tradition since the Renaissance.”

Regardless, I was struggling to figure out what my “Style” of painting was, or should be. Should I paint in an Impressionist style, like Monet? A realist, or photo-realisitic (or hyper-realistic) style? Something in between? And how would I stand out? What would set me apart from the thousands of others painting in the same artistic space? Continue reading “Finding Your “Style””