Saturday, September 11, 2010

A limited palette for reserved color

Corot; courtesy of

Dear Stape...

After trying the experiment with using the limited earth palette for landscapes, I went back to using "normal" color.
But, I am finding more and more that using a full palette tends to produce garish color. You've seen my work, I'm not talking about
carnival like pigments, but compared to museum works, like the Corot you just posted, they look too bright, too literal or something.
The earth palette is very restrictive.. I'd like to be able to expand on a few colors, but still keep that muted, understated color that is so lovely. Is the key to stay away from cadmiums? signed; Olive Drab

Dear Olive;

That's a hard question. But I will try to throw an answer at it. The deep answer is if you want to paint in the reserved colors like the old paintings in the museums you will have to paint in the colors like the bold paintings in museums. By this I mean that setting your palette with earth colors and limiting modern pigments can get you there sometimes, the real answer is more in your color choices than in the paint. I have seen Emile Gruppe paintings done with pthalo and the cadmiums that look like they were painted in old master colors, so it can be done by deciding to use that sort of color and doing it.

You can force yourself to paint in a far more "old timey" color by limiting the colors on your palette, I have done a number of paintings using reduced earth color palettes and it sounds like you have done some too. Here is a possible palette.
  • Yellow ocher, or gold ocher
  • Burnt sienna
  • Ivory Black, or blue black
  • Indian red
  • Vermilion, well not real vermilion but a vermilion colored equivalent, probably not cadmium red. A permanent red from Rermbrandt or Sennelier would fit here. Most of the manufacturers make a warm red like this.
  • Alizarin crimson (permanent)
  • Ultramarine, or Prussian blue, This is to be used in very limited quantities.
  • Possibly viridian, or chromium oxide
  • White Your choice which, but flake (lead) white would be best. However most artists don't like to use that because of it's toxicity so Titanium will probably be your choice.
It is possible to maintain a very restrained look using the earth colors and then "decorating" key areas of the painting with more assertive colors.You might consider premixing a handful of colors on your palette while looking at a Corot or other old painting you like. Then trying to make the painting mostly using those.


Todd Bonita said...

I took a class that had us paint with just earth colors and I loved it...I felt the color choices were harmonized and the color decisions not as complex as if I were using a prismatic pallet. Good stuff but not for everyone in terms of the look of the finished work.

By-the-way Stape, I went to the Whistler museum in Lowell yesterday and saw three Aldro Hibbard figure paintings...they were stunning and extremely accomplished as you could imagine. I know you are a fan of his work and wondered if you had seen them.

Karla said...

I'm glad you said something about whites. I was going to ask this. I like using Flake White. Just how dangerous is it if you don't eat it? I have used Titanium White and don't care for the spongy way it dries. said...

Like Stapleton I also believe that the problem is in the color mixing and choices, not the pigments. While I choose to be very modern in my color choices and mixing, I know that one can mix olde timey looking colors even with cads, one of the tricks is to see that neutralizing a color doesn't men you have to turn it to grey there is a long scale there and you can cut any color 's sharpness and " garishness".

For instance, a little cad orange in pthylo , touch of white can give you a beautifully soften blue.

George Perdue said...

Regarding Flake White, try Gamblin's Flake White Replacement. It is lead free. You can read about it on the Gamblin web site. Let us know what you think of it. I am trying it and I know of some others who find it pretty good.

Simone said...

Stape, I am very passionate about this subject so if I may throw my two cents in....

Good color, the kind of color in which strength comes from reserve, is a product of highly developed and sensitive powers of observation as much as from the chosen palette and the ability to mix. Painting from a palette limited to the three primaries can be a valuable training aid. Ultramarine blue, permanent bright red and cad lemon will work just fine. Such a discipline will force you to do a better job with value control as well as painting relationships rather than matching tone for tone. Try it for six months. In time you may or may not decide to expand the number of colors on the palette. If you do expand you will know exactly why you are adding a specific color. You may, on the other hand decide less is more. Either way the three color palette is a good path to growth.

Also when observing color avoid staring directly into the area. Keep your eyes moving, turn your head upside down, look out of your peripheral vision. If you still paint too bright make a conscious effort to understate color. A good sense of reserve can be learned but takes a concerted effort.

To keys to incorporating a change in your color sense are good value and that concerted effort over time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Did they still have the great landscapes?. I think I saw one of theirs go to auction a few years ago.They had several very good ones.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will do a blog post on that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I do however sometimes paint in only earth colors.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have never used that, but I am not dissatisfied by, or frightened of flake white.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is good advice. I often recommend students work on a three color palette for a while to build their color skills.

Todd Bonita said...

Hi Stape,
Yeah, regarding the Hibbards, they had three landscapes. One was a winter stream with extraordinary brushwork in the water that gave it the feeling of movement which contrasted the broader stiller) brushwork in the neighboring snowy field. There was another winter scene with a horse drawn wagon carrying lumber...I'm guessing the wagon was from memory...really nice works.