Monday, March 21, 2011

A question about three color palettes

baby animal

Here is a a letter from a reader;

Hey Stape -

After years of using a palette full of colors, I am going the limited route. I have experimented with a variety of triads and wondered if there are triads that you find to be most "harmonious," for lack of a better word. I have used the Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow triad and am now playing around with Alizarin, Pthalo Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Light. I enjoy mixing greens and would love your advice on that issue as well. As for my darks (particularly dark space) I use a mixture of Sap and Alizarin - in addition to the triad.
Thank you for your gracious and generous help!...........................Rodney Achromatopsia


There are a lot of three color palettes, If I had to choose just one it would be Cadmium yellow light, alizarin permanent (quinacridone) and cobalt blue. Painting in a three color palette is a great way to develop your color technical skills. It also means you are dragging less stuff around with you. Matching a new note to one already on the canvas is easy too, because there are only a few color choices you can make. You will get great color harmony, but you lose some things as well.

I have also painted with earth color three color palettes. You don't hear much about those, but I have had some good days working in those. An example of that would be yellow ocher, ivory black and an earth red.

Mixing greens would seem pretty obvious as there are so few choices you can make. Yellow plus your blue, usually doctored up with your red.You may not be able to get anywhere near the actual greens in front of you, but that matters less than you might think, the harmony of your colors will make the greens seem correct,USUALLY.

I would suggest caution with adding that sap green and alizarin mixture to get your darks, after all, the beauty of the three color palette is the color harmony it automatically installs in your painting adding that sap green will probably compromise that. Sap green used to be made with buckthorn berries, today it is a hue, and can be almost any shade of yellow green, and is generally mad with pthalo. Unless you already have pthalo in your palette, I think that is a recipe for disharmony.

Working in a three color palette is excellent for learning to mix up your colors chromatically and as I mentioned before gives great color harmony. But it also brings some problems.They are;
  • Unless you are very careful you will end up with a lot of pictures that are the same color. You want to watch that if you are doing a show.
  • When I am working on a larger palette I have the ability to use different pigments to paint my lights than I use to paint my shadows, that's handy. If you are on a three color palette you are going to paint the light and the shadow with the same colors. For instance, if I am painting a red barn with a full palette I can paint the lights with cad red and the shadows with alizarin, if I am using a three color palette I am going to paint my lights with cad red and my shadows with cad red plus my blue or my yellow, but the same red note must appear in both.
  • I have far better control of my color temperature if I have a warm and a cool version of each hue.
  • A famous palette called the Zorn palette, after an artist who probably didn't use it, substitutes Ivory black for the blue.
  • I think a cool red is best if you only have one, rather than a hot red like the cadmium red light, unless you are Zornizing, in which case I suggest what ever red is closest to vermilion in color that you can find. I am painting figures one night a week and doing that with gold ocher, vermilion ( a hue, made by RGH), and ivory black. Real vermilion is too poisonous and the hue I am using works pretty well.


Karla said...

Great question and answer. As far as the reader's question about mixing greens, I saved this post in my "best of the best" file. A VERY helpful post.

Plein Air Gal said...

I agree with Karla - great question, great answer! Just wondering ... is that Toast as a kitten or a generic kitty?

jeff said...

Stape good article on limited palettes. I do agree that it's a good way to learn to paint and mix. However I'm more inclined to use a larger palette of high chroma and low chroma paints such as Cad Red Light and Persian Red.

I like how you mentioned the “Zorn” palette which I don't think he used as much as people now claim he did.
Also I think that Ivory Black in Zorn' day was a lot bluer than what we use now. I've experimented with mixing up blue/blacks and I've noticed that if one is going to use a Zorn palette the addition of Ultramarine Blue to the Ivory black seems to be a good idea. I tubed a small batch up to experiment with.
There seems to be a kind of fetish with this small palette thing. I'm not sure why.

If you're looking for a good Cadmium Vermilion Blue Ridge Oil Paint makes a real nice one that is very reasonably priced at $20 for 40ml tube.

Libby Fife said...

Another great post! I am glad that I learned about this early on when I started painting. I need fewer choices and better, more basic skills so a limited palette works for me. As you suggested, I use a warm and cool version of each color. I am also a palette junkie in that I love reading about what other painters select in the way of colors. Thanks too for pointing out the pitfalls-a balance of pros and cons always makes me happy:)

Thanks again.

willek said...

It seems to me, that in instances where a certain color light is flooding the scene, selecting a pallette in which all colors bend toward that lightcolor makes sense and helps insure a color harmony. This seems to happen on bright cloudless mid-days, and under periods of waning or beginning daylight and night scenes. I think our eyes and brain tend to eliminate the flood of colors in a scene and return to us the local colors unless we trick or train ourselves into seeing what is actually there.

Anonymous said...

I recently tried to mix something which looked like W&N Yellow Ochre Pale from W&N Bright Red, W&N Chrome Yellow, titanium white, and ivory black. I was able to get almost an exact match, except my concoction wasn't as opaque as Yellow Ochre Pale (which is actually a Mars Yellow).

W&N Yellow Ochre Pale (as well as W&N Burnt Sienna) seem like such useful colors, and inexpensive as well (they are series 1 colors). It seems a shame to give them up in order to be more pure (or whatever is the alleged benefit of not using earth colors).

Richard said...

Hey, Stape, genuine Vermillion, which contains arsenic and antimony, is very dangerous to those who make it predominately because of the vapors. It is not anywhere near as dangerous to use if you don't swallow it somehow.


JonInFrance said...

I like earth colors. I've got a problem in the painting I'm doing with sunlit foliage versus shadowed foliage....

Deb said...

well, you've pretty much said it.
Limited palette can give great color harmony, but you have greater ability to control the color of light and shadow with at least a warm and cool version of each color.
So since I can't add anything new, here's a cat video:

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MCG said...

Thank you for the baby animal. You always keep your promises.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Plein air:
Not toast, a generic kitty!It is a Maine coon cat though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeff I have experimented with cooling ivory black.I have also used Indigo.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I use a three color palette for figures and limited time. Outdoors I always use a big palette.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You know, I think you are right!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I always have earth colors. They are so stable and reliable. I also like the old timey look they give.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Vermilion is mercuric sulphide. I think it will actually go through your skin, but I am not sure. I am, happy with a hue.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Send me a picture of that problem!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will go and look at that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tell that to my creditors!

willek said...

There must be some mistake. you did not read my post completely... I am NEVER right...

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Color Palettes