Saturday, June 27, 2009

A few words about three color palettes and then about light

Anders Zorn, 1869-1920 image artrenewal. org

I intend to spend some time writing about getting light in paintings. I posted an Anders Zorn yesterday and it prompted the question of what I thought of Zorn and the Zorn palette. Zorn used a limited palette and that is often described as a vermilion, ocher and black. I know that a lot of blue paint along with the equivalent of several million dollars in cash was found in his studio upon his death. Notice how in the painting above Zorn uses his darks to contrast with and activate his lights. Without those dark pilings this painting wouldn't light up the way it does. He has scattered dark accents about to make the lights go.

I am someone who uses reduced palettes and large palettes both. I think a Zorn palette is great for figures I think it is pretty narrow for painting sunlit landscape, particularly if that landscape has much green in it. I think if you want a reduced palette in the summer Ultramarine is a better choice than the black.

The limited palette has gotten to be sort of an artistic fad in recent years. I have seen shows that have a whole roomful of paintings that are in the same color scheme. If you work in a three color palette you have to watch out for that. I am going to show some reasons over the next few days that having a broader palette can come in handy in the depiction of light.

I would suggest for most painters that a palette with a warm and a cool version of each of the three primaries plus white is a better choice. I have a larger palette that that but as I have pointed out it has a smaller three color palette within it. And a smaller earth color palette with black as the blue also. I am quite capable of using only part of my palette . Here is a story of my time painting with a restricted palette. I went back into the blog and grabbed this and painted it here ,so if you have read it before, bear with me.

There are limited palettes that theoretically will make any color. You get a red, a yellow and a blue. I suppose in theory that is true. However in practice you can get a whole lot more colors with a broader palette .This is the downside of a limited palette, you can approximate a lot of colors but you cant get as close as you can with more. The narrow palette does give you nice color harmony though. There are degrees of "matching" a color. If something in the landscape is redder for instance than your red, there is nothing on your palette that you can add to make your painting red enough. Here's a story to illustrate that.

It must have been close to 20 years ago I was living in Maine. It was late autumn and that was a beautiful time to paint outside there. My wife, the keeper of schedules told me that if I was going to have a piece to put before the National Academies' biennial jury for that year, I would have to make it now as the deadline was approaching.

I had been in that show once several years before and made a point of going down to New York to see it. Walking around I realized that the only way I was going to get another painting in the show was to do again what I had unwittingly done the first time. That was to make something truly weird. The jury was mostly modern guys and it looked to me that they would accept a traditional painting, but only if it had a bit of the outrageous to it. I became really sure of that as I stood before a giant painting of a dead bride. If you want to put traditional painting by a "modern" jury, ain't nothin like a dead bride.

My old friend and painting buddy Stefan Pastuhov and I knew exactly where to find strange landscape in autumn in Maine. We set up in the blueberry barrens. The blueberry barrens are about as odd a place as you could imagine. The scrubby plants cover the ground about a foot high and in the fall they turn a bright crimson color. There are a few tufts of grass and the occasional white birch but otherwise there is nothing but the red barrens, rocks and the sky. These barrens are on the tops of bare windswept hills and often cover enormous areas. Scattered about are strangely shaped rocks from the size of refrigerators to the size of small houses that were left there by retreating glaciers. It is like going painting on the moon. Unless you have actually been in a blueberry barren in the fall its hard to believe such a place really exists when you see a painting of one.

So I am set up and working away. I am using a three color palette that I fooled with for about a year. It was cadmium yellow light, cobalt blue and genuine rose madder. It cost a fortune to paint with, but I got a cool look as the cadmium and the cobalt were such clear and clean colors and rose madder has that warm glow and is transparent. Either way I just could not get the color of those bushes. I muttered and fought with it until finally Stefan came over and added alizirin and some cadmium red to my palette. I was immediately able to hit the color. Stefan explained to me that I was an idiot and he may have been right. He explained that he had worked as a carpenter and would never have tried to do a job without the proper tools .

I was able to finish the painting and it was just as weird as could be. It had a pretty good design and to make it even a little stranger it was a 26x29. Not quite square, but almost.The painting did go by the jury . It may have been the oddest painting I ever made. Although it had nothing on the dead bride.

Enough of that, I came here tonight to begin a discussion of light and I intend to start that now. A painting that has light in it will almost always look professional. People love effects based on light.If you want to make a living painting, you need to learn to get light in your paintings. There is nothing that makes a painting deader than no light. There are really two major kinds of light in a painting. The first is when the light is inside the canvas, that's what happens in luminism and in many tonalist paintings. Putting the source of the light within then canvas backlights the landscape and makes the light seem to emanate from within the canvas. Here's one now.

The other kind of light is of course from outside of the canvas. This is a more common "effect" in
landscape painting today. Most luminist and tonalist painting is done in the studio.

Above is a Sargent which is illuminated from above and to the left. That tends to throw one side of objects into the light and one side into the shade. That gives a strong feeling of sunlight. In the next few posts it is this sort of lighting I will explore.


Gregory Becker said...

Good post. I cant wait to hear more.

willek said...

Again, all great stuff these past two days that is truly helpful. Zorn's Opal in the Worcester Art Museum is one of my all time favorite pictures. It certainly has blue in it. I would love to see yesterdays Zorn up close, too. I am also interested, when you are through with the side light discussion to hear more about the Luminist approach. The English David Curtis likes to paint back lit pictures and it seems to be a very effective approach. Not that you would do it every time. the hardest sun position to make something out of, for me, is with the sun to my back. It lights everything up and colors show up beautifully, but seems to flatten everything out so much that all is two dimensional. Rockwell, I was told used front light, but from his pictures I see he used front, top light a litle to the side, most of the time. His pictures don't lack form, that is for sure.

Rae O'Shea said...

My strabismus has lifted. I would like to see the painting of the blueberry barrens if you can post it-can't imagine you painting something truly weird. Why do you suppose so many artists deny using certain materials or methods. Do they really suppose it lessens the value of their work? said...

I'll weigh in on the side of a wide pallet. Even when I take a limited pallet out because of weight constraints, I come back wishing I had the color that I didn't take with me.

The Isabella Stuart Gardner museum has some very effective and beautiful Zorn paintings.They are some of my favorite paintings of all time. However, what I found most interesting was the collection of Zorn drawings, sketches and studies worked up from photographs. My guess is that his interest in photography informed his interest in etching. You can see the Zorn sketches (many with just blocked in values)in the collection of his drawings along with some of the photographs which inspired him. It made me wonder whether he was inspired to try a limited pallet because of his interests printmaking and photography.But clearly did not always use that limited pallet.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,I will have a new computer on line , maybe tomorrow and that will give me better ability to illustrate these posts again as I have been functioning without photoshop (express)

Stapleton Kearns said...


Limited palettes have their uses, regardless of what Zorn squeezed out. But, they have their drawbacks like any other tool. Which is what a palette is. I guess it is important to choose the right tool for the job. You wouldn't do surgery with a wire cutters.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I will post it but I am in a computer transition right now. In a week or som perhaps I can.
A lot of artists lie about using photographs or working out side when the are not. I think it comes from insecurity about their art. If you have to lie about how you make your art, you must worry about being caught. I have a policy, I will tell you anything about how I do what I do. Just ask. I am flattered that people want to know. I have no secret methods. Some artists imagine what they do is a sort of trick, and if others found out that trick they could do it too. I have more tricks than you can ask me about.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hadn't thought of that but you might be right.I have always known his etchings had photo references. I have a big book in Swedish on Zorn that shows the references and then reversed, the etchings. I still love them. I absolutely love Zorns nudes.

Unknown said...

Luminist/tonalist stuff seems so unnatural to me. It looks cool from a fantastical point of view, but you shouldn't be able to see that much detail staring into the sun, so I find it a bit divorced from reality.

I googled blueberry barrens. Very cool! The closest thing Southern California has to that is red tide.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I guess it is unnatural. However there can be other goals besides naturalism. For instance could I say that Fellini is not naturalistic, or Samuel Becket (waiting for Godot)? I recommend again the classic point of view by Kenyon Cox. We are overweighted today towards naturalism and at the expense off several other excellent models of thought.
The blueberry barrens are one of the strangest environments (outside of academia)that I have ever seen.

armandcabrera said...


Check out Dennis Miller Bunkers' early work, tonalist and simple.

Stapleton Kearns said...

R.H.Ives Gammell championed Bunker and wrote the first monograph on him in the late 60's. Bunker is someone after whom a lot of the training in the Fenway studios was modeled.
(he's an east coast guy!)

jeff said...

On a technical note I have read that in Zorn's day that Ivory black was a lot bluer than it is today which makes some sense in context to a palette using only Vermilion Yellow Ocher and Ivory Black.

I did some testing and mixed up some black samples with different mixes of Ultramarine blue and Cobalt.

I settled on a mix of 1/3 blue to 2/3's Ivory Black and this made a very good Blue/Black for landscape painting.

I also think the limited "Zorn" Palette is intended for painting flesh, which makes sense as you don't need a high chroma yellow for flesh tones.

I also like the idea of having the right tools for the job on hand.

Personally I have low and high chroma colors on my palette and find that this helps me.
I also have 3 or 4 blues when painting landscape. I might not put them out but there are times when Manganese or Cerulean blue is called for. The problem is these two blues are so expensive at be out of the range usability.

I keep looking on EBay and once an while I find a great deal. Recently I bought two tubes of Cerulean, one OH and one Williamsburg for a combined total of $40.