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Jun 25, 2012

Color my World...

I received another question from a new blog subscriber yesterday I think some of my readers might find it interesting. 

So I've posted it with my answer below. I enjoy answering questions from you folks and I am happy to respond to you as time allows. Because what you ask tells me what you want to know, instead of me simply guessing.

Here is the question:


I discovered you while reading about you on the the Plein Air Magazine online newsletter.
Marvelous work! So happy to find you ... and sign up for your newsletter.
I'm an hour north of Los Gatos ... so sorry to miss the Los Gatos event.
Your work is wonderful.
May I ask: what is your color palette? It's so rich.
I have a neighbor with the exact same rose arbor ... and no idea how to paint it!
Would love to see a photo of that finished work.


Hello Fran. Thank you for your kind comments, and your email question -- and welcome to the blog!

You may be surprised to learn I don't have a special palette. Nothing secret or proprietary, or even unusual. The palette of color I paint with is quite common and is capable of representing the entire spectrum humans can perceive. 

Last week at LGPA I painted with my basic set of colors. A workhorse palette:
Cadmium Yellow MediumCadmium OrangeCadmium Red MediumAlizarin PermanentCobalt Violet (Sometimes this is replaced by Dioxazine Purple.)Ultramarine BlueCobalt BlueCerulean Blue Hueand Viridian
And Ochre, used as a color modifier. (I can mix my own earth tones -- ochre, siennas, and umbers using the colors found above, but I find having a tube of ochre on hand to be a time saver. Having said that, I have a strict rule I follow: if I am using a color modifier too much, or become lazy and careless with it, I take it off the palette. This forces me to go back to mixing the colors I need, instead of mindlessly reaching for an approximate. So, in truth, I have recently dropped tubed raw umber and ivory black for my bad habits. I kept over-using both and blocking up my darks. So I am back to mixing browns and blacks on the fly. (see the diagram below)

I also paint with a Lead White. A very important color to me. Lead White (aka, flake white) won't chalk up a mix the way Titanium will. However, having said that, I do have Titanium White in the paint box. Because sometimes you need the opacity it provides.

So my palette is essentially what Sorolla used outdoors, minus a Rose Madder, Chinese Vermilion, Venetian Red, and something called Peach Black -- which I've never been able to identify. (Hey, any paint historians out there who can help me out with peach black?) I've been using this palette for almost 28 years now, with some variation on occasion. But I always return to this basic set. It can mix almost every color I need with the least number of tubes of paint.

A diagram explaining how to mix with all warm, or all cool primary and secondary hues. And how to mix down to a tertiary hue without using black...

You'll see that with the exception of the one yellow and one green I have a warm and cool version of each hue. That's one of the tricks we color magicians use to maintain the intensity of our secondary mixes. Every time you mix two or more hues together you will lose some saturation. You can minimize the drop in intensity, but you can't avoid it. So the best way to minimize the graying down of a hue such as a warm purple is to mix it using a warm red and a warm blue -- and of course, you can use a cool red and a cool blue to create a cool intense purple as well. If you mix a warm red with a cool blue the two different temperatures will cancel the saturation out a bit. For some reason Cadmium Yellow Medium can be biased in either direction so if I am traveling light I'll just carry the medium. (Well, this is not entirely true, if I know I will need an intense cool green I'll throw a Cadmium Yellow Light into my paint box as well. But putting too much cool green into a painting can make it less appealing to the public. Dunno why, it just does...)  The same goes with Viridian. I can push that green to the warm or cool as needed. Although it certainly comes straight out from the tube as a cold green.

The other important tip I would share about mixing colors is to hold off using white as much as possible until late in the painting session. Most painters overuse white or start mixing with it far too early. Whenever white is mixed into a darker color, intentionally or not, it destroys transparency, and I like my darks to be transparent. Transparent equals rich and glowing in my book. This is an old-school approach to painting and it should not be considered better or worse than any other way to paint. My way is just more old school. If you look Ye Olde Masters you'll see they generally made an effort to keep their darks free of white as much as possible and they slowly increased the opacity of their mixes color as they went up the value scale towards white. This makes sense if you think about how oil paint wants to work. Of course, there are times when you do need a dark to be a tad opaque, especially if there is a gray or neutral quality in the shadows, so don't take what I am saying here as a hard and fast rule. But do try to reduce the amount of white you use in the early stages and you'll see what I mean. Your color will stay cleaner. It will sparkle more and viewers will respond without knowing why. (They don't have to know why. This is why we are magicians!) Sometimes I won't even lay out any white until late in a session. I'm serious. I can be just as sloppy or lazy about white as the next painter. And once you put it down the game changes.

Anything more about color palettes and mixing than this has to be taught face-to-face. So you can see it in action. Which I do in my workshops. (see below) In fact, if you ask any of my previous students they'll tell you 90% of what they learn from me relates directly to color and how to mix it. First how to see color. Then how to mix color. And of course, then how to stick the color on the canvas. (Ha!)

So Jan, good luck with your color mixing. And keep it clean!



If you are interested signing up my upcoming August 'Essential Plein Air Techniques' workshop, click hereThere are only three spots left on a first-come, first serve basis, so don't delay if you want to join the fun! Learn to paint en plein air with a knowledgeable and respectful teacher. This class will be limited to 12 participants to guarantee quality one-on-one time with the instructor.

UPDATE: Because workshop sign-ups this year have been so quick I may offer a second outdoor class the following week, if there is enough interest. That will be decided after the first week closes.

10 reader comments:

Judy P. said...

Great post, thanks! I have been trying to hold off using white as long as possible, but I find the painting gets so dark. It's hard to keep a good value contrast going- can you offer some advice about that?

Judy P. said...

Oh, I forgot- I assume for your black mix you mean Aliz-UltraBlue-Viridian.

jimserrettstudio said...

Great post.
Really like the advice to just keep the white off of the palette for a while.

Sergio Lopez said...

Really good post, good to read about your color palette. It was especially educational to read about the combos to mix brown. Do you have particular brands you favor over others?

I've tried to hold off on using white paint in the beginning, but I don't know what it is, I just don't have as much fun painting without white. I like using Winsor Newton's transparent white for mixing, as an alternative to Lead White.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thanks for your comments, Sergio.

I assume a pro such as yourself already understands the mixes I offered in this post can be arrived at via other combinations as well. Or an earth color can mixed according to these specs and then pushed towards a green, blue or red as needed.

I always think of tubed earth colors as a Tertiary Hue anyway. (Get it? Primaries; then Secondaries; then Tertiaries Hues. Or, to state it more simply: it takes 1, 2, and then a combination of 3 hues to generate each one.)

Of course, using a tube black can be an effective short-cut. But like white, black is often over used by the untrained painter. And again, like white, each type of black colorant has a unique optical character unto itself. IMHO, some of our blacks are incompatible with a number of contemporary ways to paint.

Using a weaker white early on – often called a foundation white, which seems to be gaining popularity these days – is a fine answer to the inherent chalkiness of full-strength Titanium. You can achieve the same effect by mixing up a putty-like paste of calcium carbonate (aka marble dust) and linseed oil, and then smooshing in into a full-on tubed titanium white. That will make things more transparent. And you'll have the discretion of making things more or less transparent on the fly.

And BTW, Calcium Carbonate is one of several things is often added to student-grade paint, with the idea of offering a less expensive alternative to the novice painter. Unfortunately, many students reached for effects which are not achievable with such adulterated color so the penny-pinching can backfire.

As for brand preference, I tend to be an omnivore. I will use a lot of Gamblin and Graham on a day-today basis, but I also buy RGH, Utrecht, Old Holland (Cremnitz White #2), and Williamsburg. And even other more esoteric boutique brands which you may not know about. In the end I look first at the properties of a specific paint over a brand, and gage whether or not it will allow me to achieve my goals. Sometime I want a weak-*ss tinting strength. Sometimes I want something akin to rocket fuel.

But hey, all this seems like a topic for a later post, eh?

I am such a Materials and Methods Geek, aren't I? (grin)

Thanks again, Sergio, for your question. Hope to see you in the Gorge this August...


Sergio Lopez said...

Thanks for such a thorough answer. I do get what you're saying with a tertiary hue. My palette is turning into all types of tertiaries and odd colors with almost no pure primaries anymore. My cads. are turning into specialty colors.

I don't know if I would ever want to do that marble dust concoction outdoors, seems like a hassle.

"Something akin to rocket fuel" hence the addition of dioxazine purple. Man, that stuff is dangerous! I am still on the search for the perfect purple. One of these days I will break down and start using cobalt violet...

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


My first important painting teacher once told me it is the neutrals which make your purer colors sing. He was something of a Modernist and a devotee of Cezanne. I've always agreed. But of course I would since I was his acolyte.

Regarding Dioxanine Purple – yes, it is the 'thalo' of purples. I am looking for the right purple on my palette too. DP being too blue and too intense for my liking. Sorolla painted with a lot of Cobalt Violet outdoors, but it is quite expensive and there are two kinds out there I can find. A deep bluish version, and a lighter, almost rose-colored one. Next time I get close up to one of Sorolla's canvases I will try to suss out which one he was using. I suspect it was the lighter version mixed into a cad orange to create a cool passing tone.

Next October, I hope to be standing in Sorolla's studio. If I see some Cobalt Violet lying around I'll let you know... (grin)

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sergio Lopez said...

Nice! Hope you can figure it out. Which one do you use? I've been using Cobalt Violet Hue by Holbein which has the hue I like but its tinting strength is too weak. Lefranc & Bourgeois has a Mineral Violet I like too.

Ed Terpening said...

For a violet, I use W/N Mauve, Blue Shade and find it indispensable. I'm sure it's a mix. Also use Mars Violet, especially for figure work.