I did a demo earlier in the week in Vancouver, Washington, and met some new landscape painters in my area. And today received an email from one of the artists with a few follow up questions. Since I'll be lecturing on the outdoor palette at the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo in a few weeks, down in Monterey, Chris' email seemed like a helpful thing to share here.
If you are going to the convention I invite you to come listen to my talk. I am scheduled to speak on the first day in the morning and I'll make your time worthwhile – fun as well as informative.
Here are Chris' and Tim's questions...
Hi Thomas, thank you for the demo last Tuesday. Tim and I have some questions we'd like to ask...
1. Why is a specific plein air palette even necessary?
No one palette is necessary per se but having a full range of hues to mix with can be helpful if you want to be able to paint everything you see. In truth, a more informative answer will be more nuanced. There are aesthetic reasons to use a limited palette, and when a limited palette is handled well it produces a lovely painting. But if you walk out the door being able to cover the entire spectrum it then becomes your choice to limit your palette or not. And I like having the choice.
2. Are warm and cool temperatures of each primary necessary?
Again, yes and no. Having a warm and cool version of each primary hue allows you to work within a greater gamut (range) of intensity. For example. if you try to mix an orange using a cadmium red medium (a warmish red) and cadmium yellow light or lemon (a coolish yellow) you won't end up with a intense orange. The cool cast inherent in the cad yellow light will neutralize the orange you wanted to mix. (Remember, orange and 'blue' are complements and together they produce a gray.) This is true for the rest of the spectrum as well. Partly due to the physical nature of light and partly due to the working properties of pigments and subtractive color. Color always requires a compromise.
However, it is essential to understand that warm and cool are relative to each other. A red which appears warmer than a blue may still appear cooler than an orange. It sounds crazy, I know, but everything about color is relative. This is why you should never think you are mixing in a color vacuum.
3. Are earth colors necessary?
No, they aren't. I can do without them altogether and mix all my earth colors or tertiaries, and sometimes I do. What is a burnt sienna but a neutralized orange? What is ochre but a neutral yellow?. But earth colors can be helpful shortcuts and they do save time. When I went to Spain and Morocco I left all my earth colors at home to save on weight and space. I specifically teach how to do this in my classes. But if I feel I am overusing a earth color -- or any color, really -- I'll yank it off my palette to force me look at my subject more closely. Burnt umber often goes away for long periods for this reason. I don't like to become lazy with any color.
4. Do you recommend a different color palette when painting in different parts of the country? How about different countries?
Different places do demand extra colors. In Oregon for example, like Ireland, it's hard to paint what you see without an intense cool green on your palette. 9What is so ironic is no one outside of Oregon believes the greens we have here so I have to reduce the chroma if a painting is going out of state.) In Chefchaouen, Morocco (google it or look at the photo at top) I couldn't do without an intense cerulean and cobalt. The city walls themselves were slathered with it. That's why I went there. To paint that blue.
5. Do you recommend a different color palette for nocturnal paintings? How do you light your color palette at night?
It depends. Very few people really paint the color of night. Most lean on a reddish blue too much when a muted dark green is closer to the truth. In addition, we can't see color very well at night because of the way our eyes evolved so we tend to romanticize and emphasize what color we do see like a '50s old movie. 9WHich is fine because we are artists, right?)
When I do paint a nocturne I use what everyone else uses, a headlamp and LED lights clamped to my easel, or I find an existing light source that will illuminate my canvas. But just so you know, I don't paint many nocturnes these days and when I do I am more interested in the value structure than the color. I've learned that if you get the values right then people will buy into the rest. Oh, and maintain the warm/cool relationship. They are easy to invert when painting dark neutrals.
6. Are water soluble oils ever appropriate for outdoor painting?
IMHO, they are appropriate for nothing. Nada. Nunca. Squat. I view them as an abomination. Mincible oils have all the faults of acrylic and none of the benefits of oil. I won't let them into my classes.
7. Are paints placed on a white palette or on a toned palette?
Again, it depends. I try to teach people to mix on both, or more accurately, to mix the color what they want in spite of the background itself. But I usually mix on a 50% grey.
So Chris and Tim, I hope you both find these answers helpful.