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Apr 1, 2013

The Contemporary Outdoor Painters' Palette...

On April 10th, I will be lecturing on the outdoor palette at the 2nd Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo

And besides talking about my palette, I thought it would be a hoot to survey what colors other plein air painters use outdoors. For the most part, I use a set of primary and secondaries, warm and cool versions of each, plus a few earth colors as shortcuts. I tend to mix down unwanted intensity using complementary hues, or by sometimes working a little burnt umber into a color to lower its value and saturation as Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn did – although admittedly, they were far better at it than I. (ha!) 

Minor note: The color sphere illustrations you see in this post will appear in my upcoming book, "Color and the Direct Method of Oil Painting". In the chapter on mixing, they explain how to use complementary and related hues to modify value and chroma. I will announce the availability of the book after the Plein Air Convention...)
And speaking of the convention... If you are going to be there and want to hear my talk you should pre-register for it asap. Don't wait. I have been told the room is filling up and may max out. I will talk about these palettes, what they can do in the field, and I will also demo how to mix with them. Plus there will be a Q & A session so you can follow up with specific questions. My lecture will be at 9:30 am on the first day.
After completing this survey I was surprised to discover how similar everyone's palette was, and how similar we used them. Surprised because I chose well-known plein air painters from all over the country – even reaching out to Europe to Marc Dalessio – artists who have different looks to their paintings. (Links to their websites have been provided below.) From the extended conversations we had on the phone it was clear everyone relies on the warm and cool theory of color mixing.


With few exceptions (Jill Carver, Jean LeGassick, and myself), the artists I spoke to tended to put more colors on their palette when in the studio. Perhaps it is because they have more time to deliberate indoors or maybe it has something to do with working at a larger scale. In any case, when a painter first goes outside he or she quickly learns their subject is in a constant state of flux. There is no time to mess around and every fifteen minutes it becomes a new painting. (Frustrating, isn't it?) At most, we have a window of a few hours to create a masterpiece, and because of that the best outdoor work tends to embrace expediency. So perhaps that is why all the artist converged on a similar set of hues. Because in capable and experienced hands, the mixing of intense warm and cool primaries can convincingly express the effects of temperature and light.
Side Bar: The Limited Palette It should be noted many plein air painters purposely work with a reduced palette; which means two or three hues plus a white, and the results can be spectacular. The paintings of Kevin McPherson and Lori Putnam come to mind, with many more artists worthy of mention. But there are physical limits to what subtractive mixing can encompass and such limits make it impossible to represent the entire spectrum of light. So if any readers out there prefer a limited palette out of choice or virtue, I salute you. I paint with a reduced palette too now and then, like when I went to Spain and Morocco last October. It helped to lighten the load. And also, back in the mid-90s, I painted four years with only Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Light, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium White. So I appreciate the appeal of a limited palette.
If anything may be generalized about the contemporary outdoor palette, it is likely to contain both warm and cool versions of the primaries and secondaries. Which makes it similar to the palettes used by a lot of 19th century Impressionists. With exceptions, of course. Today, modern synthetics such as Indian Yellow, Transparent Oxide Red, and the super saturated Pthalos – which can become the crack-cocaine of the plein air enthusiast – often usurp their 19th century counterparts. But the idea of mixing with warm and cool primaries still holds.

The findings of my informal survey are offered below. The information is only accurate as of March, 2013. The palettes you see here may change over time because few painters hold to the same set of color over a lifetime.

And finally, thank you to all the artists who participated! Any mistakes or misrepresentations found in this post are mine and mine only. Caused by my misunderstanding or bad typing while on the phone. Egregious errors will be corrected, if requested.

Thomas

_______________

Ned Mueller
Website: http://www.nedmueller.com



Palette:
Cadmium Yellow Lemon
Cadmium Yellow Light
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Light
Alizarin Crimson
Transparent Brown Oxide
Chromium Oxide Green
Viridian
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine Blue
Ivory Black
Titanium White

Extras colors for travel, primarily reserved for colorful indigenous apparel:
Permanent Red Rose
Pthalo Green

A few tips and advice and advice from the artist:
  • Mix your earth colors
  • Make most greens using black + orange or black + yellow
  • Black can used as a color, particularly in making greens, and beautiful subtle violets and such
  • Adding white to a hue will cool the temperature
  • Too much white will make a color turn pasty
  • Set the middle values and darks dark enough to avoid pasty lights
  • Sometimes works on a white ground, sometimes works on a tinted ground
  • Anticipate how a white canvas makes your initial values appear darker than they actually are
  • Mix on a neutral gray palette, about 10 - 20 percent gray.
  • When toning a canvas, use a fairly neutral color -- Ned often uses Cadmium Red + a blue

Prefers to work on an oil ground, often pre-tinting it with a color before applying to canvas

Final words of advice:
Have fun, and keep a sense of humor…


_______________


Artist: Jennifer McChristian
Website: http://jennifermcchristian.com



Palette:

Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Red Medium
Thalo Red Rose
Alizarin Permanent
Ultramarine Blue
Yellow Ochre
Indian Yellow
Titanium/Zinc White

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • All greens are mixed
  • Keep a gray pile going
  • Mix complementary hues together to create neutrals and earth colors
  • Average out the value and color in an area during block-in
  • Reduce the form of your subject down to four values
  • Add reflected color (or bounced light) after block-in
  • Work from large to smaller shapes
In terms of mixing, considered this to be the order of importance...
#1 Value, #2 Temperature (or Hue), #3 Intensity
Extra:
Establish shadow pattern immediately and work from dark to light as much as possible.


_______________


Artist: Jesse Powell
Website: http://jessepowellfineart.com



Palette – Yes, all of these are out at the same time:
Cadmium Lemon Yellow
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Yellow Ochre
Raw Sienna
Cadmium Red Light
Alizarin Crimson
Rose Madder/Quinacridone
Raw Umber
Iron Oxide Red
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Blue
Viridian
Terre Vert
Sap Green
Titanium White

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • Use a gray pile
  • Mix on a medium gray glass palette (Value 5 or 50%)
  • Think in terms of warm and cool
  • Mix most of your color from primaries and secondaries
  • Mix most colors to their final appearance on the palette, w/exception of color bands in the sky being cross-blended on the canvas
  • Add the impasto and bravura brushwork at the end
Recommends lining up 20 paintings to see if a single color appears too often. If so, take the color off the palette for a while.


_______________


Marc Dalessio
Website: http://www.marcdalessio.com



Palette (remarks in brackets are by Marc):
Lead or Titanium white [I prefer the handling of lead, but I’m currently using titanium for health and environmental reasons]
Cadmium Yellow [from Michael Harding or I’ll grind my own Cad Yellow light from Zecchi]
Zecchi’s Roman Ochre
Vermilion [hand-ground from Doak. Though I sometimes use the Zecchi one outdoors]
Cadmium Red Medium [either Harding’s or hand-ground from Zecchi]
Alizarin [either hand-ground, or I was using Doak’s Florentine Lake for a while too]
Cerulean Blue [$70 a pop from Old Holland, or hand-ground if I need a lot for a large painting]
Ultramarine Deep [from Old Holland]
Manganese Blue [from Old Holland]
Cobalt Blue [either Old Holland or Harding]

Additional:
  • The palette I started with included Naples Yellow, an earth red (Pozzuoli, English…etc), and Veridian. I have also used high chroma oranges and purples for specific projects with orange trees, irises and such.

_______________


Jill Carver
Website: http://jillcarver.com



Palette:
Cadmium Yellow Light
Cadmium Orange or Yellow Ochre, and sometime both
Cadmium Red Light
Alizarin Crimson
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Titanium/Zinc White

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • All greens are mixed
  • Keep a gray pile going
  • Use a little Pthalo green mixed with Alizarin to create a cool gray for tin roofs. But avoid using Pthalo in a green mix.
  • First try to use the innate value of your hues before mixing white into them.
  • Consider the effect of a color's opacity or transparency when mixing.
Extra:
Uses Open Box M side shelf to increase her mixing area (visible in the photo above). Quarantines her whites and lighter values on the side palette to keep them clean.


_______________


Marc Hansen
Website: http://marchansonart.com


Palette:
Titanium White [Utrecht mixed 50/50 w W&N Griffin Alkyd White]
Cadmium Yellow Light
Cadmium Yellow Deep [Rembrandt]
Cadmium Red Light
Venetian Red, Terra Rosa, English Light Red [a warmer version of terra rosa]
Alizarin Crimson
Transparent Oxide Red [Rembrandt warmish]
Ultramarine Blue [Deep version)
Colbalt Blue
Viridian
Yellow Ochre [lighter version of an ochre]

Fill-in colors:
Indian Yellow
Quinacridone Rose

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • Use Cool and warm pairing of hues when mixing
  • Mix neutrals and tertiaries using complements
  • Make grays with viridian and alizarin and white, then modified them with other hues
  • Ultramarine and ochre is a good start to a green
  • Use thin washes for your sketch or block in
  • Sketch color should be determined by situation, meaning, are the darks you see warm or cool?
  • Use 3 or 4 shapes to sketch in initially, keeping them in the light value range, then add darks before working up to lighter passages.
  • Shoot for the correct hue, value, and chroma on your first attempt, then correct the color as needed (the direct method of oil painting)
  • Mix the color you need on the palette before applying it to the canvas
Extra:
Prefers to paint on titanium/oil ground




_______________


Jean LeGassick
Website: http://jeanlegassick.com




Palette (The following are the colors Jean has used for years):

Cadmium Lemon Yellow
Hansa Yellow Orange (a deep yellow)
Quinacridone Red
Pthalo Blue
Pthalo Green (sometimes, but with reserve)
Zinc White


However, Jean is lately been working with what she calls a modified Zorn palette, which is what is pictured above:

Yellow Ochre
Alizarin Crimson Permanent
Pthalo Blue
Ivory Black
Zinc White


From Jean: 
"This palette also includes my secondaries pre-mixed from a limited palette of yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, pthalo blue, and black. Also I want to show the paint in the divided tray I usually use. (So I may transfer the paint from one pochade to another, or back to my studio palette, or, it can be easily wrapped and stored in the refrigerator if I know I won't be painting for several days.)"

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • Change the colors on your palette now and then to prevent your mixing from becoming formulaic – it will also make you look for accurate color
  • Consider starting a painting in the field and completing it in the studio (Jean says she often works a plein air painting to an 85% finish, then completes it indoors)
  • If a certain painting requires an extra color use it regardless of your working palette.
  • Mix your color with a palette knife to keep it clean
  • Paint with a palette knife as well as a brush
  • A palette knife discourages nit-picking or investing too much detail in a painting
Extras:
Paints with water-mincible oils for health reasons and because of how they handle with a knife.

Likes to use Zinc White, for its transparency, its stiffness, and the fact that it takes longer to dry.

_______________


Colin Page
Website: http://www.colinpagepaintings.com


Palette:
Cadmium Yellow Lemon
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Orange (Considers this a 'cheater' color, meaning, a shortcut)
Cadmium Red Light or Medium (does not use much of this hue)
Quinacridone Red
Alizarin Yellow (Instead of Yellow Ochre) (Williamsburg)
Windsor Blue Green Shade
Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Sienna

A few tips and advice from the artist:
  • Mix your greens
  • Keep a gray pile going
  • Use complements to create neutrals and earth colors
Extra:
Enjoys painting backlit subjects and will accentuate temperature contrasts for effect

Often uses Quinacridone + Ultramarine to establish shadows

Arranges his cool hues on left side of palette, and warm hues along the top, with white in a corner.


_______________


Ray Roberts
Website: http://www.krollroberts.com



Palette:
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Light
Alizarin Crimson of some other Rose Color
Dioxazine Purple
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Blue [on occasion]
Cerulean Blue Hue
Viridian
Sap Green
Thalo Yellow Green [Utrecht or Grumbacher]
Titanium White

A few tips and advice and advice from the artist:
  • Use complementary hues to create your neutrals
  • Also use split complements to make neutrals as well, (for example, Cad Orange + Dioxazine Purple, or, Cad Orange + Viridian)
  • Try to reserve the white of the ground for lighter hues
  • Sketch in with a warm neutral hue
_______________

Stephen Griffin:
Website: http://www.mcbridegallery.com/griffin.html



Palette:
Cadmium Lemon Yellow or Light
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Cadmium Orange/Scarlet
Cadmium Red Deep
Ultramarine Blue
Cerulean Blue
Yellow Ochre (used as a shortcut for mixing)
Terra Rosa (Shortcut)
Titanium White

A few tips and advice and advice from the artist:
  • Mix with Warm and Cool Primaries
  • Use complementary mixing to create neutrals
  • Paint on a white ground. The white permits keying the painting towards any hue.
  • Try to start with high chroma and keep it high as possible.
  • Terra Rosa + Ultramarine mixed together are good for your sketch in
Extra:
Stephen's palette and painting method is loosely based off of Emile Gruppe's palette, via his son, Robert C. Gruppe. It is also influenced by the theories and methods of Charles Hawthorne as well.

Every now and then Steve goes back to painting using only Cadmium Red Deep, Cad Yellow Light, Ultramarine Blue to remind himself to be attentive to the color he sees.


_______________

Thomas Jefferson Kitts
http://www.thomaskitts.com



Palette (not all of these colors are put out on the palette every painting session but they are always in the painting kit):
Cadmium Yellow Light or Lemon [Often, but not shown here]
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Medium [Often, but not shown here]
Cadmium Red Deep
Alizarin Crimson, Anthraquinone, or Quinacridone [I lean towards Anthraquinone these days]
Cobalt Violet or Dioxazine Purple [Not shown, but usually Cobalt Violet]
Ultramarine Blue
Cerulean Hue or Manganese Blue Hue
Viridian
Yellow Ochre

Burnt Umber

Lead or Titanium White


A few tips and advice and advice from the artist:
  • Keep the white out of your darks and use as little of it as possible in the mid-values; try to use the equivalent value of your hues before adding white
  • Reserve the white or unpainted area of your canvas for the lighter values
  • Mix neutrals and earth colors with complementary hues
  • Keep a gray pile going
  • Don't over mix on your palette; allow flecks of purer color to remain
  • Push pure color into dead areas on the canvas if needed, again, don't over mix
  • After block-in, work from dark to light and thin to thick, as much as possible
  • Be prepared to scrape down and area and re-paint it again
  • Save the bravura brushwork for the end
  • Keep things simple in the field and paint directly; don't hope indoor work will save a plein air painting
Extra:
My present plein air palette is very similar to the outdoor palette used by Sorolla, as far as it can be determined. Bu I am still working out how the h*ll he mixed with it...

32 reader comments:

Timothy Young said...

Wonderful information, thank you.

billsharp said...

Thanks for the research, Thomas. I assume that "keep a gray pile going" means mixing palette scrapings together to make a gray from the colors used in the painting. If not, could you clarify?

Thomas Kitts said...

Yes, Bill. The gray pile is exactly that. The scrapings of your mixes. It can be very helpful in reducing the saturation, or graying out of a color. But remember there is white in it and that can affect the color you want to mix in a unwanted manner.

Celeste Bergin said...

WHOAAAAAA what a post! WOW! So much fun to take in the different palettes. Fantastic! You did a great job of researching. This is really fascinating!

Thomas Kitts said...

Thanks Celeste. Be sure to tell your friends if you think they'll be interested...

Sergio Lopez said...

Jean LeGassick's palette looks really interesting. However, I can't figure out which color is which. I recognize yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, maybe what I think is ivory black, and pthalo blue. I think it's a mud pile on the right end of the palette, and some sort of light gray next to the white. What is that earthy orange?

Thomas Kitts said...

Sergio, the second palette listed matches the one pictured. it's the palette she has been using this winter. She considers it her "modified Zorn palette;"

The paint pile on the left is what she calls her "dirty white" (her words, not mine) and I believe it is her white scrapings from previous sessions. The pile on the far right is her mud pile and contains color from all her mixes.

Jean was a pleasure to talk to on the phone. I look forward to speaking with her again soon...

Scott Ruthven said...

Wow Thomas, looks like a great post....lots of info you've gathered. Now I'll go back and dive in!

Jim Serrett said...

Oh yea, great post. I have always been fascinated by the palette choices of artists, not just the colors themselves but the layout and arrangement that they use. Thanks for all the info, next how about a survey of mediums use :)
Your site and beautiful work are very much appreciated.
Look foreword to owning your book

Thomas Kitts said...

Thank you Jim. You are very kind. I had planned to have it ready for the convention but got behind. And decided to slow down so it wouldn't be rushed. I want it to be of value and service to the plein air painter and not just swag to sell.

B Boylan said...

Thanks Thomas for such a juicy post. I am fascinated by the way each artist's palette of colors are piled up in unique ways and their mixing spaces on the palette. It's kind of like looking into each individual's mind. Also, I didn't know we had to sign up to watch your demo. Whaaaat?

Lee Ekland said...

Fascinating behind-the-scene post Thomas, a full course meal and then some! Thanks for the prep work and beautiful presentation.

Thomas Kitts said...

You are welcome Lee. It was a pleasure to interview these painters and write the post.

But stick around. I'll be posting a review of the new aluminum Strada Easel tomorrow. It's an interesting addition to the pochade box category for plein air painting. Some folks will like it a lot...

seascapesaus said...

Very interesting comparisons and extra tips too! Thank you Thomas. I am feeling as though I should switch to oils. The way they dry in the wind is a big disadvantage.

Thomas Kitts said...

Seascapesaus, thanks, but I am not sure I understand your comment. Oils dry in the wind? Or are you talking about acrylics?

Angelini Studio said...

I'm getting ready to go on another painting trip so I googled limited palettes and came across this post. Fantastic! My regular palette is not consistent enough to show my voice so I think downsizing will do more than just assist me on this trip. Most excellent resource and I look forward to your book. Thank you.

jeff said...

Interesting to see how similar a lot of palettes are, but not surprised.
I'm also curious as to why more people don't tube up a few gray values if they use them a lot.

If I'm not mistaken did Emile Gruppe' palette not also include Phthalo blue as well.

Thomas Kitts said...

Hi jeff.

Thanks for your comment.

If you paint as much as these artists do then you likely have several gray piles already going. I know I do. Lighter and darker, warmer and cooler. No need to tube them. They are like leftovers in the fridge, waiting to create interesting combinations...

Regarding Gruppe and pthalo...

I'll ask a good friend of mine who paints with Emile's son on a regular basis in Provincetown and Gloucester. He'll know and tell us.

Anonymous said...

Hi -- I just happened onto your workshop going on Sauvie Island today when I picked up some produce. Since I love to paint I quietly asked someone your name. You guessed it .. I came home and googled you.
What and interesting time I've had here. I'll keep checking back and look for upcoming workshops. ps .. I'm anonymous because it's the one that worked for me:/
Thank You.

Thomas Kitts said...

Oooh, Anonymous. How mysterious. Do shoot me an email to introduce yourself...

Thomas

Anonymous said...

FANTASTIC blog!! So much valuable information, plan to forward link to several painter friends. Can you settle a bet? Since you know Mr. Gruppe, can you advise as to how to pronounce his name?? Many thanks, look forward to more.

Thomas Kitts said...

Anonymous, glad you like the blog. and please share it with anyone you wish.

But to clarify, I did not know Emile and don't know his son, Robert, whom I believe is still living and painting in the mid-Atlantic area. I only have a friend, Steve, also on the East Coast who paints with Robert on occasion. And I've only ever heard Gruppe pronounced as "Groop-pay".

regards,

Thomas

Chris B. said...

This is one of my fav blog posts of yours. Thanks

Question:
How do you like using Cerulean Hue or Manganese Blue Hue on you palette?
Why did you go the hue route with these two colors? (note: I know of only one paint maker that sells genuine Manganese Blue still - thats Old Holland)

Thomas Kitts said...

Thank you for you kind comment, Chris B.

I tend to use Cerulean Blue HUE and Manganese Blue HUE interchangeably unless I need the more transparent quality one gets from a Manganese hue. Both blues hues lean towards the green, so when either are mixed with a Cadmium Yellow Light (or Lemon), which also leans towards the green, the combination produces a more saturated set of greens than if you mix Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Medium or Deep. (All three of those colors lean towards the red, and when mixed, the red quotient in them neutralizes the saturation of the resulting green.)

Of course, there are time you want to mix a more neutral green but I've found that if I set a cool green against a warm green at the same value and saturation it generates a vibrating effect. Because the eye is attempting to distinguish between the two. This cool/warm juxtaposition is a large part of how French Impressionism works. But I am simplifying here for expediency.

This would make a nice post so I'll do it after I get back from an event I am off to.

Thomas Kitts said...

Oh, and yes, real Manfanese Blue can be hard to find. But keep in mind that the real stuff is somewhat toxic and should be handled with care. It is also not as intense as the other colors you find on the palettes presented here. Both are resons why the real stuff has been marginalized. If you paint with it, great. But don't be careless about it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this survey, The knowledge and tips are worth their weight in gold if one had to go these artists individual workshops.
I'm a johnny come lately in the knowledge dept but the first I heard heard of gray piles was from a Ovanes Beberian blog.
I've had lessons from my uncle and college and since studying on the internet from stapelton kearns and jill carver and all the other artists it helps to see how they work. We all need a mentor or mentors who know their craft and your survey is as good as it gets. What makes painting fun is discovery and growth. and struggle and frustration sometimes.
Paul Stristik use to say when he was a beginning painter he could teach it but as he grew older and learned more he couldn't because it just go too complicated. The knowledge can be overwhelming if one digs.
I can remember when a tube of paint was $1.60 cent in 1965.
I like your paintings and your name. and your generousity for sharing.
Painters might be the last benevolent dudes on the planet.
I can't afford the 70 and 49 dollar tubes but I do like the limited palette.
I've found some times that just doesn't mean orange and blue but
3 oranges and 3 blues . Frederick Waugh said to make your black black.
stapelton kearns says when he is struggling half way thru a painting he
resets his darks and lights. thanks again. Miguel le blanc

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

Anonymous, Thank you for your thoughtful post. The only thing I would add is that there is nothing wrong with painting with a limited palette. Look at what the classical painters of the past accomplished with just a few hues and I think you will agree. Perhaps this is a worthy subject on its own for a blog post.

Good luck with your artistic development. And remember it is an enjoyable trip to be on. Progress is what counts, not success.

Eric Bowman said...

Good post, Thomas -- very informative bringing in the "guest palettes" :)

John said...

Has anyone ever shown an artist's palette superimposed on a colour gamut diagram? Apparently from certain starting hue sets, you cannot mix every colour you see, and this chart helps clarify that very point.

Karen Hedges said...

Thomas, thanks for posting this good info on plein air palettes. It's so interesting to see what others are using/doing.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Good stuff here! Thanks for posting this variety of palettes.