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Monday, 30 November 2015

Spotlight: The Palette Project Redux

The Palette Project is back! The idea was to run a quick survey of LAS members’ palettes so we could see what our trends in paints are by putting forward our eight most indispensible colours, and comparing these with similar surveys done of selected master painters and readers of the art blog Gurney Journey. the results are in and have been compiled.

Please note - this was originally going to be a comparison of the top 8 for each poll, but that didn’t work as some colours were tied and this resulted in some polls having 8 colours while others had more. To allow for direct comparison, it had to be either contracted to 4 or extended to 13; obviously, the extension was made to 13.

Below you can see a chart of the top 13 results for each poll (please note - the colour boxes shown are only approximates given how colours vary across monitors and between paint manufacturers).

Click to enlarge!

Let’s break this down, starting with some comparisons across the board:

Ultramarine topped all but Masters’ results (it should be noted that some of these artists were working when this paint was hard to acquire - our modern paint is synthetic, but it wasn’t always so; details of the process to create it were published in the early 19th C).

Several colours made it onto all four sets of results: Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine, Raw Sienna and Cobalt Blue.

Cerulean Blue was in all but the Masters’ results (worth noting - this wasn’t introduced until the 1860s).

Raw Umber and Viridian were in all the results except Gurney 2.

Burnt Umber was in all except the LAS results.

Cadmiums Red and Yellow were in all lists except the Masters’. Cadmium Yellow only went into production around 1840, and Cadmium Red was available from around 1920. Vermilion, however, was only on the Masters’ list - a popular choice, but it ceased becoming widely available in the very early 20th century.

Greens didn’t do so well since they can be so easily mixed, but a green occupies spot #13 on all results - Sap Green for Gurney 2, and Viridian for the others.

It’s worth noting that Black (type unspecified here) tops the Masters and ranks 8 in Gurney 1, but doesn’t appear in the others - it is known as quite polarising, with strong opinions present on whether or not it should be used. Generally, the more neutral a palette is, the more obviously useful Black becomes (although it may well have been my #9 choice had I been allowed another).

If we make a composite of composites, and include all the paints that appeared on at least three of the results listed in the graphic above, we end up with this palette (Alizarin to Yellow Ochre appear on all, Raw Umber to Viridian appear on three):

Click to enlarge

Eminently serviceable, with room to pare it down. Across a range of years and approaches, these quite common colours form the core of most paintings created.


Now, let’s take a closer look at the LAS results. What made it into our list, but into none of the others? Just Prussian Blue, a colour that is largely considered to have been superseded by Phthalo Blue (but worth noting that no Phthalo colour made any of the lists).

It’s worth taking a moment to read a couple of articles on the subject: Cobalt and Some Other Blues, from Stapleton Kearns, and The Accidental Colour that Changed the Course of Art, by John Griswold.

Perhaps it’s a surprise that Burnt Umber scored low enough to not make it onto our list? It scored as many votes as did Magenta, and even Cobalt Violet. Following on from Burnt Umber, broadly speaking we do prefer more chromatic palettes over tonal ones - this, though, isn't really a surprise given the beautiful scenery we are surrounded by every day.

There was no single colour that every LAS artist chose (if you'd have guessed it would have been Ultramarine you'd have been close, as it was the single-highest scoring colour; 75% of us use it). However, certain kinds of colours were more popular than single choices would suggest - 91.67% of respondents included a bright yellow of some variety. 41.5% of respondents chose Cadmium Yellow but Hansa Yellow, Winsor Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Pale and Cadmium Lemon also received votes. Only one artist included two bright yellows - a warm and a cool (in fact, this was the only artist whose palette was set up as a split-primary; that is, a warm and a cool for red, blue and yellow, and then finished with a couple of earths).

Warm, bright reds scored higher than just the presence of Cadmium Red would suggest. While 33% of us chose Cadmium Red, Cadmium Scarlet (also called Cadmium Red Light in some brands) saw 16.7% of us select it (and yet, this shows that only half of us consider a bright, warm red to be an essential colour to have).

Also scoring interestingly were Raw Sienna and Yellow Ochre - only one artist had neither, and only one artist had both. Every other respondent had one or the other.

Which of the other poll results are we closest to?
On the Masters' poll we find 69.23% of our choices - missing Prussian Blue, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and Cerulean Blue, while they have Black, Vermilion, Venetian Red and Burnt Umber.
On Gurney 1 we find 84.62% of our choices there - missing Prussian Blue and Naples Yellow, while they have Burnt Umber and Black.
On Gurney 2 (the watercolour poll) we find 69.23% of our colour choices present - missing Raw Umber, Prussian Blue, Naples Yellow and Viridian while they have Burnt Umber, Lemon Yellow, Payne's Grey and Sap Green.

Though compared with the Gurney blog readers’ polls our sample size is small, we show distinct preferences. In fact, our top seven colours make quite a perfectly serviceable palette! Indeed, a surprising variety in colour-mixing can be found in the top four.

Swapping colours is always interesting. If you use Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna, why not swap it for the other? If you use one particular bright yellow, why not use another next time? How about replacing Cadmium Red with Cadmium Scarlet - does that change your approach at all? If you replace one Umber with another, or change your green, how does it affect the way you think about your mixing? Does it make things easier, harder, or just different?

So, there we have it - our current palette habits, laid out plainly. Thank you to everybody who took part, and hopefully this has been interesting comparing our specific group of artists with those elsewhere, and also with those who have come before us.


If you know of any great art websites or articles, why not share them here? Send your suggestions to - please note that this isn't for self-promotion.

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