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Friday, 30 January 2015

Spotlight - Limited Palettes

This month, Spotlight takes a look at limited palettes. What are they? Why use them? The definition varies, but generally six colours or fewer (excluding white, which, unless you’re working with watercolour, is assumed to be on the palette) would count to most people.  Fewer paints mean:
  •     your colours harmonise more easily
  •     you have to think more about tone and composition
  •     it’s easier to pack up and travel with
  •     you’re forced away from your regular colour-mixing ‘habits’
  •     it’s fun to try something different :)
Now, you’ll certainly not be able to achieve a full range of colours (although six in watercolour can come close), so you have to start thinking how to represent colours relative to their surroundings with what you do have - this happens anyway as you’re harmonising, but a limited palette really sharpens focus on it.

In the past, paint simply wasn’t as accessible as it is today. Many artists worked with what they could acquire, but while the colours would have been restricted these would not have been considered limited palettes as we know them today (if you’re interested in what pigments were available during different time periods, this site has an overview - it doesn’t cover everything, but it does cover the main colours) Rarely would an artist limit themselves to only a few colours for all their creations, but in specific paintings it was done to notable effect. A very brief look through history might include the following works, which are not rich in multiple colours but lose nothing for it:
Diego Velázquez, Innocent X
Anders Zorn, Sommarnöje
Frans Hals, Jester with a Lute
John Singer Sargent, Madame Errazuriz

Now then, let’s have a look at some of the limited palettes you could choose to work with. The idea here isn't to lay down palettes that just work, it's to hopefully give you an idea or two to take away and play with or adapt in whatever way seems most fun! I've had so much enjoyment working with some of these, or using them as a base to quickly sketch an idea when I can perhaps pay attention to the broader passages of warm and cool, rather than the specific colours themselves.

1 colour
  •     Black
  •     Burnt Umber
  •     Burnt Sienna
  •     Payne’s Grey
Nice and simple, these! It’s all tonal here, and if you’re not working in watercolour you can either lighten with white, or paint with washes (and oil affords the ability to really play with wipeouts, that is, using a turpentine rag to wipe the paint back to the canvas).  There’s extended scope for textural variation when a piece is purely tonal - scratch, scrape, wipe, dab, stamp, work impasto, use resists or salt in watercolour, the list goes on and on!

2 colour
  •     Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine
  •     Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Green / Sap Green
  •     Black, [red / orange / green / blue etc, etc] - also known as Duotone
Now we get into some colour work! The point of the first two is that the colours both neutralise and darken together quite well, leading to a potential matrix of colours and tones from warm to dull to cool, and with each temperature given an almost full range of tones. For BS + U take a look at this portrait sketch, and for A + PG / SG take a look at this portrait sketch.
The third has been covered before in a previous Spotlight - if you didn’t catch it before, duotone is a very specific way of working with colour but it’s very striking. Artist Dave Palumbo made use of this palette setup for his striking 'Re-Cover' project, which you can see here.

3 colour
  •     Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Black - the Zorn Palette    
  •     Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow Light
The first is known as the Zorn Palette, after Swedish impressionist Anders Zorn - he did use other colours, but his name has become attached to what is actually a modification of the white, carbon black, and yellow and red earth of Bronze Age Greek painting . It’s not recommended for landscape work, although using it this way isn’t impossible. An in-depth discussion of it can be found here, but if you'd rather see the range of colours possible from it (and I had to be convinced!), this page may be a good place to start. For the second palette, I cannot do better than give you this link from the always-informative Lines and Colors blog.

4 colour
  •      Lemon Yellow, Permanent Rose, Phthalo Blue, Burnt Umber (courtesy of Jean Simnett)
Jean originally took this palette from an article Leisure Painter, in which artist Tony Paul suggested its use. You can mix an astounding number of colours here, and, while subtler hue moderations may be a little tricky, the cool side of the spectrum is unusually well represented.

5 colour
  •     Cadmium Yellow Pale, Winsor Red, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Green

A palette used by James Gurney, this provides a good balance of colours, mixing is quite easy, and isn’t too expensive. Definitely a good limited choice if you’re not certain what you’ll be painting. James has a great post here about limited palettes, and gives an example of what he painted with his 5-colour palette at point 4.

6 colour
  • Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Ultramarine, Cadmium Red, Cobalt Yellow (Aureolin), Lemon Yellow (courtesy of Ruth Tune)
Ruth's palette is functionally similar to James Gurney's, with Lemon Yellow in place of a green and, most crucially, the addition of Raw Umber which allows for easier mixing of more neutral colours

When it comes to a smaller palette, it really is a playground out there - it's always worth trying something new - new combinations of paints, swapping some colours for others, see how your mixing is affected if you do without that colour you’ve come to use again and again. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new way of working that actually suits you down to the ground?

Well, that's it! It's only been the briefest of looks at one small aspect of colour work, but I hope there's been something you've found interesting.

Don't forget, we start our programme in earnest on 5th February with a demo, 'Animal Painting in Pastel', with Lesley Connolly RBSA. I'll see you there, 7pm for 7.30pm in the Studio at the Assembly Rooms.

If you know 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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