Color Palettes

You may hear artists talking about their “palettes” and you may only have a vague understanding of what they are talking about.  This article will explain the concept more fully to you.

When artists talk about their “palette” they may be speaking about two very different things and that leads to confusion.  An artist’s “palette” is a piece of wood or plastic or paper on which colors are mixed before being applied to the painting with the brush.  I will cover those kinds of palettes in another article.  The kind of palette to which this article is dedicated is a “color palette” which is a list of specific colors which an artist uses to paint his picture.  Because artists place their chosen paints (their color palette) on a physical palette the two uses of the word seem almost interchangeable, but they are not.

A colour palette is just a pre-selected set of colours that an artist will use to paint his entire picture.  For example he might choose nothing more than white and black.  He might mix them together to create a series of gray tones, but technically the “palette” he has chosen is white and black.

Some artists are very open about using different colours for different paintings while other artists do almost every painting with the same colours time and time again.  Artists that are open about trying new colours are called “open palette” artists while those who never use any colours beyond the ones they are the most familiar with are called “closed palette” artists.  However I think that most artists however fall somewhere in between in that they are willing to try new colours if they feel the painting calls for it (or if they are just feeling adventurous), but still have certain colours they like to use very often.

Often artists purposely limit their palette to a few colours in order to force themselves to make the most out of a certain color before reaching for another.  This is called a “limited palette” and is the way most classical painting is done.  Limited palettes force the artist to focus on creating form through tonal changes and not by way of color.  Art students are always encouraged to work in this manner because the best lessons are learned using this method.

I’ve already given an example of a limited colour palette which is only white paint and black paint.

Another limited palette, which is even more simple, is just using one color.  For example you may only use blue paint.  In that case the whole painting would be blue, but the natural colour of the canvas or paper (usually white or creme or something) would show through anyplace that isn’t painted.  The blue paint could be used at full concentration for all lines and shapes as though you were creating an ink drawing or maybe as though you were creating a silk-screen-graphic-print like you see on a lot of T-Shirt designs or the paint could be thinned or oiled down into a series of more transparent versions creating various tones.  Remember that technically another color is still being used because the surface being painted on has it’s own color, but we call art that uses only one colour “monochromatic” (meaning one color).

Another sort of limited palette has two colours.  Just as with the monochromatic painting we can flux back and forth with two colours, but in this case the second colour is not only provided by the colour of the surface we are painting, but also by an actual pigment we are using.  Common colours in this scheme may be things like black and white (as we have discussed earlier) or blue and white or red and white, or maybe red and creme, or blue and orange, or red and green, or black and red, etc.  As a strategy we can add the white to the more colorful secondary paint where ever the secondary paint needs to be lighter instead of simply adding oil or thinner to the paint as we did in monochromatic painting.  This is a good strategy when getting good coverage of the canvas is important because when white paint is added to another paint the paint becomes more opaque and covers the canvas more easily.  It’s also easier to make corrections if you use white paint that can conceal errors, but it slows the drying time and so this method is not normally used for the early parts of the process of painting.  In modern technique it is almost never used in water color paint since watercolor paint is supposed to be transparent in most circumstances to allow the color of the paper to show through, but there are a lot of exceptions.  I don’t want to get into all of the painting processes available to an artist extensively in this article, but remember that the process determines resulting color just as the desired color determines process.

Another kind of limited palette would be any colour plus black, such as red and black or yellow and black.

I mentioned that another kind of limited palette would be two colourful paints like orange and blue so let’s explain that more explicately.  The darker paint (usually the blue) would be used where ever the model appears to be darkest and the lighter paint would be used where ever the model was lighter.  Transparency could be controlled with oil or thinner where ever desired and by mixing the two together a series of grays or shall I shall “neutrals” could be created.  If the mix has a lot more blue colour in it that area will appear to be cooler for blue is a cool colour, and the areas that have more orange in them will appear to be warmer as orange is a warm colour.  This play of warm and cool colours is found in all art as in important to master.  Even when working with a single pigment there are ways to make that pigment appear cooler or warmer.

Another kind of limited palette would be one colourful paint such as blue with black and white.  This could make blues mixed with white, blues mixed with black, blues mixed with some white and black together, and a mostly neutral grayscale made from only the black and white paint.

We can also group the colours on our palette together by pigment type. For example earth tones all essentially derive their color from the pigment iron oxide and so are chemically neutral in regards to each other and light fast and easy to clean up and are not especially jarring when mixed or viewed in the same picture together. I use a lot of limited palettes with only earth tones. Examples of earth tones would be yellow ochre,  raw sienna, burnt sienna, venetian red, indian red, turkish red, english red, caput mortuum, raw umber and burnt umber, etc.

Another possibility for a palette which includes a grouping by pigment type is one of mineral colours. Mineral colours are similar to earth tones as they are crushed rocks but they are not primarily iron oxide. Egyptians used mineral colours for their hieroglyphs crushing rocks like lapis lazuli to make what the Europeans called later ultramarine and malachite from which they manufactured a cool green similar to veridian, and of course mercuric sulfide or cinnabar as it is called was used to make that powerful red called vermilion in the Bible or else by its name of Chinese Red to traders doing business in the east.

We also have mineral colours which are natural heavy metals but which require some extra preparation like lead oxide and titanium oxide and zinc oxide and a red lead oxide etc. as well as the cadmiums which can give us yellows, oranges and reds, and red purples, along with yellow tin, and so on.

We also have organics like ivory black and the modern imitation made from charred cow bone and that most disturbing of anachronistic pigments which is called mummy brown which was made from real mummies.

My most favorite palette usually contains mostly earth tones to which I add the mineral colour ultramarine and the organic ivory black if needed and the metallic titanium white if needed as it usually is in oils. I seldom use cadmiums even though I have many.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply