Keith Jarret’s Koln Concert was playing in the background the other day as I completed the dreaded task of clearing out my studio. I would so much rather be painting, but since I was moving soon, I had to start the process. As I listened to the jazz pianist maestro, I heard his famed grunts and groans during the recording of his most well-known concert. When I was younger, I thought these expressions came from a place of passion and rapture. After hearing a report on this performance, I now know these are sounds of pure frustration over limitations. It turns out, the only piano available had high and low notes that were not functioning. He was forced to play within a limited range, and the music he made put him on the map.
We all have limitations in our lives. Necessary tasks take away from the endless hours I wish I had to paint. My own lovely children (two boys, ages 12 & 13), have presented limitations in my life that I continue to grapple with. As my mother ages, I have a feeling she will replace my children as a force that draws me away from the easel. However, as I study oil painting more, I realize that there is freedom in limitations. The wisdom and revelations of the Zorn palette is a classic example. I will share here a very real application of limitations, and how it freed my painting to become more nuanced and focused.
During the waning days of lockdown, I decided to further my studies with a year of color theory with Skip Whitcomb (through the Tucson Academy). His research into the lost art of color schemes is invaluable. Concurrently, I was gifted a lifetime collection of oil paints by a former student who could no longer paint. Gazing at the rainbow array of paint tubes that I would normally never purchase, I realized Skip’s class came at the perfect time. How can I make sense of this variety? How can I be intentional with my palette so that my paintings don’t end up looking garish? Skip’s course and this gift gave me some answers.
As I progressed in the class, Skip tasked us with finding the colors that emerge from set color schemes: triads, complementary, double-complementary, split complementary, and so on. I discovered one of my favorite color schemes, a complementary plan of red and green: Cadmium Scarlet, Alizarin Crimson, and Transparent Red Oxide, across from Viridian and Cadmium Green. I completed the prerequisite color map using these hues. In Skip’s class, we used a variety of values to explore what a particular color scheme can produce. If it gives us what we need, we can proceed with a finished piece. The studio piece I finished with this plan is called Wildland Revival.
Fast-forward to this past spring: I got a call to join some friends for a painting trip in Southeast Utah. Wanting to field-test this limited palette idea, I brought the red-green collection of paints. I threw in a full range of hues, just in case I lost my nerve, or if they truly did not provide the needed range. My intention was to explore this red-green scheme to its outer limits, and it did not disappoint.
Just as that rainbow collection of paint tubes presented an overwhelming number of options, so too did the grand beauty of SE Utah give me too many paths to take. By limiting my palette and relying on the grace of color relativity, I was able to control the other wild cards in the landscape. My viridian began to sing of blue skies and cool shadows. The cadmium green offered warm yellow tones to complement the violet canyon walls. What could have been considered stifling became a way to explore the area in bite-size, digestible ways.
Here are a few paintings completed on that trip, including Tapestry, which was accepted in the OPA Western Regional Exhibit this autumn in Dallas, TX.
Time limitations in my life have spurred a disciplined approach to managing my routine and blocking out my day. Geographic limitations, such as living far from a city center, force me to appreciate what the local landscape has to offer. And, by choosing a limited palette, I can focus on other aspects of a painting, knowing that there will be an inherent harmony in the end. As long as those factors meet my basic needs, I am usually better off keeping things simple. It’s amazing how much I discover within the confines of limitations. I become free from dependence on variety and surplus.