When I first started painting, I’d walk into art supply stores and spend hours looking at all the different pigments and brands of oil paints available, and drool over all those luscious colors: aureolin yellow, cinnabar green, quinocradone rose (just the names alone made me buy them). I’d load up my basket with dozens of tubes of paint and head home thinking that at last I had found the color that would make me a better painter. Age and experience are wonderful teachers, and I finally came to the conclusion that no special pigment would be the key to my success. In fact, the more choices I had on my palette, the gaudier and less-realistic my paintings looked.
In 2003, I had the good fortune to study with Scott Christensen, who at the time was using a very limited palette that he had his students use in his workshops. At first, I was baffled: how could I get a true yellow ochre using only 3 primaries and a couple of grays? How could I get a wide variety of greens when there were no green tube pigments on my palette? But after sticking with this limited palette for a while and experimenting with these colors, I came to see that I could mix just about every color in nature using only 6 tubes of paint. Using this palette also helped me to see and understand color temperature better by simplifying my choices: if the color needed to be warmer, I added yellow; for cooler, I added blue. And I found that the colors I was mixing were so much closer to the reality I was seeing than when I used a broader palette. When there are 20 choices on the palette, I find it’s much easier to just say “oh, that’s close enough” and dip into a color straight out of the tube , but when I have to mix my colors from the primaries, I get a more accurate representation of my subject matter. Of course, there are certain local colors that I can’t duplicate exactly with this palette, especially if I’m painting man-made objects. But I can always get the correct value and the correct temperature, and when those are right, the color reads correctly.
For example, the color of the water at Lake Tahoe is an incredibly intense blue-green. I may not be able to get that exact local color, but I can mix the right temperature and value, then surround that color with more muted grays and the color of the water will feel more intense and believable.
Over time, I experimented with adding and subtracting pigments from my palette and settled on the selection of paints that I’ve been using since about 2005. This is the palette that I use for all of my paintings, both plein air and in the studio:
Titanium White (any brand)
Cadmium Yellow Lemon (Utrecht)
Permanent Red Medium (Rembrandt)
Ultramarine Blue (any brand)
Naples Yellow Deep (Rembrandt)
Cold Gray (Rembrandt)
(Please note that the brands of the paints are very important as colors vary widely between manufacturers)
Although I use a limited palette for my paintings, I always start out by mixing puddles of several colors before I start the actual painting. Doing this accomplishes two things: it helps me to slow down and analyze the color before I dive headlong into painting, and it allows me to have an expanded choice of colors when I begin to paint. I always mix the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet) regardless of what I’m painting, and the rest of the puddles of color are close approximations to what I’m seeing in the subject matter. Pre-mixing takes some time at the beginning of the painting, but it really saves time once I start to paint: I already have so many colors figured out and can concentrate on the subtle shifts in temperature and value that I’m seeing. Also, I don’t break the rhythm of painting to drop my brush, get out my palette knife and mix new color.
Here’s a shot of my palette before I start a painting:
And here’s the finished painting from that palette:
There are certainly countless artists out there who use extensive palettes and get beautiful results, and my selection of pigments is just one way to approach painting. But if you have never used a limited palette, give this a try- you might be surprised with the results and be able to bypass all those rows of paint next time you’re in the art store.
Throughout the ages since the very first scrawls were made in caves and tribal hunting events were recorded on walls, people have been using colors made of ochres, umbers, madders, bugs, mummies, minerals, shells, iron oxides, and plants. These pigments decorated sheets of papyrus, vellum, paper, faces, bodies, fabrics, clothing, tools, leather, weapons, walls, ceilings, and stones far and near.
People perhaps just hacked a chunk off the cave wall and started noodling, or charred a bone from last night’s dinner, or took a stick from the fire and began to make marks. The earth itself for thousands of centuries has created a harmonious palette of archival and readily available colors to create some of the most beautiful and enduring art in the world.
Today, artists around the world are still using many of those same pigments as used in the past. Thanks to specialty companies, we know more about the composition, archival quality, rarity, cost, permanence, transparency, opacity, toxicity, saturation, drying times, and source of these pigments — issues which are enormously important to artists.
This topic has become a passion for me over the recent years, and I have experimented with most of the available historical pigments in one way or another, creating several in-depth projects that involve both artistic and cultural research. The most profound characteristics discovered are that these pigments are splendid to work with and endlessly beautiful.
Mother Nature herself has done the palette preparation work for me, as the natural subtle muted quality is all ready to go. Time has aged the ochres into dazzling arrays of warm and cool yellows that, when placed side by side, are instantly pleasing to the senses. The umbers work in the same way and come in stunning varieties of light, medium, and very dark, depending on the source. Lapis Lazuli, azurite, malachite, and ivory black comprise my list of favorites. Technically not an earth color, but manufactured by the ancient Egyptians, Egyptian blue frit is a clear crisp color used to decorate the dizzying riches of the Pharaohs.
Natural cinnabar, my favorite red mineral pigment, formed eons ago by a perfect marriage of mercury and sulfur is mined in Spain, Russia and the west coast of the US, including Oregon where I live. You can see the beauty in the muted hue, which is not garish at all.
To my eye, the modern cadmiums are so highly saturated they overpower my canvas and are difficult to handle on the palette. I find this true also of other modern colors such as phthalo greens and blues. Occasionally, when my mad-scientist self gets restless, I break out of this mold and experiment with some of the modern azo, turquoise, and quinacridones, but I usually will spend time muting or graying them down in some way.
Contrary to common knowledge, making hand-made paints is relatively easy once safety precautions are in place. All you need is a mask, a little oil, pigment, a grinding slab, and a muller. The dry pigment powder is mostly ready to go and just involves mixing in the oil to make sure all of the pigment disperses with the oil.
Another common misconception is the natural pigments are too toxic to handle carefully. Actually, there are only a few that have warnings and with caution, those can be handled too. I always use a respirator and gloves while wearing a smock, and most importantly, I grind the paint in an area with no breeze such as a fan or blowing furnace vent.
Rather than using orpiment, which is problematic and toxic, I use chrome yellow at the suggestion of Eric Hebborn, the infamous art forger. (He implemented this ploy when repainting over old canvases that he intended to sell as fakes). You can see chrome yellow mixed with cinnabar here on the tangerines in The Golden Age. The range of colors is amazing when using just a few earth colors. Rembrandt had about 20 in his repertoire.
It really is a process of elimination. I use just the colors that are safe after they are encased in oil and toss out the fugitive (many of the plant-based colors) or toxic colors. I use caution and strict hygiene habits while painting. Most importantly, the mere fact of having a few select colors on my palette to deal with allows easy and quick decision color mixtures.
More and more interest in hand-ground paints made from natural pigments is surfacing lately. I invite you to choose a few colors, (even if you do not grind the paint yourself, purchase the ready-made), and experiment. Do some studies and see the difference in the surface quality of your canvas. Make that connection between you the painter, the aesthetic of your art, and your materials. The results just might be profoundly gratifying.