A very common question among painters is ‘what colors do you use’. Color is a complicated thing, but that’s a seemingly innocuous question. Before talking about what colors I use, it’s worth mentioning that people tend to understand the answer in funny ways- as if introducing or eliminating a color from a color arsenal is going to produce similar results.
A disclaimer: there are no magic tricks in painting. A skilled painter can use a myriad of bright colors, Quinacridones, Pthalos and Perylenes to make a monochrome picture, and a skilled painter can also use a very limited palette to create a seemingly color-filled picture. All that matters are the colors on the canvas at the end. Color should not be glaringly obvious. To achieve subtle color relationships, many train using some sort of limited palette, working their colors up often from brownish-grey. I was trained in this way, and have slowly added and subtracted colors here and there over the years, depending on the situation.
In Florence, for the portrait or figure, we trained with a four color limited palette- Lead White, Yellow Ocher, Vermillion and Ivory Black. This works well for flesh, you can achieve a lot of beautiful, subtle variation with this palette, but high chroma colors outside of pinkish or peachy yellows will be hard to hit. Also, your greens, blues and purples in general will, of course, be very limited. Generally, since those super bright notes will be hard to hit, your painting will generally take on a slightly darker, umbrish tone. Not being able to hit high chroma colors isn’t necessarily a fault when you’re painting flesh tones. Pinkish, peach, silvery bright colors are perfect for the light on a forehead or cheekbone, or light falling across a back. Flesh is mostly low-chroma. It works well, and has for a long, long time. Cavemen had four pigments- white of chalk or burnt chicken bones, yellow or red earth, and black from charcoal of the fire. These four pigments have been around for a long time.
Altamira Bison- Red Ocher/Umber and Carbon Black. Estimated 11,000-19,000 years old.
If you’re going to use a limited palette, the quality of your colors becomes immensely important. The tinting strength and transparency of a yellow ocher is directly related to how many deep greens you can mix without the paint turning chalky and grey. This of course varies greatly from brand to brand and even batch to batch, depending not only on the source and quantity of pigment, but the color and quality of the oil. These are hard factors to guess at without doing some testing, and not all paints are created equal.
We live in a time of marketing and repeated information. Recently, the ‘Zorn Palette’ (a basic four-color limited palette, like above) has become a popular concept, repeated on blogs and messageboards, until it’s sort of become the accepted name of a limited palette. Though mixing some whites with some blacks can make low-chroma blues, and placing them next to or over an orangish tone can make a low chroma blue seem much brighter through simultaneous contrast, you cannot make a sky blue without blue. You can’t really make a bright green with ochre and black. Here’s a great post with extensive commentary fromJames Gurney about Anders Zorn and the ‘Zorn Palette’, though unfortunately he doesn’t offer many examples with blues and greens. Zorn’s paintings are quite unified, limited in color, certainly not a showcase of all the colors available at the colorman. I would say though, he used blue occasionally, and a Lead Tin or Naples Yellow when necessary. That’s just me hazarding a guess. Whatever Zorn used, it worked for him, and that’s what’s important.
In simple terms, in order to paint a variety of outdoor effects with a limited palette, you will need to introduce some blue, at a minimum. A brighter yellow is a good idea as well. I made my first forays into painting outdoors in 2004, while I was finishing the Florence Academy program. The outdoor palette I started with was some mix of what Dan Graves recommended and what Gammell told Cecil to use, then filtered through Marc Dalessio who was teaching the class was Lead White, Cad Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre, Vermillion or Cad Red Light, Alizarin, Cerulean and Ultramarine Blue. White, Two yellows, two reds, and two blues. This was a big shift from the studio palette. I would almost always bring some umber along, coming from a studio painting environment I wasn’t comfortable mixing down from bright blues and yellows to brown, it was easier to add a bit of color to my brown-greys. It was a good palette for me to start with, and I recommend the same palette to students today.
Old picture of old palette
Painting on Ponte Santa Trinita’
When I paint portraits, I still use a very limited palette, not dissimilar to the four color palette described above. For painting outdoors, however, I’ve begun introducing colors which have actually stayed on my palette. Some get cycled in or out, depending on the subject.
The most drastic change to my outdoor palette is that I’ve almost entirely replaced Lead White with Titanium. I only use Lead White these days when I need to paint texture, in the sky or clouds, rocks or path, and those textures are usually done in the studio. Titanium covers better, so you can work faster, and outdoors effects change quickly. Although it’s a slow drying, everything dries quickly in the warm air outdoors or in the hot car. Also, it’s brilliant white, so it suits what I’m working on these days, especially the high value key effects.
Here’s the palette I was using through September in Russia
Counter clockwise, the above palette is Titanium White, Nickel Yellow (Nickel Yellow from Williamsburg is a decent replacement for genuine Naples Yellow Lt), Cad Yellow light, Yellow Ochre, Cad Orange, Cad Red medium, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Red Oxide, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue Medium, Ultramarine Blue and Cobalt Violet. There’s some Pthalo Green and Blue on there, and there may be some Viridian in that muck at the bottom. I use the Pthalos very rarely, but they’re handy for grey days and some bright sky colors. I don’t use black outside, except, apparently, when in Russia. There’s a bit of black at the end there.
I go through a lot of paint these days, and have less and less free time in the studio. Consequently I’ve been using my handground paints less and less. These days, I’ve been using mostly Michael Harding’s oils. His paints are similar in quality to, and sometimes better than my handground colors. I love his cadmiums, a tube just lasts forever. I also like how open Harding is about what he puts in his colors, very little but a high pigment load. I always enjoy speaking with him about materials, and it’s a refreshing trend over the past years that paint companies have become increasingly open about what they put in their paint. Michael’s been like that since I met him in 2004.
I have been dabbling with other brands too. Gamblin, Utrecht, Williamsburg, mostly. Having had the experience of making my own paint for years I am very judicious when testing and choosing colors. I can usually find something that suits my needs, that said, when I need a paint with body, or a particular unctuous characteristic, my handground is still best for me.
These are ostensibly more colors than I need outdoors- some colors just come in handy. I use Cobalt Violet for drawing and painting distant details. So much of nature is grey, and it’s just great for painting greys. Real Naples Yellow Light has great body, and works well for mixing low chroma greens. I could mix those greens with Cad Yellow, but it’s faster. I don’t need either of those colors, but expedience is a tool when working outdoors. I rarely need all of these at any one time, and I certainly didn’t need all of that blue for the below painting.
Here I use both a half-box easel and a metal tripod to get the picture to eye level.
When working large, I use a box easel. It’s pretty wind resistant, and you can hold things in it. When I need more stability and space, I use a lightweight tripod easel to hold the painting. That way the palette can rest, and I can get the painting up at eye level. You can hang a heavy bag from a tripod easel, which is very helpful on windy days. When driving, I usually use this kit, tons of storage and workspace. The tripod easel is called an ‘Italian Field Easel’, and I believe they’re made by Richeson. The steel version lasts longer than the aluminum one.
When traveling, however, a box easel can be difficult to carry. In the above picture sitting on the shelf of the box easel is a small cigar box. They weigh nothing, and are usually free from a tobacconist. With my tripod easel and cigar box I can paint small to medium size paintings, and that kit weigh less than 15 pounds. I load up the box with paint before leaving, and if I have a long hike ahead of me, it’s the easiest to carry. If the canvas doesn’t fit in my bag, I carry it. The easel I sling over my shoulder.
When climbing on foot to the top of a windy hill every day, the lightweight cigar box kit works best for me.
Generally, I don’t usually have much to put on this site but pictures. Images are usually enough to put out there- but I thought it would be worth discussing for a moment what I’ve been using, as it’s made my life easier. It’s taken me some time to juggle all the colors that are on my paint table, even if I’m only using a few of them at a time. This is what works for me.
My cigar box kit. Fits up to 20″ high canvases.