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  July 2007           Knowing Your Palette

I don’t believe there is anything more sensuous or beautiful than the right mixture of pigments in a well-executed painting. Nonetheless, mixing the right colors seems to be an endless source of frustration for many artists. The tempo of watercolor painting demands quick decisions, and it’s imperative that the painter has a thorough knowledge of what will happen in his choice of color mixtures.

We all begin with a basic knowledge of color. Red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green and so forth. However, it’s imperative that we know the characteristics of our paints. Will the mixture I choose accomplish my goals? Will the outcome be the final color I was aiming for? Will the colors granulate (cerulean blue and cadmium red), will one of the pigments overpower and dominate (pthalo blue, alizarin crimson) and will I be able to achieve the value I want, using a particular mixture?

By familiarizing ourselves with our palette, we can address all of these questions long before we begin laying down washes on that big masterpiece. After all, no concert musician gives a recital without having spent a great deal of time practicing his scales. So let me offer some suggestions on how you can become better acquainted with the colors on your palette.

One sure fire way of accomplishing this task is to paint a series of color charts. These charts will give you a comprehensive knowledge of how each of your pigments interacts with the other pigments on your palette. It will also provide you with a lifetime reference for future works.

The concept is simple, but requires steady concentration.

You select a particular color – say ultramarine blue. You then pick another color on your palette – say cadmium red. Mix them together in eight color swatches with values ranging from one to eight. Make sure that each mixture is one value darker than the previous. It will take some practice. Don’t be discouraged. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

When you’ve got that one down, take ultramarine and another pigment, like alizarin crimson, and repeat the procedure. Continue until you’ve mixed ultramarine against all the pigments on your palette. Then pick another pigment, like cobalt blue, and mix that pigment against all the colors on the palette. Do this with the other colors until you have complete charts on all the colors on your palette.

These charts will not only expand your knowledge of color, but they will also aid you in your understanding of value as well.

I know that these charts are tedious and time consuming, but the knowledge you will gain will be indelible, and I guarantee your control over color will take a quantum leap.

Here’s another approach that is a lot of fun and can accomplish similar results. Do a series of painting studies using only three primaries (red, yellow and blue). You would be amazed on how far you can go with just a warm and a cool of each of the primaries on your palette. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best route to go. By minimizing your color mixtures, you build in an automatic color harmony and gain an understanding of how certain pigments work with each other.

Take your cool blue (ultramarine blue) and paint a study using your warm red (cadmium red) and a yellow (new gamboges). Then use ultramarine, and alizarin crimson and new gamboge, and paint the same study. Then replace new gamboge with yellow ochre and paint the same study (once with cadmium red and once with alizarin crimson). Then move to cobalt blue and repeat the process.  Continue on until you’ve used all the combinations of primaries on your palette.

Not only will you be learning about the qualities of your pigments, but also you will be discovering new color harmonies that you never knew existed. I generally use this technique when I introduce a new color on my palette.

I’ve included a few examples that you might find interesting. Note how each combination lends a slightly different mood to each study, which pigments granulate and the effect of a semi-transparent, like naples yellow, has on the mixtures.

painting First study: Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red.

Second study: Cobalt Blue, Naples Yellow, Alizarin Crimson.


painting Third study: Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red.
painting Fourth study: Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge, Burnt Sienna.