Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why I changed my palette

©Theresa Grillo Laird - Winter Day on Navarre Beach - oil - 12x18"
(the first venture into using a 3 color palette)

Many years ago in Mr. Wright's high school painting class, he laid out a palette of colors for a lesson on portrait painting. The idea of a set palette of colors was new to me. Until then I had just squeezed out what ever colors seemed needed for the subject. Even afterwards, I still had such a poor understanding of color options that when I went to a workshop after high school, I struggled to remember the palette thinking that it was the one and only palette that anyone ever used.

As I gained more experience, I adopted a standard all purpose traditional palette. It had a cadmium red and alizarine crimson, ultramarine, prussian and cobalt blues, cadmium yellow light and deep, yellow ochre, burnt and raw sienna and raw and burnt umber, venetian red, viridian green and terre vert. I also used sap green a lot in those days- I just plain liked the color.

The next shift in my palette occurred when I moved to Florida and began painting much more frequently en plein air. I didn't deliberately start using fewer colors. I just chose colors I saw in front of me. I had also started teaching, and  a palette of 6 to 8 colors- a warm and cool of the primaries- was easier for students to handle. 
Since from my earliest painting days, I'd used both a palette knife and a brush, the look of the paintings came from both texture and the color.

The paintings were selling and buyers especially liked the color and the texture. You'd think I'd be off and running, but I wasn't happy. The paintings seemed overly bright and it became too much of a crutch to rely on texture to create vibration in them. 

So about two years ago, I started working with much less knife work and with only permanent red, ultramarine blue and cadmium lemon yellow.
The greys that result from combinations of these three colors give the paintings a more naturalistic range of color very different from the brights of the more extended palette. Painters who advocate using a three color palette say you can get a full range of colors from them. I think it's more accurate to say you can get the appearance of a full range of colors by balancing brighter mixtures against greyer ones.

I miss the pure pleasure of looking at a tapestry of saturated colors on the canvas but I like the greater sense of color harmony that comes with the smaller palette. I still haven't decided which I like better. Lately a few of my old favorites and a couple of new colors have made their way back, mostly varieties of red that are so useful for modifying colors.

It may be so soon to know if I'm on a wild goose chase that I'll abandon like Pissarro did with his pointillist period or Renoir with his hard edged portrait work. But I'd have never been satisfied if I didn't at least try experimenting with something that might work better to make a better painting. And isn't that after all what it's all about.


  1. Thanks for the "Palette" update. Very helpful.

    1. You're welcome! You're posting as anonymous. I'd love to know who I'm speaking to- tell me who you are!


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