It is common for beginning painters to get perplexed by all of the colour choices available today for artists. How many colours do you need? Which ones are the best? As with everything in art there are no right or wrong answers here. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish. A few artists have gone their entire careers relying on only a handful of colours. However, most settle somewhere in the range of 10-20 colours. In this post I will try to explain my palette and why each colour has a place in it. I won’t talk too much about specific brands of colour as I’ve already covered that in this post (link) but I will focus more on the pigments themselves.
First I will say a few words about limited palettes. I would define a limited palette as anything under 6 colours. Some artists like Anders Zorn take this to the extreme and use only 3 or 4. Limited palettes have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it is much easier to create colour harmony when you only use a few colours. Designs with a multitude of different colours can work, but for the uninitiated less is more. Starting out with very few colours is also a good exercise in learning what mixes you can get out of the particular paints you have chosen. One possible disadvantage of a limited palette is that you will not be able to mix certain colours in the spectrum. You can work around this by planning carefully and decreasing the saturation of all the other colours in a painting in order to make a certain colour stand out, or you can just add the necessary pigment to your palette for that painting.
When I talk about colours in your palette I am really talking about colours you have at your disposal for any particular piece. I personally never have all of my available colours squeezed out on my paper palette at any one time. I work on a small area at a time and so I will only lay out the colours that are necessary to paint that area. Otherwise I would be throwing away a lot of paint. People who work quickly and cover the entire canvas in a single session such as a plein air landscape painter will usually have most if not all of their available colours laid out to save time once painting begins.
When trying to decide what paints will make up your palette the first decision to be made is to determine the look you are going for. Are you a photo realist and trying to replicate a photo as closely as possible? You might be surprised, but you should be able to get the entire range of colours in a photograph out of only 4 colours: cyan(PB 15:4), magenta(PR122, or PV19),a close to primary yellow(PY74 or PY3) and black(PBk9). This is because most photo printers only use these 4 colours to print their images. This is the way that Chuck Close creates his paintings. If you like the look of the old masters then you will want to focus mostly on the earth colours and just throw in a couple of higher keyed colours in the blue and green range. If you are trying to imitate nature perfectly then you will likely want to try and cover as much of the spectrum as possible. The first step in making a successful painting is the same as the first step in anything successful: Determine what you are trying to achieve and then create a plan to get you there.
Anyone who knows basic colour theory will tell you that you should be able to mix every colour possible using only the three primaries. This might be true in theory but in reality no paint is completely without a bias and will not always mix not as a pure primary. The way I have tackled the issue is to have a relatively large pool of colours that cover the vast majority of the colour circle and then I pull a few colours from that pool as necessary for each painting. So in general for each different painting I use a limited or semi-limited palette, but the pigments chosen for each palette change from painting to painting. I love so many things about a limited palette but to use the same 4 or 5 colours in every painting introduces problems. The big one is that all of your paintings are going to look the same. The same colour harmonies will be showing up again and again. The same accent colours and colour pairings will be used repetitively. It can get boring both as a painter and a viewer. It is much the same as a songwriter continually writing songs in the Key of G Major using a standard tuning on a guitar. It will all sound the same after a while because your options for creative problem solving are limited.
The following are the pigments that make up my full palette and why I like them:
PO73, Pyrrol Orange: This is a powerful, lightfast orange that I use when I need to punch up tints made with Cadmium Orange or when I want to add a fiery touch to a red. This is a highly saturated colour that gives a lot of versatility in mixing. Makes an interesting violet when mixed with ivory black.
PO20, Cadmium Orange Deep: This is my go-to orange. Nice and opaque and a pure orange. Like all the cadmiums it greys out in tints so that’s when I’ll use the Pyrrol Orange to punch it back up when it’s necessary.
PR254, Pyrrol Red: Also known as Ferrari red after being used on Ferarri’s from 2000-2002. It is a strong medium red that is highly saturated and holds its own when tinted. Like with Pyrrol Orange I usually use this in combination with a cadmium red when more power is needed in a tint.
PR108, Cadmium Red Light: A fiery orangey red that is very opaque and a great all around pigment.
PR122, Quinacridone Magenta: Forget Alizarin Crimson, this is the pigment to go with. Even though it is a violet shifted red it still creates strong oranges when mixed with yellow and beautiful violets and purples with blues. This makes it very versatile. If I want to balance out its transparency I’ll add a little bit of Cad Red Deep to mitigate this.
PR108, Cad Red Deep: A darker cherry red that is very opaque and useful in shadow areas or to mix lower key violets and purples.
PV14, Cobalt Violet: A semi-transparent expensive colour. It is not a strong tinter which I actually see as a strength because it makes it useful to tone down yellows without blowing them apart or to give a slight violet edge to blues or reds. Used by itself it is a perfect violet and much more lightfast than dioxazine purple.
PB29, Ultramarine Blue: This pigment seems to make it into almost everyone’s palette. It is inexpensive and a very beautiful colour. That said I find I don’t actually use it very much. Mostly I’ll use it to shift Cobalt blue ever so slightly more to the warm side if needed. Brand matters with Ultramarine Blue because it can be a very stringy pigment if no additives are added which of course can be a godsend or the bane of your existence depending on how you paint.
PB28, Cobalt Blue: A pure blue very close to a “primary blue” with just the smallest touch of red shift. This is my basic blue that gets used as a starting point for most mixes. Expensive, but worth it.
PB15:4, Pthalo Blue Green Shade: This is a very powerful colour. Be careful when adding this into the mix as you are likely going to blow everything apart unless you use tiny dabs. For mixing I find it more useful with a bit of titanium white added beforehand to knock back the tinting power a bit. I mostly use Pthalo Blue when I need to add some power to one of the mineral blues. It is a very saturated colour and keeps its power in tints and can give you some very unnatural blues and greens which can be a good or bad thing of course depending on the look you are going for.
PB35, Cerulean Blue: Usually one of the most expensive pigments in a manufacturers offerings I use it because I find no mix quite matches the hue of Cerulean Blues unmixed masstone. It’s a great starting point when painting water and blue skies.
PB36, Cobalt Turquoise: I use Blue Ridge Artist Colors Cobalt Turquoise which is a green shifted turquoise. It’s very opaque and has many uses and bridges the gap between blue and green really nicely.
PG17, Chrome Green Oxide: This is a super opaque mid green that is fairly muted but makes a very good starting point for natural looking greens. Very useful for floral or landscape painting you could easily use this in portraiture as well however. If I could have only one green this would be it.
PG23, Terre Verte: This is one of my favourite colors. This is the true green earth pigment, not a mix that is supposed to simulate it. Very useful for glazing it also makes a perfect mixer due to its extremely low tinting strength. It will neutralize and calm down reds without browning them out too much and it’s useful for adding to blues when you want a subtle green shift. Also good if you want to make a colour slightly more transparent and cooler at the same time.
PY53, Nickel Titanium Yellow: This is a cool dull yellow that is opaque. I don’t tend to use it very often but it can be useful when you want to make light opaque lime greens. It’s a good one to have around as well to cool off greens or dull violets.
PY41, Naples Yellow Light: This is a pigment that most manufacturers don’t carry and is generally quite expensive. I like it as it is a relatively fast drying light yellow. Similar to Nickel Titanium Yellow but less cool and a little bit deeper.
PY35, Cadmium Yellow Deep: I use Blue Ridge Artist Colours CYD which is equivalent to most other lines CY medium. It is a warm yellow that is really a staple for me. Makes great olive greens with ivory black and is useful when you need to warm things up.
PY41, Naples Yellow Deep: A warm yellow-orange ochre colour. I find this is a good one to add to yellow ochre to make it a bit more palatable and knock back the strength a bit. Not one I use a lot, but it has its place when painting gold objects.
PY42, Yellow Ochre: This is Blue Ridge’s synthetic iron oxide yellow, not a natural yellow ochre. I use this more as a convenience colour so I don’t have to mix a dull yellow.
PR101, Mars Red: There are many many versions of this pigment out there. The one I use is Blue Ridge’s which is a very strong orangey-brown-red. Like the yellow ochre I use this mostly out of convenience when I need a basic orangey-brown starting point to mix from.
PBr6, Burnt Umber: PBr6 is the synthetic version of burnt umber, not the natural earth. I like it because it is more opaque which works well for my method of painting. It is a nice chocolate milk brown that is great in getting backgrounds to look like those of the old masters.
PBk9, Ivory Black: This is my most used black and the one I mix with the most. It isn’t an overly strong tinter like mars black so it’s useful when blending dark greys into lighter colours as you won’t have them overpowered. This is a very oily colour and a very slow drier however so it shouldn’t be used straight for underpainting which being mixed first with some lower oil content paint like lead white.
PBk11, Mars Black: I don’t use this colour very often. I find it is too strong of a tinter to mix well, but I keep it on my palette for when I want a nice dark black background. It is much leaner than ivory black and so I will first paint the area in mars black and then glaze ivory black on top to get a deep dark black.
PBk28, Black Spinel: This is a new addition to my palette and I haven’t really had time to fully explore it. It is supposed to be a true neutral and is more expensive than the carbon black pigments. I don’t expect this one to replace ivory black, but depending on how it goes it might be a good fit for my style instead of Mars Black.
PW6: Titanium White: If I could only have one white this would be the one I would choose. A lot of people don’t like the chalkiness and tinting power of Titanium white but it works well for me. I really like opacity and this is the go-to pigment for adding opacity. I like the pure PW6 versions of titanium white, rather than those with zinc white added.
PW1: Lead Carbonate: This is my second most used white. In fact most of the time my general mixing white is a combo of PW6, PW1 and sometimes some PW3 as well. When mixed with Titanium white this pigment will warm the titanium up ever so slightly, speed the drying a bit and add some strength to the paint film.
PW3: Lead Sulfate: This is a newer addition. I get this from Blue Ridge who mixes it with some titanium white and calls it Flemish White and quite like it. It is a much faster drier than Lead Carbonate so it is good for those situations when you need a quick drier. I’m not a huge fan of the consistency of the paint as it is so I’ll usually mix it with PW1 and PW6 for general use.
Am I worried about the health implications of using lead paints? Nope. Lead containing oil paint is only dangerous if you do the following: 1) eat it, and 2) inhale the pigment either in unbound dry powder form or the dust from sanding dried lead white paint. I don’t eat or smoke in my studio (don’t smoke at all actually) and I wash my hands fastidiously after painting. I also don’t sand down paintings, or make my own paints but for those who do this is a valid concern. I totally get why lead white is banned in house paints and I agree with that restriction. House paint is usually left on walls for long periods of time and will eventually flake off and be crumbled into dust or small particles that children can ingest. Oil paint for artistic purposes is a different matter altogether however and if used responsibly and kept out of reach of children can be totally safe.
Here are a couple examples of my paintings and the more limited palettes I chose from my full roster for each one:
“Love you to Death” Oil on Polyester Canvas, 24 x 30 inches.
Pigments used: Lead White (carbonate and sulfate), Titanium White, Ivory Black, Pyrrol Orange, Cad Red Light, Cad Red Deep, Quinacridone Magenta, Cobalt Blue.
“Leaving Home” Oil on Panel, 24 x 24 inches
Pigments Used: Lead Carbonate White, Titanium White, Ivory Black, Naples Yellow Dark, Burnt Umber, Quinacridone Magenta, Cobalt Violet, Cobalt Turquoise, Cobalt Blue, Chrome Oxide Green
“The Offering” Oil on Panel, 24 x 30 inches
Pigments Used: Lead Carbonate White, Titanium White, Ivory Black, Cad Yellow Medium, Mars Red, Quinacridone Magenta, Cobalt Violet, Cobalt Blue, Chrome Oxide Green
“The day you told me that you loved him” Oil on Panel, 24 x 30 inches
Pigments Used: Lead Carbonate White, Titanium White, Ivory Black, Naples Yellow Light, Cad Yellow Deep, Cad Red Light, Cobalt Blue, Chrome Oxide Green, Terre Verte, Burnt Umber