This is the crossroads I have reached when trying to optimize my color selection for everyday painting.
What is a mixing palette?
My strategy so far has been to gravitate toward a mixing palette: choosing colors based on their ability to be used as the building blocks for other colors in mixes. This means typically choosing single-pigment, bright colors. You can always make colors more muted by mixing, but not brighter.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the most minimal palette I would be comfortable using, based on colors that are easy to mix. It goes something like this:
- A magenta like Quin Rose (PV19)
- A middle yellow like Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97), Pure Yellow (PY154) or Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150)
- A mixing green like Phthalo Green (PG7 or PG36)
- A mixing blue like Phthalo Blue (PB15) – green or red shade both good
- A dark violet blue like Indanthrone Blue (PB60) or Ultramarine (PB29)
- An earth orange like Transparent Red Oxide (PR101) or Burnt Sienna (PBr7) or Quinacridone Burnt Orange (PO48)
I think a minimal mixing palette is a great, strategic way to start building a color collection because it reduces your options – you don’t have to choose between every paint a company offers, just the basic single-pigment brights. It also minimizes the number of colors you need to own before you can start painting anything you like, in any color you like. And it normalizes and promotes color mixing, which is a skill you’ll use forever.
However, at a certain point, you may find yourself mixing the same colors over and over. Or wishing you just had a quick (leaf green, bark brown, sand beige, or whatever) to reach for in the field. The flipside of all of these colors being so bright is that they all require a little (or a lot of) mixing in order to produce natural-looking landscape colors.
What is a convenience palette?
A convenience palette is geared more toward being able to get paint to paper as efficiently as possible, spending minimal time on mixing. This can be crucial if you’re working quickly outdoors.
“Convenience colors” are often pre-made mixes offered by paint companies – such as Sap Green, a natural-looking leaf color which is usually a mix of a Phthalo Green and a yellow-orange. You can also make your own convenience mixes by mixing together two or more paints at home and letting it dry on the palette, so when it’s time to paint, you’re ready to roll.
In order to build a convenience palette, you need to know what it is you want to paint and what color it’s likely to be – or else you end up negating the convenience with the expense and trouble of owning or pre-mixing hundreds of slightly different colors.
As a landscape artist, it’s important to know what colors are prevalent in your environment, which may change based on specific location and the time of year.
Taking advice from online artists can be detrimental because their subjects are not necessarily the same as your subjects. For the artists I follow, who live and work all over the world, favorite colors are often influenced by the landscape around them.
- On a fellowship in the desert, Claire Giordano used a lot of Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Quin Rose, and Indian Red.
- The Australian artists I follow tend to like a green-blue sky (Cerulean Chromium) and sage green foliage (Undersea Green, Serpentine).
- In painting Italian architecture, Liz Steel uses a lot of Naples Yellow and Potter’s Pink.
What colors exist in my landscape?
Here are some photos I took in New England at different times of year. Below, I’ll brainstorm some colors I see in the environment.
Colors I see:
- Neutral gray for the sky (Neutral Tint)
- A bright red such as Pyrrol Red for the flashes of bright rosehip
- A range of dark muted tones in the background and shadows (Burnt and/or Raw Umber, maybe Perylene Green, more Neutral Tint)
- Muted yellow-green-brown for the reeds. At first I thought Yellow Ochre but I think that’s too orangey. Maybe one of the natural Raw Umbers, like German Greenish Raw Umber? Maybe Buff Titanium?
- Earthy reddish maroon for the branches and berry shadows (Perylene Maroon, Quin Burnt Scarlet, or Perylene Violet)
Colors I see:
- Flower petals include a wide variety of yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples. Some ideas that jump out at me are Hansa Yellow Deep, Vermilion, Quinacridone Magenta, Purple Magenta, and Imperial Violet.
- Then, lots of luscious greens (Sap Green? Hooker’s Green? Cobalt Green? Chromium Oxide Green? I’m not familiar enough with all the greens there are to pinpoint them.)
Colors I see:
- Green, green, and more green! Spring Green or a relatively bright Sap Green for most of the plants, Rich Green Gold for dappled sunlight greens, and Perylene Green for plant shadows.
- Burnt Sienna or Transparent Red Oxide for the flashes of earth-orange in the dry leaf bed underneath.
- A very dark yellow-brown such as Raw Umber or Van Dyke Brown for the shadows and brown stream.
- Some sort of warm gray for the rocks.
- Nickel Azo Yellow or Quin Gold to make more sunlight effects.
Colors I see:
- In the leaves, definitely Rich Green Gold, possibly also Quin Gold.
- Earthy, granulating reds such as Perylene Red and Transparent Red Oxide, possibly also something in the middle like Deep Scarlet or Quin Burnt Scarlet.
- Maybe a granulating brown like Transparent Brown Oxide or Burnt Umber.
- A middle blue sky like Phthalo Blue RS or Cobalt.
You can see from my seasonal images that there’s quite a bit of variation in color in my local environment, which makes it difficult to choose convenience colors – different situations call for different colors! There was some overlap, particularly when it came to earth tones like Transparent Red Oxide, Raw Umber, and Quin Gold; and greens, like Sap Green and Perylene Green. Other than that, I think it might be best to create different convenience palettes for different seasons … or stick with a mixing palette! I had to hold myself back from describing how I’d mix these colors.
What colors did you see in these images? What colors do you see in the world around you?