Lessons from Artist Palette Profiles

I’ve been doing a regular feature, Artist Palette Profiles, for months now. In this feature, I look up the palette colors used by an artist I admire, and I compare my own colors to see how I could imitate them better. To be honest, I think it’s probably one of the most boring features I do for everyone who isn’t me. So why do I do it?

Why do I do this?

The reasons have evolved over time.

I’d be doing it anyway.

One of my promises to myself when I started this blog was that I wouldn’t go out of my way to create content based on its likely interest to others, which would start to feel like a chore, but I would instead use it as a place to post the materials I was already generating for my own curiosity. If I’m already making a chart of every green I can mix with my palette, why not post it somewhere, if only so I can find it later? Even if I’m the only audience, using WordPress to organize this content and make it searchable has already helped me more than my previous solution of piling up an untidy stack of homemade color charts, sketchbooks, and scrap papers in the corner of my room, and bookmarking hundreds of artists’ websites.

Since researching artist’s palettes is something I’m compelled to do anyway, regardless of whether it interests anyone else, posting them is simply a way of getting the information organized with the rest of my watercolor materials, and off of random spreadsheets on my Google drive.

But why am I compelled to do it? The answers have evolved. Here are some, roughly in chronological order.

To copy paintings, do tutorials, or take classes.

If you’re following along with a tutorial, you have to figure out how your colors map to the teacher’s. This is how I got started on this dark path; after I moved on from doing tutorials, I continued to compare my colors to those of my favorite artists even when I wasn’t doing their tutorials.

To narrow down which colors are most essential.

One of the first reasons I was curious to research artist’s palettes, before I knew much about color, was to learn about new colors. The catalogues of most paint brands are overwhelming. Seeing what other artists used was a way of getting guidance through that morass. Surely a professional or a longtime hobbyist who has done their own research would be able to point me at the colors that were worth buying. Everyone has their special little pet colors, but the most useful colors tend to show up over and over.

To find gaps in my palette.

Once I had added a bunch of the most essential colors to my palette, my next question was/is, what’s missing?

In some ways this is insecurity (Is my palette good enough? Are my choices good enough?) But it’s also an attempt to stand on the shoulders of giants and pre-emptively solve problems that others have already solved. Looking deeply at others’ choices is a way of either reassuring myself (ah, I actually have that pigment or a similar one) or finding possible gaps in my palette (everyone else seems to have a brown, do I need one?)

To reassure myself of what I don’t need.

For every wonderful artist who swears by such-and-such a color, you can find ten more who don’t use that color at all. Looking at the type of artist that I admire and who make the kind of art I want to make, I’m often as inspired by what’s not on their palette as what is. I like it when artists don’t have any colors on their palette that I consider bummers (like earth tones).

To explore different ways of organizing and thinking about a palette.

Jeanne Dobie has category-based system which places higher priority on properties such as transparency and granulation than hue. Oto Kano uses a color wheel. Jane Blundell uses a grid which cross-references hue, value, and granulation. All of these solutions are not only unique and ingenious, they are thought-provoking and inspire deeper engagement with the personalities and unique qualities of each paint.

To see how others have problem-solved.

This particularly applies to the holistic process of putting together a palette as a whole, beyond to choosing of individual colors. For example, Jane Blundell explains that replacing Pyrrol Scarlet (an orangey red) with Transparent Orange (a reddish orange) in her palette also caused her to swap her Phthalo Blue for a less greenish blue, because she wanted to continue to ensure that those two colors would be a complementary pair. Looking across the palettes of other artists, including those who don’t explain themselves as cogently, it’s possible to see patterns in which types of colors artists seems to pair together, and what general guiding principles cause them to choose colors in the context of their other colors.

Lessons So Far

So what patterns have I noticed so far in the palette profiles I have done?

Color choices are sooooo subjective.

The first rule is that there are no rules. Everyone has strong opinions about color and they’re all different, and I’ve also developed my own strong opinions in opposition to theirs! You can toss out anyone’s opinion if they say such and such a color is their favorite because it’s the most beautiful. Someone is in love with every color; that doesn’t mean you will be. It’s sort of like going on a Tinder date because someone reviewed your potential date, “This is the most handsome guy on Tinder!!”

Usefulness is also deceptively subjective as a criteria. Some artists will say that such-and-such color is the perfect shade for painting (insert subject here). I tend to be overly swayed by this type of argument because it feels more objective than beauty, even though it’s also totally an opinion, and even though it has rarely occurred to me before that moment to try to paint (insert subject here).

As I’ve developed more confident opinions about hue and handling, I’ve learned to put less stock in subjective opinions of a color’s beauty or usefulness, and more in videos and descriptions of colors which demonstrate properties of the paint. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Aside from perceived beauty or lack thereof, I want to know about other upsides and downsides (i.e. how granulating or transparent is it? Is this brand’s version of this color high-chroma, or do you have to work hard to get any color? Is it hard or easy to rewet? Does it grade evenly or is it streaky?)

No color is universally essential.

As I mentioned above, sometimes artists’ palette gaps and minimalism are inspiring. You can get by without any color, so there’s really no reason to put something on your palette that you don’t like.

However, there are some colors that are more popular than others.

I wouldn’t let you go with just some vague platitudes about color being a personal choice! There are some colors that are more commonly found than others. Here are the results, by the numbers, of the palette profiles I’ve done so far.

Artists included: Claude Monet, Jane Blundell, Jeanne Dobie, John Muir Laws, Liz Steel, Kolbie Blume, Claire Giordano, Maria Coryell-Martin, Shari Blaukopf, Kim Crick, Nikki Frumkin, Scratchmade Journal, Oto Kano, Carrie Luc

SlotArtists Who Use or Recommend It (of 14)Examples
White4Schmincke Titanium White Gouache
Buff Titanium4
Lemon/Cool Yellow6Hansa Yellow Light, Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Lemon Yellow
Middle Yellow11Hansa Yellow Medium, Cadmium Yellow, Pure/Winsor Yellow
Deep/Warm Yellow6Hansa Yellow Deep, New Gamboge, Permanent Yellow Deep
Earth Yellow9Yellow Ochre, Goethite, MANS
Gold9Quinacridone Gold, Rich Green Gold (PY129), Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150)
Raw Sienna4
Orange7Cadmium Orange, Transparent Pyrrol Orange, Permanent/Benzimida/Winsor Orange
Earth Orange8Burnt Sienna, Transparent Red Oxide, Quin Burnt Orange
Scarlet (Orange-toned/Warm Red)10Pyrrol Scarlet, Cadmium Red, Vermilion (Hue), Quin Coral, Scarlet Lake
Red6Pyrrol/Winsor Red, Permanent Red, Perylene Red
Crimson (Dark Red)5Alizarin Crimson (and hues), Pyrrol Crimson
Earth Red/Maroon4Indian Red, Light Red, Imidazolone Brown
Quinacridone Rose10
Other Magenta3Quin Magenta (PR122) or Magenta (PV42)
Other Pinks5Potter’s Pink, Shell Pink, Opera Pink
Red-Violet3Quinacridone Violet, Mauve, Perylene Violet
Violet7Dioxazine/Carbazole Violet, Ultramarine Violet
Ultramarine Blue9Ultramarine Blue, French Ultramarine, Ultramarine Deep
Dark Blue8Indanthrone Blue, Indigo
Cobalt Blue8
Phthalo Blue (RS)4
Phthalo Blue (GS)8
Prussian Blue2
Cerulean Blue7
Other Light Blue3Manganese Blue, Horizon Blue
Phthalo Turquoise3
Cobalt Turquoise8Cobalt Turquoise, Cobalt Teal, Cobalt Teal Blue
Phthalo Green BS7
Convenience Green8
Yellow-Green4May Green, Phthalo Yellow-Green, Leaf Green
Dark Shadow Green6Perylene Green, Forest Green
Dark Brown5Raw Umber, Van Dyck Brown
Burnt Umber6
Gray9Payne’s Gray, Neutral Tint, Spinel Gray, Graphite
Black5Lamp Black, Lunar Black, Ivory Black

I tried to combine categories that were typically the same slot; if an artist had two colors in a slot (e.g. both Sap and Hooker’s Green), I only counted it once.

Top slots (those with more than 7 artists, e.g. over half of them):

  1. Bright middle yellow (typically Hansa Yellow Medium) – 11
  2. Scarlet (typically Pyrrol Scarlet or Cadmium Red) – 10
  3. Quinacridone Rose – 10
  4. Earth Yellow (Yellow Ochre, Goethite, or Monte Amiata) – 9
  5. Gold (typically Quinacridone Gold) – 9
  6. Ultramarine Blue – 9
  7. Gray (often Payne’s Gray) – 9
  8. Earth Orange (Burnt Sienna, Transparent Red Oxide) – 8
  9. Dark Blue (Indanthrone or Indigo) – 8
  10. Cobalt Blue – 8
  11. Phthalo Blue Green Shade – 8
  12. Convenience Green (typically Hooker’s or Sap Green) – 8
  13. Cobalt Turquoise/Teal – 8
  14. Orange (e.g. Cadmium, Benzimida, Pyrrol) – 7
  15. Violet (typically Dioxazine) – 7
  16. Phthalo Green Blue Shade – 7
  17. Cerulean Blue – 7

So there you have it, the most common colors that more than half of the artists I examined recommended. This is a bad way to choose a palette (since it doesn’t take into consideration purpose, genre, the relationships between the colors on the palette, and so on). Even so, I think it got good results! These are all the major colors, really, a good cross section of the types of paints that are typically chosen or recommended, and the ones you’d be most likely to see referenced in tutorials, classes, videos, blog posts, and so on.