Artist Palette Profiles: Poppy Balser

I recently started a series of classes with Poppy Balser, a celebrated Canadian artist based on the Nova Scotia coast who works in oil and watercolor. Balser uses a very limited palette!

The Palette

Poppy Balser-inspired palette

Balser uses 7 colors from the Michael Harding brand.

SlotPB Uses…
[all Michael Harding]
PB-Suggested Alternatives
Lemon YellowYellow Benzimidazolone (PY151)[any brand] Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
Middle YellowHansa Yellow Medium (PY97)
Earth YellowOchre Icles Lemon (PY43)Yellow-toned Raw Sienna such as DS Raw Sienna Light, WN Raw Sienna, HO Raw Sienna (all PY42)
Pink/MagentaQuinacridone Rose (PV19)
Dark BlueUltramarine Blue (PB29)
Middle BlueCobalt Blue (PB28)
CyanCerulean Blue (PB36)

Of these, only 3 were primarily used in the first class: earth yellow, Quin Rose, and Cobalt Blue. Cerulean, Ultramarine, and Hansa Yellow were used occasionally/incidentally.

Using a Limited Palette with Poppy Balser

I found it amazing what a wide variety of sky colors were possible with the ochre/rose/cobalt blue triad, including graded blue skies, soft coastal sunsets, and complex cloud grays/mauves. Cobalt Blue really is a lovely color for the sky. I found it interesting that Balser does not use Ultramarine Blue in the sky; UB is her dark/shadow mixer, as she finds it too dark/violet/granulating in the sky (as do I, tbh).

Poppy Balser class sky series (Arches CP 9×12″ pad that I forgot to tape down)

Like many limited-palette artists, Balser rarely paints her colors straight on, but spends time mixing up large puddles of different colors before she begins. For example, in skies, Balser nearly always started by mixing a large amount of Cobalt Blue with at least a little of the earth yellow, except where the reference was extremely vibrant.

I could not quite figure out how she got dark colors. Granted she did switch to Ultramarine (not Cobalt) for mixing up those landscape blacks/dark grays, but I couldn’t emulate it even with Ultramarine. I ended up turning to my good buddy Indanthrone.

More notes from class

Using flat brushes

Balser only uses flat brushes (Rosemary sable one-stroke long flats). Previously, I did not ever use flat brushes in watercolor, but only gouache. The brushes I used were therefore firmer and more synthetic than I normally use for watercolor, since I wanted to try out her brush shape/strokes. I have to say that I definitely did come to appreciate the variety of shapes I could make with the flats. For example, it’s a lot easier to make small lines (e.g. boat masts) and flat horizons, and easier to make sharp corners for cloud edges, roofs, trees, etc.

She also suggests long handles to encourage holding them further back on the handle.

Water control & humidity problems

A few of Balser’s ways of working seem adapted mainly to humid climates. For example, she doesn’t pre-wet or stretch her paper, but instead paints very wet paint onto dry paper. This gives her more vibrant colors. She can then soften the cloud edges, or leave some of them sharp. She says she only paints wet-on-wet as a second layer, if she realizes she needs to darken her base wash after it dries.

I like how it turns out for her, but I couldn’t make it work for me; no matter how fast I went back to soften up the clouds, the sky had already dried enough that I got those horrible sharp backruns. Maybe in the summer I could do this, but working in winter with 35% humidity in my air, I had to pre-wet (which meant that I got more drying shift & all my cloud edges were soft).

First version of Poppy Balser class sky series, wet on dry (Arches CP 8″ block)


I enjoyed the class a lot. The humidity thing was a frustrating lesson, but we also practiced some things that I’m really excited about continuing, like increased use of flat brushes and Cobalt Blue!