For many years I used a palette consisting of whatever colors I felt I needed for a specific project. I tried to have lots of paints on hand- in fact, too many colors on hand all the time, and just squeezed out whatever seemed to be a good solution at the moment- then I tried to organize those paints into the image I wanted to make. Hopefully it worked out. It usually did.
But it led to a bit of inconsistency, and I found myself battling my materials to be more consistent. In order to be more consistent, I went about simplifying my color system.
Eventually I started to limit my pallete. Currently I use between 10-13 colors at any given time.
I also read Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima* which caused me to reevaluate my palette especially after doing color charts.
I have been using my current color pallete for about 8 years.
A quick review of colors I use, and the ones I have been able to eliminate, and why-
Cadmium Lemon- indispensable for landscape painting as a mixing color. Leans to green WN
Cadmium yellow pale- primary yellow. I use it in everything.
Cad Yellow deep- useful especially for flesh tones
Yellow ochre pale- a great warm opacifier. I try to maintain a consistent level of opacity in the final art when I am doing a painting that will be reproduced. Yellow ochre is often the basis of this, as well as titanium or Flake white. It is mixed from the three primary colors/.
Cadmium Orange- I use this in ways that I suspect are totally wrong, often to neutralize blues especially cobalt.
Alizarin Crimson- a “cool” red that leans towards the blue. Cadmium red- my primary red
Earth colors- all are mixed from the three primary colors, I usually use just one earth color, lately it’s burnt sienna. I way overused burnt sienna in my early career, I try to be more circumspect nowadays. I mix it with ultramarine blue as my “drawing color”. A good alternative (via Richard Schmid) is Transparent Red Oxide)
Viridian_ The only “tube” green. I sometimes think I am on the verge or eliminating it from my pallete, I think I can easily mix an alternative. It’s just convenient to have a green.
Ultramarine blue leans towards red
Cobalt blue primary blue
I used to use these colors, but they either have drawbacks (Prussian Blue for instance, while beautiful, tends to stain into everything when it’s on my pallet- so I only use it on special occasions when only it will do.
Cerulean blue I love it but I can make it
I occasionally use flake or zinc white when I want to mix my colors to be more flat, like gouache- a handy thing to be able to do, especially when I paint on an absorbent surface like paper.
Black- only in an emergency.
A word about brand names- I appreciate quality materials and tools. However, I also think it’s more important to be familiar with the materials you use than to constantly explore different brands- so I generally stick to one brand that works for me in a given color.
I generally use Windsor newton oils, they are the most readily available quality oil paint as I’ve been using them a long time. Gamblin colors are more uniform in their opacity so might be a good choice for an artist working in a flatter style but I wind up fighting the opacity- your experiences will differ from mine. Michael Harding oils are great, as are Holbein and many others. But if I was on a budget, I would prioritize spending my money on quality brushes** and surfaces** before buying exotic and unnecessarily expensive paints. A tip – if you want to explore a lot of brands of oil paints, start with trying their titanium white- the characteristics of a white paint will tell you most of what you want to know about the rest of the brand.
Last of all- be sure to squeeze out lots of paint onto the palette. Art teachers quickly learn that students often don’t put out enough paint to really do much- you need to have as lot of paint at the ready, or it will effect the decisions you make about how to apply it- a false economy. It takes a lot of paint to make a decent painting, not just for the painting itself but for the many failures it took to get to the point of making the good one. That’s just how it is.
*See last month’s article on Richard Schmid
**Subject of possible future articles.