Jonathan Chan is a London based artist who has been painting with oils for just under 2 years. A prolific Instagrammer of his paintings, I was struck by his works painted with a 3 colour palette of Viridian, Burnt Sienna and Titanium White. In these works he paints with a colourist rather than tonal approach; using colour in an interpretive rather than literal way. In this interview Jonathan explains his approach and the benefits of using this limited palette in oil painting.
Lisa: I understand that the concept of this limited palette was suggested to you by the painter James Bland? Can you tell us about the colours in the palette, and how trying it out for the first time came about?
Jonathan: The advantages of using a limited palette lie in palette management and speed. It’s also a reliable way of achieving a degree of colour harmony in one’s painting – the colours deployed on the canvas won’t stray out of control, which might happen if one has access to a full palette without understanding something of colour theory.
It was David Caldwell at the Art Academy in London who explained the Zorn Palette (yellow, red, black and white) as a controlled way of starting out with painting and understanding colour temperatures – James’ palette suggestion is a variation of this.
James’ palette consists of Viridian, Burnt Sienna and Titanium White – that is, a cool colour, a warm one and a mixer. I actually came across it on James’ prolific Instagram account, where he very generously explained his process. I had really admired his work and discovered the very vibrant blue-green he often uses is Viridian. It goes without saying I wanted to give it a go myself.
Lisa: Did you yield instant results with this painting approach, or did it take a few goes to understand how to get the best from the colours you were working with?
Jonathan: I was taught that when mixing colours, a painter is not simply trying to mimic nature, they are searching for an equivalent of what they see. When searching for a value or temperature, always remember that the colour one selects will always be read relative to others in the same painting.
When painting from life, one is simultaneously analysing both the tone and colour in front of them, which is a bit like spinning plates – it can be overwhelming when starting out. This is where the limited palette really helps. James Bland’s palette exercise is really helpful, and I would say yields instant results. But it certainly took me more than a few goes to wrap my head around colour saturation: my early attempts tended to be distractingly high-chroma. Later on, with some practice, I found I could be more refined with my colour mixing and produce more naturalistic looking paintings.
Lisa: Why do you think this limited palette works in particular for you?
Jonathan: Having a ‘cool’ colour, a ‘warm’ colour and white works for me because it’s very easy to understand relationships of colour temperature this way. I often go back to this palette if I need to paint with speed, say during life-drawing sessions if the model isn’t around for long. It means less decisions have to be made about colour and so the overall process is slightly quicker.
I also like to use this palette if I’m working in poor light conditions (which is most of the time during a UK winter) and I don’t have my studio light with me – there’s less scope to go badly wrong with colour!
It should be noted though that white has a cooling effect when mixed in with colours, particularly titanium white which is very opaque. It can often be ‘deadening’ for skin tones. It’s important to be aware of this and compensate as necessary.
Lisa: Have you tried other similar 3 colour limited palettes? How did they compare?
Jonathan: Viridian and Burnt Sienna are just two examples of a cool and warm colour one can use in this concept of limited palette.
For example, Ultramarine or Ivory Black could be used instead of Viridian. Burnt Umber or Yellow Ochre could be used instead of Burnt Sienna.
It’s a matter of experimenting and finding colours one likes. I personally have found Viridian and Burnt Sienna interesting and vibrant colours for painting people. They work for me and are always central to my wider palette.
Other colours I find helpful in addition to Viridian and Burnt Sienna are:
– Burnt Umber, which is great for underpainting and for desaturating a colour
– a blue such as Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue, which are great for accents, useful for defining form or edges.
Lisa: What would you say is the most successful work you have painted working with these colours and why?
Jonathan: I like this life painting of Jonathan (see below), where I think the limited palette of Viridian and Burnt Sienna really present themselves clearly and work harmoniously.
This little painting of my niece (below) was also very enjoyable to paint. The colours come across as naturalistic, not necessarily because the colours are accurate copies of those in the scene, but because I think the colour relationships within this particular painting ring true. In the background here, I used a wash of Burnt Umber.
Both of the above didn’t take too long to paint. I like to think there is a freshness to these paintings which I think comes from not overworking them.
Lisa: Can you give some insight into how you use the colours….because the Viridian and Burnt Sienna are very apparent in the works, so you aren’t simply mixing them together and using them tonally; there is a very strong colourist element to the work….so how do you know where to put the cools and warm hues?
Jonathan: There’s a very clear logic to my palette (see below). I arrange my palette into 3 coloured rows: They consist of cool tones (Viridian plus varying quantities of white), warm tones (Burnt Sienna plus white) and neutrals (Viridian and Burnt Sienna plus white). With a subject in front of me, I identify colour relationships within the frame of the picture: Which hues are cooler and which are warmer, and how they all relate to each other within the frame.
There are tricks to picking up colour with the eyes. James Bland suggests to dart one’s eyes quickly around the scene being painted. This will help to identify cooler or warmer zones and their relationships.
It’s also useful to consider the overall ‘drift’ of temperature or colour across a whole painting. One might observe this in the scene, or one may choose to ‘design it in’.
Lisa: Who would you recommend this palette to?
Jonathan: I would recommend this palette to anybody who’s just starting out with painting and for anyone who might be short of time.
If you have an iPad or iPhone I would recommend downloading Procreate. This is a powerful digital drawing tool, which is great for experimenting with colour, including restricting yourself to a limited palette.
Lisa: Are you working on anything in particular currently?
Jonathan: I’m currently on a sabbatical from my work as an architect to travel and paint. I travelled around Hong Kong and Japan last year and I’m currently visiting Paris, Milan, Rome and Amsterdam, picking up as much as I can by visiting museums in each city and meeting and painting local people along the way.
Some of my pictures painted on-the-go in Hong Kong utilise the limited palette as the lighting in my hotel was very poor!
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
My Instagram account @jonathanchanpainting is probably the best portrayal of what I’m up to – it’s an online visual diary of my latest sketches and painting. Or you can visit my website www.jonathanshekonchan.com
About Jonathan Chan
Jonathan started learning to to paint in earnest at a part-time portraiture introductory course at London’s Art Academy, taught by David Caldwell and Giles Lester in the summer of 2018. Since then he has continued his learning through workshops around the UK run by contemporary painters he admires, including Saied Dai, Tim Benson and James Bland.
Jonathan also learns a huge amount through Instagram, and has found many great painters who have been very generous in sharing their knowledge and technique on the platform. In this respect he feels part of a wider community of artists who are extremely supportive and helpful in his learning.
Header Image: ‘Self Portrait’, 2019 by Jonathan Chan, oil on canvas, 8 x 8 in (1 hour study)