A range of paints can have in excess of 40 or 50 colours within it, so which ones should you have in your paintbox? I asked six artists this question, with landscape painting predominantly in mind. Here’s how they responded (click here to view a similar feature with watercolour painters).
I always start with some Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Golden Ochre and a Warm White or Titanium White. I find you can mix a good range of greys, blues and greens from just these colours.
The next set of colours will depend on whether I have put down a warm or cold ground onto the canvas.
If I’m looking at lots of deep summer greens in Hyde Park I would use a warm ground and a palette with cooler greens, Viridian, Veronese Green, Cobalt Blue.
If I’m painting on a cold day in the West of Ireland with lots of clouds I might use a colder ground with richer earth colours, Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna.
I always find it inspiring to try new colours, it’s so exciting to open a brand new tube of paint. Currently I’m trying a little bit of Indian Yellow, Permanent Green and Chromium Oxide. I’m constantly rotating colours into my palette and taking them out when I feel I’m relying on them too much.
My main palette consists of:
Titanium White / Lemon Yellow / Yellow Ochre / Burnt Umber / Viridian Green / Ultramarine Blue / Cerulean Blue / Alizarin Crimson / Cadmium Red / Cadmium Orange.
They’re a combination of artist quality Jackson’s Professional, Michael Harding and Winsor & Newton. These are the same colours I’ve used since foundation college, and have never felt the need to change them. It’s a good selection of cool colours, warm colours and earth ones. I place them on my palette in that same order too.
I have two Cadmium Lemon Yellows, one being Jackson Professional which I use mostly as it has a good bite to it, and the other is Michael Harding which is more ‘lemony’ in colour. I’ll often add a Permanent Rose too, as you can get a brilliant vibrant pink colour, unlike with some other reds. I’ve tried adding more colours in the past, but it can add more confusion and more chaos into the mix. Even this is probably too many, but I’m used to this set up.
They’re all strong colours and mostly need to be muted down tonally, more so when painting plein air. That can be done either by a combination of adding white, or using complimentaries to knock back their tinting strengths. If it’s too red then add some green, or too purple add some yellow or ochre etc.
I’ve never successfully used black, and much prefer mixing my own dark. Either by Ultramarine/Burnt Umber and Viridian for a cool black, or with Alizarin for a warm black. Titanium white is the most brilliant white which I prefer, and is good for highlights or sea sparkle. I prefer the Michael Harding although more expensive, it has a great consistency and stiffness to it.
I tend to have a standard set of go to colours for my palette these days, although I’m often picking up a new colour and falling in love with it. As the Ambassador to Cranfield Oil Paints, I use all of their Artist colours combined with a few of their studio colours (I couldn’t live without their Mars Violet which is a studio colour). The difference between Studio Oils and Artist Oils in the Cranfield is more regarding affordability – the more you spend on the oils you use the better the pigment and the less you need to use, particularly if mixing. My current preference is to make sure I have a cool and warm of each colour within my palette, and then I add a few of my own essentials depending on where I am going to be painting that day. For example if I’m in the countryside I will make sure I have my three yellows, or if by the sea I will make sure I have lots of blues.
The majority of my work is painted plein air (from life on location). I used to lug around a big bag of paints everywhere I went, but now I have a Strada easel which has a separate compartment where I can squeeze paint out prior to leaving the house. The actual paint colours I use can change according to my location but I will always put an extra tube of Titanium white in my bag as I tend to get through that more than other paints. Because I’m often walking to where I want to set up, I really don’t want the weight of the tubes, so this works for me perfectly and is always a bit of a gamble, but in my mind the actual colours don’t really matter – more the form and tonal variation. You could give me any blue, red, yellow, white and black and I’m fairly sure I’d just get on with it regardless. The variation I do take with me just gives me more options and helps me get information down really quickly.
My current go to palette is
Van Dyke Brown (Studio Oils)
Mars Violet (Studio oils)
Light Red (Studio oils)
Bright Yellow Lake
Cadmium Yellow Deep Genuine
Cadmium Orange Genuine
French Ultramarine Blue red shade
Kings Blue deep
I do an awful lot of looking and then mixing according to what I see, and many of the colours I actually put down on a painting are mixes, which is mostly instinctive. For example for a stunning bright, almost tennis ball green, I mix Phthalo Turquoise with Bright Yellow Lake and Titanium White. For a beautiful muted grey violet I love mixing Mars Violet with Kings Blue Deep.
I use a pretty consistent palette of about 12 or 13 colours plus black and white –all of high quality (Michael Harding and Old Holland). They often all play a part in a landscape in some way or another and so I like to make sure I have them all squeezed out. Unused paint keeps quite well for a few days, at least.
I prefer to mix my secondary hues (orange/violet/green) from my primaries, I find this helps to further my understanding of colour and adds harmony to a painting, not to mention saving money.
I’ve got into the habit of laying out my colours (white/yellows/reds/blues/raw umber/black) on the palette, more or less as a linear version of the colour wheel. This helps ingrain the colour wheel in my mind, which makes it easier to plan and adjust what I’m doing in terms of composing colour (the use of harmonic triads/quadrants and so on).
As it happens, these secondary colours of Orange/Violet/Green form a harmonic triad that is very useful for landscapes, so I often use this as a starting point; I mix these 3 pools of colour and modify them as I progress through the painting.
As I make these changes, I try to keep my aim on a sense of harmony.
For example: if there was a bright yellow/green that I wanted to incorporate into the landscape I might imagine the triad had been rotated anti-clockwise so that the violet is now a blue/violet and the orange a red/orange.
An interesting fact: When neutral grey is created in the mind’s eye, from a balanced mixture of all of the primaries, an equilibrium and sense of order is felt by the viewer.
What I find fascinating is that nature does the same balancing, and so really we are just learning to see what has already been done by a far superior hand.
Of course, some artists might prefer a discordant feel, where a deliberate imbalance is sought, instead.
With en plein air painting, I find it’s better to crack on with it and save the analyses and learning for later.
In recent years, I have learnt to respond to a landscape by just acting on what has interested me, or sparked my imagination and curiosity and to remember to have fun with that. I try to then make decisions based on this, but it takes a lot of effort not to deviate. The other goal, for me, besides the colour harmony and balance, is to use my chosen colours in their varied forms of tint/tone/shade (adding white/compliments/black) and place them in a way that guides the viewer through the painting, remembering that, visually, saturated and warmer colour notes advance, unsaturated and cooler notes recede.
It’s also worth noting that the defining characteristic of colour is that it reacts to what is put beside it, so working the painting up as a whole (blocking in general/local colour first) helps to prevent unwanted/unexpected effects.
Warm White (lead white substitute)
Yellows: Nickel Titanium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre.
Reds: Red Ochre, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna.
Blues: Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue.
Vine Black: Technically a dark blue.
Greens: Raw Umber is technically a green – I sometimes use Genuine Terre Verte as well but mostly I mix greens with black and Cadmium Yellow as a starting point.
I paint in watercolour, oil and acrylic. Whilst the ranges of colours produced by companies are different (and the names given to similar colours may vary) I have stood by certain colours throughout my career. In general my choice of colours is the same for watercolour and oil/acrylic. With the former I use white gouache rather than a pure watercolour white because it is more opaque. However it is deployed sparingly (if at all) because I like to use the white of the paper. The question refers to squeezing out colours – yes, in the case of watercolour I always use tubes, not pans.
Underpinning my choice is the use of two or (more often) three tints of each main colour, as follows:
Yellow: Lemon, a medium Yellow/Cadmium and an Ochre
Red: Flesh Tint, a Cadmium and a Purple-Red
Blue: Ultramarine, Cobalt and possibly Cerulean and/or Prussian
Brown: Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and possibly a Red-Brown
Green: a medium Green (e.g. Sap) and possibly Turquoise and Olive type greens
White: Titanium or Flake, sometimes both if using oil or acrylic
I am not that worried about exact names or small differences between tints, for example Raw Sienna will do as well as Yellow Ochre. Generally I avoid black and similar, e.g. Paynes Grey, because it can deaden a mix. So whilst I do not buy individual tubes of black paint, sometimes they come as part of a set and can be useful. Black mixed with a light colour will make a chromatic grey, which I often apply as a ground to canvas or board, if using oil or acrylic. If I know I will be painting an urban landscape then I may take a tube of warm grey, to save mixing it from other colours, however flesh tint mixed with something else is useful for this purpose. Two colours that artists often use are Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green but I steer away from them. If I am likely to be painting sea greens/blues then I would rather take a Turquoise than Viridian Green.
I always start a landscape painting on location. How near to completion I get depends on the size of the picture and the usual factors affecting plein air painting such as the weather. When I have chosen my scene, I will usually squeeze out a bit of each colour on to my palette regardless of subject matter, however it is true that I squeeze out smaller blobs of what may be called my ‘secondary colours’, at least to start with. This term is also useful when I may need to restrict my palette – almost always when I need to travel light. Then I will stick to the most important tints of each colour I have listed and a single white, knowing that I can mix what is needed. The most essential colours for me are a Lemon and a Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red and e.g. Permanent Rose, Ultramarine, Burnt Umber. So if I had to limit myself to 6 plus white, those are the colours I would choose!
When I find a landscape that interests me, and I want to paint it, I take a really good long look at the colours that I will be painting. If the landscape can be painted with a limited palette then I will just squeeze out three to four colours; I much prefer to use fewer colours, but will slowly add more to the palette if I need to.
The paints that I always keep and frequently use are: Lemon and Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow, then French Ultramarine , maybe Cobalt or Cerulean Blue, Raw umber, Burnt Sienna. Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, and Titanium White.
I wash over the board or canvas with a warm base colour, then if I decide to leave parts of the canvas bare , this colour adds a glow to the finished painting.
In Colour Sketch – Bosham I began by using warm colours for the buildings – Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna , Alizarin Crimson. I used Alizarin Crimson and Cobalt Blue mixed with White for the sky and sea, and for the trees – Yellow Ochre and Cobalt. So just five colours.
For ‘Path on Iping Common’ I think I only felt I needed to use Yellow Ochre, Ultramarine blue, and Titanium White – so a very limited palette, but it was all that was needed and I think the painting works because of its simplicity.
I tend to always work with the same palette and squeeze the same colours regardless of the subject. I’ve been using the same selection of colours for the last 10 years and feel now that I’m comfortable with any mix my colours can make, which enables me to focus on the subject rather than worrying about which colour to use. For someone starting painting in plein air I would recommend using a limited palette, and gradually adding more colours over time once they are comfortable with their original selection (although they might well like to stay with a limited palette). I like to mix my own greens/oranges/purples. I find the result more natural and harmonious.
A good limited palette would be
Two yellows perfect for mixing green:
A good earthy colour for brown foliage and to give warmth to your mixes:
Permanent Rose (I like to use this one for my purple mixes)
Cadmium Red (this one if great to bring heat and warmth to the painting).
A great alternative to white to depict sunny paths or buildings in the light:
I use white mainly for skies, water, and to make colours muddier and less intense (like purples and greys). I avoid using white for highlights as the result is sometimes dull or lifeless. Instead, I prefer using Naples Yellow when possible.
With this palette, I can achieve many mixes that can fit any subjects and moods.
I use the Winsor & Newton Artisan water mixable oil range. I find them much more convenient than traditional oils.
Header image: Sky Reflections by Georgina Potter, oil on canvas (https://www.georginapotter.com/)