Claire Spencer PS is an artist inspired by the natural world, who works with oils, watercolour and pastel. Claire recently explored some of the ideas suggested in our Colour mixing series. This is her account of her experiences.
Above Image: Claire Spencer at work on Landscape, Autumn variation or Piet’s Garden
Exploring Limited Palettes
Words and images by Claire Spencer
Intrigued by Lisa Takahashi’s post, Colour Mixing: Five Yellows in Five Limited Palettes, I took the opportunity to develop this theme into painting with oils. The richness and lustre of the oils promised a different dimension. I trained as an oil painter way back in the 1950’s at Hornsey College of Art; a limited palette was never part of our curriculum, maybe because there were few pigments available. We used traditional colours laid out around the edge of the palette, the colours included quite a few earth colours but no black, mixing Burnt Umber with Ultramarine to make the darkest tones. This palette has been my practice throughout my working life (although working with pastels meant a different approach). It was certainly a good time to renew my approach to colour and with Covid-19 restrictions I had time to explore.
With the limited palette I substituted some pigments because they weren’t in my store, so for a light yellow I used Naples Yellow Light from Winsor and Newton, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red, Cobalt Blue and Mars Black. My usual practise is to prime my own boards but for this I worked on Winsor and Newton canvas boards, 178 x 127 mm, laying out the chosen colours at the bottom of the board, mixing each colour with its neighbour, intermixing without much logic, then reducing each mix with white, working up the board. The white was Warm White from Michael Harding, although I used Titanium White in later mixes; along the top margin I mixed white with the yellow, gradually reducing the colour saturation. I didn’t dilute the paint with turps or other medium so each mix is quite thick paint, achieving soft and gentle blends of the utmost subtlety, evocative of a winter landscape. In order to keep the mixes distinct from one another I used a clean brush for each; just cheap, small, synthetic brushes. These colour charts have become paintings in their own right and are now my reference book.
Naples Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red, Cobalt Blue, Mars Black, Warm White and Titanium White
Using the yellows suggested by Lisa and choosing the strongest colours, I used Cadmium Lemon with Permanent Magenta, Prussian Blue, Raw Umber and Warm White, all Winsor and Newton except the white which is from Michael Harding.
Lemon Yellow with Permanent Magenta, Prussian Blue, Raw Umber and Warm White
This is more my kind of palette with very bright pops of colour. If I were using this palette for a painting I would surround each of the brightest colours with dark tones to get the most contrast; complementary colours worked in with the darks to bring out the power, in this case the yellow. I continued to work with the other available yellows; Winsor Yellow, Cadmium and Cadmium Yellow Deep.
Winsor Yellow with Ultramarine Blue, Winsor Orange, Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Yellow with Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Crimson (Sennelier), Cobalt Blue and Mars Black
Cadmium Yellow Deep with Venetian Red, Cobalt Blue, Mars Black and Soft White (MH)
Developing the mixes, it seemed the next stage would be to make small paintings from my sketchbooks, but the results were so disappointing. Although the paintings were harmonious they were muddy. The next idea would be to work on a much bigger scale and to try out a version of the landscape through my window.
I looked at the article, Eight Blues in Eight Limited Palettes. It was easy to carry on the process mixing with a limited palette, but in my store I found 15 blues ranging from Indigo and Prussian to Kings Blue and Phthalo Turquoise. Inspired by some pieces of Lapis Lazuli, I started small paintings on canvas boards 20 x 20 cm, using a mixture of blue pigments, just to look at all these colours in paint. Some limited palette mixtures followed. They were so pleasing and I gave some of the charts as Christmas presents. Of all the mixes I tried, one had particular appeal, which was Manganese Blue mixed with Cadmium Yellow, Venetian Red, Mars Black and Titanium White; it reminds me of Vermeer’s interiors with draped curtains of tapestry, rich and warm.
Some of these mixes have given me a dimension to working with colour, quite unexplored in my past work and gives a new palette with which to work on my current landscapes.
What is currently on my easel?
From an upstairs window of my house I look out over a field with a hill in the distance. This is the view from my studio (just a large bedroom in a modern house) and has appeared in the background of much of my work. Now the land has been sold for building and very shortly it will be destroyed and transformed into brick walls; once I learnt of this development the field has become my subject and for the last two years I have painted this landscape.
It used to be a cornfield, then a field of weeds, and I have painted this as the seasons and weather changes. Now this is an ideal vehicle for colour mixing and variations of a limited palette; at present the trees and hedge in the foreground are like black silhouettes but the land has sprouted a new flush of spring grass and is an intense bright green, a new approach. On my easel until last month was a winter version of the field, again with black trees but with messy mingled colours of the weeds and wild flowers dying back. The colour mixing has intervened in the meantime and I am all ready for this intense green to take over.