Colour mixing and limited palette selection without reference to subject matter can be an exploration of possible colour harmonies and what mood, atmosphere and evocations these mixes spark up. With certain colours omitted from your palette, they are more likely to better describe mood rather than literal colour, and allow you to discover the interpretive potential that limited palettes hold. Picasso’s Blue Period paintings are a prime example of a range of cool palettes used to describe mood when rendering representational subject matter. Here are an array of palettes consisting only of cool colours, and how to get the very best from them.
Why paint with a cool palette?
When selecting a palette of colours to work with, there is often a tendency to select from across the whole spectrum, a balance of cool and warm colours, perhaps some with a dark mass tone and some with a lighter mass tone. Such a palette offers the potential for a range of colour mixes varying in tone and temperature. However it’s possible to limit your colour selection further, working with only shades of a single colour or limiting your palette to only cool or warm colours. The consequences of limiting your palette to such a degree is a necessity to use a light touch when mixing, so that you can create as many shades that vary in hue, temperature and tone as is possible. The reward of working with a cool palette, or any very limited palette, is the array of subtle colour transitions you will achieve as well as the opportunity to further understand how the pigments you are working with behave.
In previous colour mixing posts, I have likened a structured premeditated palette of colours to a key in music – a structure within which harmony among mixes is impossible to avoid. These cool palettes are no different, and with each of the five palettes I explore here, I will explain the reasoning behind my colour choices, as well as the discoveries made as a result of colour mixing for the sake of colour mixing. This includes how utilising both transparent dilute mixes and opaque mixes with white can help to add a sense of depth to the surface of your painting.
What is a cool palette?
For this article, I wanted to explore what happens if you only mix a selection of colours that would appear on the cool side of a colour wheel: greens, blues and violets. The two exceptions are the use of Naphthol Red, a cool, bluish red, and Raw Umber, a transparent brown that has a relatively neutral colour temperature.
The mixes and charts
For each palette I made a chart, mixing combinations of two colours, which I also thinned out to see how the mixes appeared when diluted with water. Following this I explored what other mixes I could create, grouping them into light, mid tone and dark colour mixes.
Palette #1: Ultramarine Violet / Cobalt Blue Genuine / Hooker’s Green / White
This is the palette that first sprang to mind as an archetypal ‘cool palette’ – 3 very distinct colours that offer a wide scope for colour mixing. The dark mass tone of the violet and green offer the opportunity for dark, rich colours.
This is a really vibrant yet icy cool palette of colours, which could easily be used for nocturnes.
- The varying degrees of transparency in the colours from the tube is beneficial to the dynamism possible with this palette. Where Ultramarine Violet and Hooker’s Green have a similar depth of colour and high transparency, Cobalt Blue is more opaque, and so is the White, so there is plenty of potential for transparent and opaque mixes.
- The dark, almost Paynes Grey-like mix achieved by combining Hooker’s Green and Ultramarine Violet is a beautiful, pure looking near black with lots of potential – not only in its pure state but with white added as well.
- Because the colours here are so cool, the warmth of the white in this context is really apparent (particularly bottom left in the chart)
- The blue-violet mix and turquoises achievable offer alluring mid tone mixes.
Further Colour Mixing
I then set about exploring the mixes in more depth, playing around with very subtle changes in proportions and mixing three colours together as well, to see what further colours I could create.
With such a limited palette, it was really an exercise in restraint, adding small amounts of colour to produce close toned colour mixes. I particularly love the very pale greys possible by mixing all three colours with lots of White. By exploring the various greys and turquoises possible here, I can very easily imagine the colours in their pure state becoming almost too strong for a painting. I was really excited by what was possible with these three colours, and by mixing them further following making the original chart, I realised that this palette had more character and inspiration within it than the initial chart alone could demonstrate to me.
Palette #2: Oxide of Chromium, Cobalt Blue Hue, Raw Umber, White
Two cool colours, and earth colour and white – a very naturalistic palette that includes both very opaque and transparent colours.
Oxide of Chromium is a very opaque green which can be hard to tame in a palette! I combined it with transparent Raw Umber and semi-opaque Cobalt Blue Hue, to ensure there was a variety of transparent and opaque colour mixes.
- Mixing these colours immediately demonstrated what a naturalistic, earthy palette this appears to be, capable of olive greens, muted turquoises and deep grey-blues.
- When Raw Umber is mixed with White it becomes a dusky pink-beige, which adds a degree of warmth to the otherwise cool palette.
- This palette of colours really suggests woodland or landscape to me, but could of course be used for any colourist painting.
Further Colour Mixing
Further colour mixing unearthed the potential to achieve gentle putty colours, fresh spring blues and greens, and rich, deep darks: blue-greys, turquoises and olive greens. The presence of the brown makes this palette feel much warmer than the previous.
Palette #3: Turquoise /French Ultramarine / Paynes Grey / White
Within most paint ranges, there tends to be more blues than any other colour. With this in mind I chose to use three different ‘blues’ for this palette – Turquoise (a very deep green-blue), French Ultramarine (a transparent blue with a slight red undertone) and Paynes Grey (essentially a blue-black).
This feels like a loose definition of a monochromatic palette – an array of blues full of nuanced shifts in tone and temperature.
- When only mixing with blues, there’s no chance of surprising outcomes! As expected, the chart shows the in-between blues achieved when combining two colours from this colour selection.
- Paynes Grey and French Ultramarine make a lovely Indigo looking mix.
Further Colour Mixing
This palette is a good demonstration of colour only existing within its context. With three blues being mixed with one another plus White, the comparative differences in temperature really come through. Pale green-blues take on an almost yellow tint when placed beside cooler violet-greys. This palette is not really going to offer a wide variety of colours – its intrigue and potential lies in what you do with what it can offer you – and whether you feel you can take the plunge and depict a scene without any yellow, red or earth colour on your palette.
Palette #4: Phthalo Green / Phthalo Blue Green Shade / Naphthol Red
Phthalo pigments are highly staining and often overbearing, and so the impact of one in a palette consisting of gentler colours can be huge, and difficult to control. In this palette I chose three colours that are equally strong and staining to create a sense of balance within the palette.
This one may be breaking the ‘cool palette’ conditions with the presence of a red, but I wanted to present one palette with a cool red included to show a relatively cool palette – still cooler than most basic palettes.
- This is perhaps the most exotic of the palettes presented in this article! It’s capable of deep mauves, turquoises and greys.
- The lightest colour mixes with lots of white are particularly sweet and floral-looking.
- These are strong colours that result in vibrant mixes. They are less earthy overall than the other palettes.
Further Colour Mixing
This palette is very capable of a wide range of tones, as the mass tone of the highly staining colours is very dark. The dark mixes feel very dramatic, with a depth made possible by their transparency. With many of the mid tone mixes I added White rather than diluted the mixes, this resulted in more pastel-like hues, but of course even more mixes could be achieved by adding water rather than white to the colours. The dark transparent mixes recede while the opaque mid tone mixes come forward, and the pale mixes – a mixture of both transparent and opaque, appear somewhere between the two. This shows how differing degrees of transparency can help add a feeling of depth to a painting.
Palette #5: Black / Cerulean / White
This black/blue/white palette is so very nearly monochromatic and really allows you to focus on tone. When colour choices are limited the tendency is to find other ways to find variations in what you have in front of you. Consequently the difference between opaque mixes and transparent ones in addition to very subtle tonal transitions become more important in achieving variety and dynamism within your mixes. In comparison to the coolness of Cerulean, Black plays the role of the warm hue within this context.
For this final palette I made my grid and mixes on a single sheet as there were fewer colours to explore. What’s interesting about this palette is that it verges on having a range of colour temperatures, rather than being entirely monochromatic and only having one colour temperature. The warm greys achieved with Black and White are contrasted with the blue greys made when all three colours are combined. A more staining blue would have been more capable of varied shades of grey, but there is certainly enough variety of colour here to create a painting full of mood and atmosphere.
To limit yourself to only using cool colours when creating a painting is something that may challenge you if you are used to working with a palette that has colours from all around the colour wheel. But it can be a great way to think more about tone without having to remove colour entirely, and there is plenty of scope to produce colourful, and colourist, work. If you are keen for your work to be more immediate in its mood and atmosphere, trying to limit your palette in this way can be a great way to re-evaluate how you see and use colour.