When you explore a new and unfamiliar limited palette through colour mixing and then use your mixes in a painting, the emotional impact of this interpretive approach to colour will become evident. You’ll also see that there is never just one way to paint a flower.
Below is a presentation of four different three-colour palettes to try, along with some tips on how to tackle some of the more common challenges faced when moving away from literal colour. These palettes have the potential for colour harmonies that can create an immediate sense of mood in a painting, and allow you to enjoy those unique qualities that only fine art paints can offer.
Triadic Colour Palettes
In painting, using a triadic three colour palette means working with three colours that you will find equidistant from one another on a colour wheel. Such a palette will allow you to mix a wide range of colours, both warm and cool. Below you’ll find three triadic palettes – two of them consist of variations of the primaries of red, yellow and blue, while the other is a secondary palette of green, violet and orange. One final blue monochromatic palette shows another approach to colour that will allow you to harness its more interpretive potential.
Palette no.1: The Primary Palette
The colours of this palette – Cadmium Yellow Genuine, Cadmium Red Hue and Cerulean Blue Hue – can be seen as they appear from the tube in the squares that descend diagonally from top left to bottom right in the chart at the top of the image. The rest of the table shows mixes possible when combining two colours from this palette, including Titanium White as an additional colour. This is a bright palette capable of a very wide range of mixes. A closer look at Primary palettes is taken in the article The Versatility of a Six Colour Primary Palette.
Tip: What to Do When It’s Not Possible to Match Vibrant Colours
When painting flowers as bright as these Cosmos using a limited palette, a challenge can lie in the fact you may not be able to accurately mix the colour of the flower. These limited palettes are not about colour matching or colour accuracy, but rather they’re to help achieve colourism and colour harmony. You may find it helpful to photograph your subject and put it through a black and white filter to begin with, so that you pay closest attention to tone, and try to match the value of your colour mixes to what you see in your photo. For my sketch I deliberately painted the flowers much less colour-saturated than the reality, and focussed on how to achieve the right colour contrasts between the foliage and the flowers. There are of course many approaches with any one palette, you might prefer to celebrate the brightness of the flowers by using the pure Cadmium Red to render them, as this would create more of a visual punch, with the leafy greens surrounding.
Palette No.2: The Earth Primary Palette
This Earth Primary Palette consists of Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red and French Ultramarine. From their tubes these colours are more subdued than the colours of the first palette. You might feel that this palette on first look would not be capable of a colourful painting, but with plenty of mixing and plenty of white, this palette hold a lot of potential, and personally, I preferred working with these colours. The mixes are more naturalistic and have an appealing sense of warmth about them.
Tip: The Importance of Tonal Range
Although we are looking primarily at colour, I cannot stress enough that the one tube that I kept reaching for throughout these exercises was Titanium White. Using a lot of white in your colour mixing will allow you to see the full potential of a palette, and the beautiful light pastel colours that can be created. These will contrast strikingly with the transparent mid and dark tones possible when mixing the colours without white. This will help to keep a painting dynamic and contribute to pictorial depth. Colour temperature is another useful tool here – warm colours tend to come forward while cool colours tend to recede. Although subtle, this is used to bring the flowers in front of their foliage in the sketch.
Palette No. 3: The Complementary Palette
This Complementary Palette consists of Cadmium Orange, Oxide of Chromium, and Ultramarine Violet. The palette is well balanced but comprises strong opaque colours which can take some getting used to, which you can do most easily with more and more colour mixing! It can be daunting to paint a picture of bright magenta flowers without any pink. However with this palette, it is possible to mix colours that appear pinkish when placed alongside muted, receding greens. Here I used orange mixed with a lot of white and combined it with strokes of violet also mixed with a lot of white, and while the flower on the right feels the most pink, I have contrasted it with the flower on the left which, although is less pink, has more of the brightness of the original subject matter.
Tip: Use a Number of Different Size Brushes
Capturing rhythm and movement is a driving force in my work, and is reflected in the loose, quick brush marks I like to employ in my painting. Because these are quick sketches I only used a couple of brushes, but I would advise for more finished works to use a range of at least four brushes, a couple of very fine, some broader, and some much bigger, as this will allow you to make a wide variety of marks. This advice applies to all approaches to painting, including those which are made more slowly and with more precision. A number of brushes will also help you to keep your colour mixes clean and unmuddied – if you can allocate a brush to each colour group it can really help you to achieve a luminous finished painting.
Palette No.4: The Blue Monochrome Palette
Although not strictly a monochrome palette, this palette of Titanium White, Cobalt Blue and Paynes Grey will allow you to focus on tone, without removing colour entirely. Looking at colour alone can be a great way to step away from being a slave to literal colour. You could begin with working simply with black and white, in order to place lights, shades of grey and black where you see those tonal values in your subject. By adding one colour – in this instance blue – you will inevitably introduce a colourist element to your palette. Had I used Ivory Black, which is a warmer black, I would have been able to mix it with lots of white and have some presence of a warmer hue in this palette, but because Paynes Grey is a bluey-black, the resulting sketch is very cool in temperature.
Tip: Exaggerating Tonal Contrast When Colour Contrast is not Possible
If you look to replicate the tonal values of your subject and end up with a sketch that is too grey, not dynamic enough, and a little flat, there’s nothing to stop you from turning up the volume a little. Try adding darker darks and lighter lights to exagerrate the tonal range. Without the contrasts in colour temperature you might need to do this to achieve the drama you seek in your work. Here I did this by adding a black outline in places on some of the Cosmos petals. Without these the petals got a little lost in the foliage.
These three colour palettes are a great experiment to try if you want to approach colour in a different way. If you try all the palettes suggested above and create charts and a little study (it doesn’t have to be flowers!) you can see the mood and possibilities of each. Subject matter is often the point of inspiration – a landscape, flower, object or face can inspire you to pick up a paintbrush. But without a clear idea of why it inspired you, or how you want to interpret the subject, motivation can often escape before the painting is finished. Playing with ways of interpreting a scene can allow you to take ownership of the subject, see it in a new light, and inject more creativity into your process. The result? The ability to create paintings with luminous colour harmonies and a process imbued with a clearer sense of intention.
For this article I used Jackson’s Artist Acrylics on Bockingford NOT surface watercolour paper.