My Palette

So the word Palette can refer to two different things…

1. The actual surface people mix their paints on which can be anything from an icecream tub lid to a beautiful wooden thing with thumb-hole and all.

2. The range of colours that the artist uses when painting.

Good for travelling with paint still on the palette...One of the things that I noticed when I was growing up and painting is that there seem to be different groups of colours. There are what I call the Natural colours (think of the Australian bush) – ochres, umbers, dull eucalyptus greens… colours that seem to have a little grey and dust to them. In this group are Raw Sienna (light browny-yellow), Raw Umber (grey/yellowy-brown), Alizarin Crimson (transparent pinky red), Yellow Ochre (translucent sand), Sap Green (like shrubs), Cobalt Blue (Aussie sky), Paynes Grey (gumtrees) and others… These are the colours I started with, those that were in my mother’s collection.

Then, when I went to tutored classes with Maxwell Wilks for a while, I was introduced to lots of colours that I hadn’t used before. We’re always told that with the basic palette – red, blue, yellow (and white) – you should be able to make just about any colour… But there were always colours I could never achieve through mixing – especially things that needed to be BRIGHT. So I have really enjoyed buying the odd tube of perfect colour, extraordinary colours which are light, translucent and fresh.

And now, finally, through trial and error I have arrived at a palette that seems to mix well together and allows me to create all the colours I want.

It’s split into a few groupings as there are colours you need in specific situations but don’t necessarily mix with everything else. Most colours are Art Spectrum brand. The artists quality colours are actually subtly different (in colour and quality) to the student quality, so beware. Colours vary between brands too.

  • Burnt Sienna – rich warm browns. Often use it when I’m sketching in a painting too.
  • French Ultramarine – dark very intense deep blues. Think deep ocean, evening sky.
  • Turquoise – sensational greeny blue – Venice’s canals, Broome’s waters.
  • Viridian – my standard green. Very versatile and blue-based. I’ll mix it with Indian Yellow if it want to make it warmer.
  • Cerulean blue – very beautiful lighter blue. It’s like it has a tiny touch of green or lemon in it. An exotic blue that can be turned into just about anything.
  • Lilac – lots of white in it so is good for mixing and lightening things. Goes interestingly into greens and skin tones to cool off a colour that’s getting too hot. Be careful though as too much can deaden the painting a little.
  • Tasman Blue – a light nebulous blue. Also has lots of white in it. Again for skin tones and mixing – interesting with Indian Yellow.
  • Indian Yellow – beautiful translucent colour. I use this a lot as a mixer. A touch in some Turquoise makes the most beautiful old warm green – like on posters from 1900s Paris.
  • Permanent Rose – a pinky red that is great in portraits. Mixes well with Indian yellow, Turquoise & Cerulean (wow)… with lots of colours really. Put some in your Burnt Sienna to darken and warm it. This is what I use when I want to redden a blue-based colour.
  • Cadmium Orange – mixed sparingly into skin tones, with Tasman blue and Lilac.
  • Cadmium Yellow – my other yellow. It’s a normal sunflower kind of yellow. Warm. Won’t mix well with everything but is a standard yellow.
  • White – I don’t notice the difference between the whites really. Titanium usually. I use it a lot.
  • Black – I don’t use this much. It makes things a bit dead. Usually I darken with a dark blue and/or brown.
  • Cadmium Red – bright red, opaque. Tricky mixer – you just have to experiment. Obviously will go well with the other Cadmiums and with yellow greens but not so well into the blue-based colours (try Permanent Rose instead). Brilliant when you want a vivid red.

Prussian Blue – has a bit more cool darkness to it. It’s Nice and new to my palette.
Cobalt Blue – A sky blue – more in the Natural colour group (tricky mixer with my palette but sometimes just right).
Lemon yellow – sparing mixer for a pick-me-up in a colour that needs yellowing but not heading to an orange. Interesting in greens. Makes my colours go a little fluoro!

It’s fascinating to see how the changing palette alters the look of my work over the years. When I first discovered Lilac and Tasman Blue I used them everywhere and I can pick when things were painted because of them. Different colours are exciting – colour is exciting! Even though I try to be limited and mature with my colour use – I just can’t help letting it explode sometimes. Those of you who have seen my lion picture will know what I mean :-) Oh and the cat I painted last market – as soon as that deep reddy-pink background went in you should have seen the turquoise jump out of the canvas.


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  1. Posted February 18, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    OMG! What a well timed post. I’m terrified of colour and have struggled with it forever. After a brief, unsatisfying foray into computer painting I’m once again struggling with paint. I can’t believe how helpful this post has been! I’m going to print it out and pin it to my wall.

  2. Posted February 19, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Oh brilliant!! I decided to do this after talking to someone who was facing buying a whole range of colours (to learn oil painting) without being able to try them first to know what she needs. Expensive and hard! Colour is a devil and a joy. Black and white’s so much more straight forward…
    xxx e

  3. Posted February 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Elise, fantastic post! I’m living in gouache at the moment but it was so interesting to see the cross overs in our palettes :) Colour is my favourite way to express myself, down to my recent neon-fuschia hair colouring. (Reminds me of my favourite tube of Rose.)

  4. Posted February 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    You know the funny thing is my watercolour palette is quite different! I guess because I’m so frequently using it for Aussie landscapes – so the more natural colours are in there… I wonder if that’s why I find watercolour more difficult? Although it is a merciless medium. I really should kit myself out with the same colours (as the oils) and see how it works.

    Neon-fuschia hair is an absolute winner :-) Well done. You are obviously highly intelligent and charming. All people with intensely coloured hair are…

  5. Posted February 22, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes black and white is so much more straightforward! I only ever got a training in B&W and so really I only learnt how to draw and never how to paint! Colour’s always been such a terrifying prospect and not one I enjoy really ( but one I feel compelled to work on!) Thanks thanks thinks!

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