my palette

So the word Palette can refer to two different things…

1. The actual surface that people mix their paints on – which can be anything from an ice cream tub lid to a beautiful wooden surface 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. I 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 I 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.



  1. Posted January 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I have found your website very inspiring and informative! I love to draw too, but when it comes to colour – I get terrible artist’s block, why do I spend so much time trying to avoid doing something that I love and really want to see myself doing all the time?….arrh the mysteries of being human. Your site, gets the creative vibe going though, so thank you.

  2. elise
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Elizabeth! Thanks :-) And I understand. Colour is terribly hard. It changes everything, imparts mood, it dominates utterly, and some colours attract some people and repel others… A good place to start with colour is to acknowledge all that and say ‘what do I want colour to do here?’. If you want it to give a small pick-me-up then maybe judicious spot colour would be good. if you want joyous craziness then go strong. Soft pastel colours give a gentler feeling… It gets fun eventually!! x e

  3. Elizabeth Nicholls
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    thank you, great advice.

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