My Oil Color Palette

I’m often asked about my palette, so thought I’d dedicate a post to this for future reference. First, I know many painters (great ones, in fact) believe in a limitted palette. Most that follow that path do so because it ensures color harmony, and it certainly makes packing paints much easier. I’d love to carry three colors plus white, as artist’s like Ken Auster and Kevin Macpherson do. I go back-and-forth on this, but I think an extended, “full spectrum” color palette–the same used by Ovanes Berberian and other colorists, including his mentor Serge Bongart–is best for my needs. I would suggest however that if you’re new to oil painting, start with a limitted palette and branch out from there, once you’ve become familiar with their mixing properties first. Start with Alizarin Crimson, Cadnium Yellow Medium and Ultramarine Blue.

When I use my full color spectrum palette, I don’t cram every color into every painting. That would be difficult to harmonize (unless you add a bit of black to ever cover pile, which does harmonize a painting nicely). I include a wide array of colors because I want a full range of options for any single painting. I will typically paint with a limitted set of colors and ignore the rest for a given work. It may be that a scene is best represented with Sap Green, Alizarin and White. You never know. I look at a scene carefully and pick out major color notes that match to my palette, before I begin.

My palette consists of the following paints, all Classic Artist Oils unless otherwise noted. I buy my paints in either 10oz caulking tubes or quart containers. Much cheaper than the tiny tubes sold in art supply stores.

Hansa Yellow. This is my cool yellow. I’ve tried Cadnium Yellow Light, but I find it doesn’t have as much punch as this yellow. It’s transparent enought to mix well with any color on your palette. I’ll use it for my lightest light in just about any situation (see samples below). Cadium Yellow Medium. This is a common warm, light value yellow.
Yellow Ocrhe. Good medium value cool yellow. As a basic earthtone, a must of course for any landscape painter. I’ll use this color, white and sometimes a tad Cadmium Orange for the light side of clouds. Hansa Yellow Orange. This is my favorite color. It’s a cool orange. It makes great greens, mixed with either California Blue or Ultramarine Blue. It also mixes really well with Permanet Rose to make great sunset colors.
Cadmium Orange. Your basic warm orange. Too opaque for my tastes. I’d love it if every color on my palette were transparent–they’re so much easier to mix. I guess I should be a watercolorist. This will probably be the first color I drop from my palette, although I like it there because I can mix it with any of my blues to make a really nice gray. Fire Red. This is my warm mid-value red. Most artists use Cad Red Light, but I find the tinting strength of this color much better. It’s very powerful. Good to use in flesh tone mixtures (I found this color while studying the figure with Jim Smyth).
Permanent Rose (Winsor Newton) or Rose Madder (Classic Artist Oils). This Winsor Newton color is dangerously strong. Use with care to create great medium value violets with Cobalt Blue. It’s also great for painting flowers. Alizarin Crimson. My dark, cool red. I alternate between Classic Artist’s Oils and Gamblin brands. The latter claims to make a permanent pigment. I like to mix it with Sap Green to make my darkest darks. Makes for a nice transparent washes, and you can easily mix warm/cool varieties.
California Blue. This is a very dark version of Ultramarine Blue. I got the recipe from Brigitte Curt, who I believe got it from Ovanes Berberian. It’s a custom mixture of Phthalo Blue and . Great for making cool transparent darks, and dark greens together with Hanse Yellow Orange.
Ultramarine Blue. The standard dark, warm-valued blue. Has lots of practical uses, but I find that it really tends to kill the life of warmer-toned mixtures. If I’m trying to cool a color, I’m more likely to reach for Cerulean Blue or California Blue.
Cobalt Blue. This is considered a “true blue” (ie, neither cool nor warm). It’s the most expensive color on my palette, so I only use it carefully–generally in sky colors and to make beuatiful medium value violets with Permanent Rose. Cerulean Blue. This is usually the truest sky color, particularly along the coast–whereas I find Cobalt Blue more true at higher elevations or places with little humidity.
Magnesium Blue. This warm blue is by far the most powerful on my palette, second to Permanent Rose. It’s tinting strength is incredible. Use with caution! I rare mix this with anything, other than white of course. If you want to add instant intensity to your sky, add a little of this blue, the same value as a Cobolt Blue and white sky. They vibrate well together. Virdian Green. My cool green. I tend to only use this in seascapes and citiscapes. It’s just not a terrible “naturual” looking color by itself, except for representing man-made things, like stop lights that read “go” :-)
Sap Green. I rarely use this color, other than mixing dark transparent underwashes. I will grab a bit to “green up” a color quickly, because as a transparent color, it does mix well and rarely muddies other mixtures.
Mars Black. This is an opaque black, so I don’t use it to mix transparent underwashes. I do use it to tone down colors that are too raw. Of course you can do that by mixing the colors complement, but if you’re plein air painting and racing to capture something, grabbing a little black works more quickly.
Titanium White. I’ve tried others, like Flake White, but find this white meets my needs just fine.

Here are some examples of how I use my palette. Thanksgiving Day Snow on the right shows my use of Magnesium Blue, vibrating against a Cobalt Blue sky. This painting also uses transparent washes quite a bit, which you can see in the top left (click the image to enlarge). The washes were made with Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, and California Blue. I like the abstract quality of this painting, the caligraphic brush strokes. I was trying to convey both stillness and life.

The “Peninsula Hillside” painting on the left shows how I use colors like Hansa Yellow Orange (in the trees), with a touch of blue to give it a golden green glow. I’ve also alternated Cerulean and Cobalt Blue in the sky to get that vibration. The trick is to do this without mixing the colors together and creating mud.
I typically mix my lightest lights with Hansa Yellow and Titanium White. The painting “Towards the Sun, Crystal Springs“, which I did facing the late afternoon sun, uses this combination. I also uses in my snow scenes to show the lightest lights of the snow.

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