Saturday, March 20, 2010

The evolution of an oil painting color palette

In recent days I have been engaged on various projects in my studio. Most of these projects consist of oil paintings on canvas and wood panels of different sizes. For all of these I use a consistent palette with predictable results that enables me to keep the work under an relatively speedy and ordered process. By having all of my colors premixed on my palette I avoid wasting time between focusing on a composition and mixing colors. By just concentrating on picking up colors from the palette with my brush and adding them to my composition, the process of painting becomes more direct, engaging and less distracting.

First of all I want to emphasize as I have done previously in demos and classes that there is no "one" way of doing art and the reader and art student should assume that this formula may work for some forms of painting and may not be well suited for other forms of painting. In my case, it has proven to be the most effective when it comes to small and medium sized highly detailed and well rendered realistic oil paintings on canvas and panel. I have worked with this palette on a few occasions for bigger works but this required using more painting mixed on a larger palette.

In an older post on this blog I already mentioned the importance of the use of this palette. It is called a "closed" palette because it leaves little or no space for mixing more colors once it is completed. An open palette is what most painters learn to use and use it freely mixing colors without any specific order. A traditional "open" palette is composed of an "spectrum" place where one adds the color, usually on the outer rim of the palette and the "atrium"  (place where one mixes colors together, usually at the center of this palette.) This is the palette that most artists I know currently use. I myself worked with it for some time and it was the first palette with which I learned to paint much to my own frustration. One thing is for sure, it has been the most popular and preferred palette in history. Of course this doesn't mean its the best palette we can use.

 "Open" oval shaped palette  v.s. "closed" rectangle shaped palette
As the term "open" implies, this is a painters palette that allows you to mix new colors at any time while painting and even though one may follow a specific order from values to chromatic intensity, it is a very flexible palette, allowing certain chaos to reign in it. It is a wonderful palette to use and in some works I still find myself making use of it. But some it has some problems. These problems may give a hard time for some painters who are looking for order and structure not only for their ideas but for their colors as well. 
Many of my most disastrous paintings have been produces by the "open" palette. First I found myself trapped with many odd mixtures I could not replicate once the colors dried. Also I found it quite easy to break with tonal  and chromatic unity using a wide range of colors on an "open" palette. I remember giving up painting for a while and going back to drawing after feeling frustrated with the chaotic  muddy mixture of colors I had created on my palette. Then I studied under Rose Urbina a professional portrait artist who had studied and followed the tradition of John Singer Sargent. She introduced me into using the "closed" palette for a portrait. Pre-mixing all of these colors on my palette took over an hour. Very boring after a while but the results of it made every minute of this portrait painting worth it.The idea was to have as many value scales of strips as possible of every color one used on the painting allowing more richness in light and darkness of each color. By having  white mixed with black and all the grays in between on a horizontal strip of the palette, one could mix these with the different reds below, graying and de-saturating these in turn. The "closed" palette did limit a bit my color selection but in turn it added more richness to my values and values (light and darkness in colors) has been the major concern of the great European masters from the Renaissance and Baroque.

My studio setup left to right: color palette, laptop and easel with painting

Over time I experimented over many different surfaces and used many palettes but have returned once more to this "closed" palette. at the end of each painting session I have evaluated the creative process analyzing everything from the brushes and colors I use to my palette and the way I arrange and mix my colors. If one is aware of this and is willing to get rid of bad habits and willing to spend more money on better art supplies, it should be no surprise that the work in turn should improve. I shall write more about these issues in future posts but here I have turned my attention towards my palette.

7 color palette

Here's my most recent palette photographed with the seven colors I use identified. I have used only Raw Umber mixed with white with 8 value scales between these two colors. This is my first strip
On my second strip I have mixed Ivory black with Yellow Ocher having at least three or four values in between and from Yellow Ocher to white, four values in between. Then on the lower strip I have mixed Alizarin Crimson with Cadmium Red Light having at least two to three variations in between and from Cadmium Red to White mixing at least four value scales. The last value strip is composed of a bluish black mixed gradually with white. The bluish black may be indigo blue or Ultramarine blue mixed with Ivory black. A drop or two of "oil of cloves" may be added to each of the seven colors. This will  extend the drying time of the oil paint allowing you to work on a painting for about a week instead of a day or two without using the clove oil. The palette is a clear Plexiglas 18" x 24" over a cardboard painted gray. The neutral gray ground will give you a correct perception of your true colors while the Plexiglas being a nonabsorbent surface will keep the paint wet for a longer time and it is also easier to clean with a palette knife.  As one may see in the picture colors may be mixed between the horizontal value scales I have described creating a  much more complex diversity of colors. A "closed" palette like this one will enable you to paint  human figures, animals and landscapes with rich values and in chromatic proximity to the work of the "old masters" who did not use a wide range of bright colors like most painters use today . In no way it should limit your imagination to have a limited color palette but on the contrary give free reign to it and total freedom to concentrate on your own compositions.  If you enjoy the colors of Leonardo, Caravaggio and other great painters from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, you may wish to consider using a color palette similar to this one.


  1. Interesting post Patrick. The closed palette you're working with is a work of art in itself. I'm not clear on how you apply the paint to canvas--do you apply each color individually, almost like a mosaic, do you blend on the canvas? Especially curious about the raw umber/white and black combos, typically used to dull colors.

  2. I happened to come across your blog this am. Interesting post as said by the previous comment. A few family members went to an Atelier outside of Philadelphia run by Neilson Carlin. Real good guy who teaches nothing but the prepared/closed palette. Needless to say I've learned a lot about it through my family members who use a closed palette and love it. It seems to be gaining attention.

  3. Is there something in-between a closed and open palette? I like the order an rigor of your closed organized system, but I'm not really painting in a classical or baroque way. If I wanted to sneak in a green where might I?

    Thank you for you informative an inspiring post.

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