10 Ways to Kickstart Your Art – #4: Take Control of Your Palette

In two weeks I will be holding my 5-Day “Kickstart Your Art: Oil Painting Bootcamp” here in Bozeman Montana and I will soon be launching an online version, so to lead up to both workshops I’m writing a 10-part blog series!

(If you missed the previous blogs, catch up on the whole series here)

These are ten of the things that have helped my own work the most, and that I see make the biggest improvements to my students’ work. The actual workshops will cover a lot more than these ten things of course, so join us in August or sign up for my workshop newsletter to learn more about my online class.

This Week: Take Control of Your Palette

Your palette is the console in the spaceship of your studio, and you can’t get to the destination of your finished painting without it. A lot of the time when you end up lost (in space), the problem stems from your paint mixing and management skills. Knowing how to choose and organize colors, how to get the most out of your mixtures, and some technical tips on tools go a long way to make painting more intuitive and productive!

Which blue was I using again...?

Which blue was I using again…?

Keep it Simple:

When someone brings a giant grocery bag of 20 or more tubes of paint to class, it’s time to stage an intervention. For some reason we think that having more colors will make mixing easier, but it’s actually the opposite! You’ll spend so much time hunting for a specific color and trying to remember what you used yesterday that you’ll be completely frustrated.

There’s nothing wrong with getting adept at using a dozen, twenty, fifty, or a hundred colors – but the key is “getting adept.” Start small, start simple. Learn each color, fall in love with each color, and then it becomes intuitive and harmonious.

A palette from the painting I'm currently working on. It's made from only Quinacridone Violet (right), Indian Yellow (third from right), and Pthalo Turquoise (second from left). I've mixed an orange, a green, and a blue from these three colors, and also used white to mix values of each color from value #5 (top) to value #1 (bottom). By premixing and arranging my colors this way, my whole process is more intuitive, and by using a limited palette of only three colors I have interesting, harmonious mixtures

A palette from the painting I’m currently working on. It’s made from only Quinacridone Violet (right), Indian Yellow (third from right), and Pthalo Turquoise (second from left). I’ve mixed an orange, a green, and a blue from these three colors, and also used white to mix values of each color from value #5 (top) to value #1 (bottom). By premixing and arranging my colors this way, my whole process is more intuitive, and by using a limited palette of only three colors I have interesting, harmonious mixtures.

Build Your Palette:

  • Pare down your sack of colors to one or two versions of each of the primaries plus white. Good examples are a warm and a cool of each primary, an intense and a neutral/earth tone of each, or an opaque and a transparent. As you get more comfortable, add new colors one at a time.
  • Don’t add color to add color, add color to fill the empty spaces in your process. Add a color you mix a lot and want to save time by finding pre-mixed, a color you can’t mix at all with your current palette, a neutral or tinted white to give you more dimension, etc.
  • Arrange your colors in a way that makes sense to you on the edge of your palette – grouped by temperature, in rainbow order, organized by value, whatever you like! Give each squeezed pile an official home and squeeze it in the same spot every time, so you don’t have to think about where to reach when you’re mixing.
  • When you get confused or frustrated, pare back! Over time you’ll find your perfect palette buddies.
  • Even though I have a roster of about a dozen favorite colors, I almost never use more than four at a time on any painting. Keeping my palette limited makes it easy for me to remember mixtures from day to day, and as a bonus I get almost instant harmony! Experiment with limited palettes and see what your perfect number is.

Make it Easy On Yourself:

I find one of the best investments in good, clean color is to get three things: a glass palette, a razor paint scraper, and a palette keeper.

  • A glass palette is the easiest to keep clean and therefore mix clean color on
  • A palette keeper can keep your paints from being accidentally mashed or smeared by cats in your studio (a bigger hazard than you think), and if it’s mostly-airtight it can save you money by keeping your paints fresher!
  • A paint scraper with a nice cushioned handle and a good sharp blade will make it easy to get rid of old mixtures and make room for new

If you’re starting out and starting small, there’s nothing wrong with using a pad of palette paper (or even freezer paper taped to a board), but struggling with your paint mixing and storage space can take your brain out of The Zone where intuitive painting happens!

Palette keeper, glass palette, and paint scraper (Masterson Sta-Wet Palette Seal: New Wave Posh Glass Palette:

Palette keeper, glass palette, and paint scraper (Masterson Sta-Wet Palette SealNew Wave Posh Glass Palette)

Break It Down:

When trying to match a color you can see (or even one you’re visualizing), it helps to tackle each aspect of color individually:

  1. First ask, what hue is it or where does it fall on the color wheel?
  2. Then ask, where does it fall on the value scale between white and black?
  3. Finally, is it very saturated or very neutral (more grey or brown)?

By evaluating each aspect on its own, you will waste less time (and paint). Blindly guessing can make you crazy and lead to THE BLOB taking over the palette before you know it!

Using a swatch of paper to practice, I first decided on the hue (yellow), then the value (about #1), then added a little neutral grey at the end to reach the right intensity.

Using a swatch of paper to practice, I first decided on the hue (yellow), then the value (about #1), then added a little neutral grey at the end to reach the right intensity. Practice in your own studio with pieces of colored junk mail, magazine clippings, or paint chips.

Keep it Clean!

One of my most constant phrases in my classes is, “I think you need to take a break and clean your palette…” I hear groans every time, no one wants to stop to do it, but it’s sooo important!

Most times when I see someone struggling, the first problem isn’t the painting or the tool or the artist’s brain, it’s the palette. Keeping your main colors piles organized and full, your mixtures grouped, and your mud scraped off to the side will give you a fresh slate to create from. If you don’t have enough paint, your brushwork suffers and your mixtures go awry, and if you don’t know what color or color mixture is where, you get confused and it breaks you out of The Zone. Imagine sitting down to play a piano where the keys were always in a different order or sometimes missing. How could you succeed?

Conclusion:

When reaching for and mixing the right color becomes intuitive, you free up your concentration to focus on solving problems, designing the elements, and telling the story of your painting! How would changing the way you approach your palette alter your own studio time? Please comment with your story!

When setting up my palette and mixing colors, I am always checking my values. If you want a version of the value scale I use in my own studio, Join My Art Education Mailing List and Get a Free Download of My 5-value Scale!

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