Limited Palettes

I have been exploring the use of a limited palette. I love color and believe that most people have an individual sense of color combinations they are drawn to naturally. I began wondering if I had maybe gone too far in that direction and was using color combinations by default in my landscape paintings. Had I fallen into a rote method of approaching color choices in my work? Since switching back to oils I had not taken a pause for more in depth understanding of the fundamentals in a different medium. I enjoy plein-air so much; it felt like “work” to do give myself an assignment. I was curious about the palettes of early landscape painters and this provided the hook or path into taking a fresh look at the way I mix color.

The above 12″ x 12″ painting was inspired by the strong diagonal shadow from the rock cliffs near Barrett’s Station. I deliberately chose: black, white, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and yellow ochre. These colors relate to the primaries. . Burnt sienna is reddish brown, yellow ochre is a yellow and ultramarine blue. At the end I cheated with a stroke of purple out of the tube and another brush stroke of cerulean blue, both mixed with white.

This second painting was done using the three primaries plus black and white. There is warm and cool colors within each primary but will leave that topic for another post.

For the last painting, I chose a smaller, 8×10 panel because it was a cold and windy day. Here I experimented with the Anders Zorn palette, making some substitutions: Ivory black [I used Payne’s gray], Lead white [titanium], vermillion [Azo Coral], burnt sienna and yellow ochre. Zorn, an early Swedish painter painted mostly portraits and generally did not have blue on his palette a big negative for me working plein air. Payne’s gray mixed with white gives a bluish gray but there were patches of blue sky! What to do? So I sneaked some cerulean blue mixed with white.

I learned to be more thoughtful about color and to keep it simple even when I feel pressure to capture the composition before the light changes. I became aware that if there are too many colors mixing on the painting it tends to gray out areas that look better with clean color.

  • Robin Simmen

    March 8, 2021 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for this insight into how you planned the colors in these energetic landscapes, Nancy. Something about the cools and warms of just a few hues really vitalizes them…I can feel the cold air and sunlight on your face. And the lines are so strong, too. I love seeing these three works together.

  • Alison Chandler

    March 8, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    Nancy, I like your thoughtful commentary on limited palettes and on using the three primary colors as your reference point. I love the third painting especially–the sky is wonderful–it reveals not only gray and blue but hints of violet and green as well (at least to my eye). And then the deep blue of the mountains/hills contrasting with the touch of deep red (is that Azo Coral?–I’m not familiar with that color). Well done!