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The Simplicity of a Limited Palette Approach to Painting.  By Don Finkeldei:   An overview of the concepts of a limited palette with premixed neutral and warm grays.

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An obvious example in simplicity almost everyone is familiar with is Einstein.  He developed his special theory of relativity in 1905 by observation and gedanken thought experiments (a gedanken is a thought experiment you carry out in your mind).  He reduced extremely complex things by logically thinking through gedanken thought experiments he carried out in his head.  A very simple elegant outcomes of his theory is   E=MC2.  A few terms reduced from thousands.  Painting can also be reduced to a very powerful simple approach by using a limited palette and gray moderators.

Sometimes it’s good to go out on a location plein air and rather than paint spend the whole day observing using a gedanken thought process to analyze value planes, recession, edges, chromatic saturation and color temperature relationships between objects planes and recession.   Envision your painting then paint a gedanken painting in your mind!  Eliminate what you don’t need.  Add what you do need.   I’ve learned more by analyzing through thought processes than I ever did by taking a class.  The point is that understanding relationships and judging for yourself what you want to accomplish is the key, not formula’s given to you by others.

The obvious advantages of a limited palette are:

  • Students of a limited palette using gray moderators learn to mix colors and not to rely on tube colors.

  • Sticking to a limited color palette and mixing paints becomes so natural you don't think about it any more.

  • Artists can easily develop an extensive pallet of value/hue/saturation for each of the three primary colors and for each mix of color.

  • Money is saved by learning to mix your own paint colors instead of buying tubes.

  • Forces one to get out of the comfort zone and perhaps into something really fulfilling and mind expanding.

  • Allows one to set up the "mood" of the palette by rolling your own paint  based on the mood of the scene.

I’ve learned a lot from other artists but what has helped me the most is the time and effort I’ve put into solidifying my own understanding of what happens logically in nature and how to apply that to a very logical painting process.  A limited palette with gray modifiers.

The paints I use consist of Cad Red Light, Cad Yellow medium, Cad Lemon Yellow, and Ultramarine Blue.  For white, I use Titanium White.  I also use a little Viridian and Alizarin Crimson for dark areas and shadows.  Viridian and Alizarin Crimson are transparent colors.  The cadmiums are opaque.  Ultramarine blue is semi transparent.

First, I mix neutral grays from the primaries Cad Red Light, Cad Yellow medium and Ultramarine Blue.  It’s extremely important to use professional grade paints from the same high quality manufacturer.  Don’t buy Cad Red from one manufacturer and a Cad Yellow from another.  Use the same manufacturer every time because you’ll have to re-train yourself mixing grays every time you switch.  I’ve become familiar with Utrecht.  I can mix the grays I want the first time every time because I’m familiar with the manufacturer’s consistency and pigment saturation.

This article on my website  “How to Mix Grays for Use with a Limited Palette” shows how I mix them.  Test the gray by pulling some dark gray (without white) into a clean area on your palette with a palette knife and mix a little titanium white with it to see if it’s neutral gray.  If it’s not, just adjust the orange or blue accordingly.  I have the underside of my palette painted a mid value neutral gray (spray paint, auto primer gray) so it’s real easy to tell.

Next, I’ll mix a higher value neutral and even still higher value using only titanium white with the dark gray I mixed first.  This gives me three values of neutral gray I can use to modify the primary colors.  It’s important to get a flat neutral gray.  I’ll then mix two more pools of a warm gray in lighter and darker values by using the dark neutral gray, Titanium white, a little cad yellow medium and a smaller amount of cad red light.  Go easy with mixing cad yellow and red light in these warm grays.  It doesn’t take much.  This gives me 3 values of neutral gray and two Khaki warm colors to use for modifying the primaries.

The reason it’s important to mix a flat neutral gray is this:  If you want to decrease the chromatic saturation of a red, for instance, keeping the hue (color) exactly the same, just use one of your neutral grays.  It won’t change the hue (color).  The hue will be the same but the pigment intensity is decreased.  If you want to de-saturate a green and also warm it a bit, Use one of your warm grays.  It’s just simple logic!  If you want to de-saturate a color keeping the value and hue the same, use a neutral gray of the same value as the color you want to de-saturate.   I’ve mentioned the color properties: chromatic intensity, hue, value, and color temperature so it’s time to define them.

1.    Paint properties.  Most artists think of color as a single entity without considering the properties of color.  There are four properties one should think about.   If you think in these terms you’ll create better paintings.  Especially if you’re using a limited palette with gray modifiers.

  •  Chromatic intensity.   The amount of color.  Gray being zero color intensity.  Tube red, yellow and blue are maximum intensity.

  • Value, lightness or darkness.  It’s the gray scale value going from pure black to white.

  • Hue (the color of the paint).

  • Color temperature (a more obscure property).   Color temperature is the warmth or coolness of a color relative to what is next to it and the overall color temperature theme.  Normally, red and yellow are considered warm, Blue and green are considered cool.  In art It’s a relative property, meaning that a cool red passage (maybe by making it slightly more purple using blue with red) is cooler than a red without blue in it.

 When I mix paint I don’t see one single color property anymore.  I break that down into 4 properties.  Chromatic intensity,   Value (lightness or darkness),   color (hue), and how it fits into the overall color temperature scheme.  And I keep in mind what recession does to color (generally, cooler, lighter and closer values in the distance).  I also think about the type of plane I’m dealing with and the type of edge I need.  I then mix paints from the primaries and grays to accomplish the mix I want with the brush I want to use.   The definitions for value planes, types of light and edges are listed below.

The advantages of using a limited palette with gray modifiers are: 

Greater control over what your want to use when mixing paint.  The other theory used more widely is to put a complimentary in the mix, add white as needed to decrease  the chroma.  I find that confusing to people and without control.   For a limited palette with gray modifiers, if you want to decrease chromatic intensity, keeping value and hue the same, use neutral grays of the same value as the color you want to mix.  Another example is if you want to decrease the chromatic intensity of green, change the hue and color temperature to a warmer state and also change to a lighter value, use a warm gray that’s lighter in value.   You’ll be more accurate and faster in the mix than if you had to try to mix a complementary and some white for the paint you want to modify.  It’s a very logical approach.

Another good tactic is to pre-mix your general value planes and object on the palette.  You’ll be able to judge value, hue, chromatic intensity and color temperature relationships much easier on mid value neutral gray palette than on the canvas which starts out white (unless you tone the canvas).  I still pre-mix before I begin a lot of paintings.  Sometimes I don’t, especially if I see a scene I want to paint and the light is changing.  But, if I have time, I’ll pre-mix.  Pre-mixing will force you to understand planes, modeling objects, recession, color properties, etc. much faster than hit and miss on the canvas.

2.    Value planes:  Basically there are 4.  It’s not a rule, just a simplified guideline.  Understanding value plane relationships of value and effects of recession is VERY important.

  • Sky:  Generally the highest in value of all other planes.  Close values, soft edges.  Sometimes I see the gray undersides of clouds being exactly the same value as the blue sky.  Of course, the blue sky has more chroma in it than the de-saturated underside of a cloud in shadow but sometimes the values are quite close.  An exception to this is what happens at dusk.

  • Ground planes:  They are the second highest in overall value because they are horizontal to the sky and get a lot of reflected light from the bright sky.  Bluer and lighter with recession depth of course.  The ground plane can have small uprights, light sunny areas, shadow areas and transition zones like any object.  It’s important to understand the relationships between shadows in the ground plane and shadows in Uprights.  On a bright sunny day the shadow areas in a ground plane can be quite blue because of the blue reflection from the sky and can be quite higher in value than the shadows in uprights like trees.  Upright objects like trees get much less reflection from the sky (except at the tops of trees where the overall mass turns horizontal to the sky. Hence they are warmer and darker than the corresponding light and shadow areas of the ground plane.  Overcast gray skies will of course have less blue reflections into the ground plane.

  • Slanted planes:  Mountains in the distance or any slanted plane.  Gets less light from the sky.  Hence, the third value, darker that the ground plane.  Bluer and lighter with recession.

  • Uprights:  These are vertical objects.  They don’t get as much light from the sky as horizontal or slanted planes.  Generally, they are the darkest objects in the painting.  cooler and lighter with recession depth, of course.

3.    Types of light:  Generally, there are 5 types of light.  John Singer Seargent was one of the first artists to categorize light in this way.  It’s not a rule, again just a simplified guideline.  Keep in mind the types of light you are dealing with in each object or value plane.  The objects or value planes can be horizontal to the sky or grade to vertical.  It’s very important to understand the types of light in relation to the value planes and objects within them.

  • Light:  This is the light that bathes objects and planes directly from the source, usually the sun and scattered blue sky.

  • Shadow:  The side of an object or area of a plane that’s in shadow.  A horizontal plane in shadow will be higher in value and bluer than an upright plane on the shadow side (like a tree, for instance).  That’s easy to rationalize because a plane that is in shade and horizontal to the sky naturally gets more light from the scattered blue of the sky than an upright shadow would.

  • Midtone:  The transition zone between the light side and shadow side.

  • Accents:  Accents can either be the darkest and lightest passages in a modeled object.  The darkest deep shadow inside a tree or a very light aspen trunk for instance.

  • Reflected light:  This type of light is probably least understood.  It’s the light one object or plane receives from another object or plane’s reflection.

4.    Edges:  There are three broad classifications of edges.

  • Soft Edge:  The feathered edge of a painting stroke.  Clouds and water generally have very soft edges.  A skyline above distant mountains can be quite soft.  Objects outside the focal area can also have soft edges.

  •  Hard Edge:  A very sharp transition between a stroke of one color or value.  Palette knives are good at making hard edges.  Filbert brushes aren’t because they taper off at the edge of the brush.  Also, for instance, a blue object next to an orange object will appear to have a harder edge than a blue object next to a green one.  High value contrasts between strokes also read as a harder edge.

  • Lost edge:  These are created by very soft feathering of an edge between close value passages.   Using lost edges by creating a feathered transition between two values that are exactly the same can be quite beautiful.  Varying the color keeping the value the same.  Foggy mists can have lost edges.  Misty spray from a waterfall can create lost edges.

5.    Composition:  There are many types of composition.  Edgar Paynes book “Composition of Outdoor Painting” is one of the best.  A quote from the book explains composition goals quite well.  “Good composition is always determined by good selection.  Fine painting is a matter of proper taste and judgment in choosing the motive, accepting some parts, discarding others, and making changes or alterations throughout the procedure.”

One of the first things I try to pin down when painting is the composition.  I use a gedanken process (there’s that word again).  What is the focal point?  What do I need in the painting?  What can I eliminate?  What areas need to be subdued, strengthened and re-arranged?

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