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Here is the list of colors that I use for both my indoor and outdoor palettes:
 
*It’s worth mentioning that there is an exception, which I nicknamed the April/May exception. At that time of year, I add Gamblin’s Quinacridone Magenta next to the Permanent Alizarin.  I found that while painting some of the exuberant pinks of Spring, my cool red was just not intense enough to capture some of the hues that really are present in nature at that time of year.  I hope this won’t sound more complicated than it is … 6 weeks, 2 colors in the place of 1, when I’m painting flowers … and I love painting flowers : >)
 
 

Like any painter, I’ve made my choices based on a lot of experience, trial and error, personality, and theory. My plein air comings and goings were part of my desire to “travel lightly,” but I also liked what the semi-limited palette did to my mind in growing to understand color further. My choices resolved over time based on watching what I did and how it felt doing it. I noticed two slightly opposed ideas at play, which would be “simplicity” and “completeness.” This set is my resolution for both of these things, which are worth considering, so let’s spend some time with each.

 
  Simplicity
 

A good way to approach the topic of simplicity, might be to consider how many roads a person would like to have available to arrive at any destination.  Let’s use some actual color, so we don’t get too lost in words, and consider this little patch of my working palette as a small world of color that we could think of as a destination.  I created this little world with intermixtures of White, Cad Yellow Light, Cad Orange, Burnt Umber, and Ultramarine Blue.  These are 5 colors that all play a role in making this.  Now, let’s consider that we could start adding colors to the palette to create this very same little world of color.  We could add any or all of these: Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Transparent Oxide Red, Black, Sap Green, Viridian, and Prussian Blue. As I said, any of these could be added to assist in creating that same little world, or all of them could be added to create that same little world.  The destination remains the same, but many different roads of how to get there open up with each addition.

Here is my point.  The destination is the same.  The only question is how does it feel to the personality to have more options of how to get there?  For many, it might feel like a very happy collection of lovely friends and helpers, and maybe like a joyous party.  To me, it feels like pausing on the highway to color, with some extra thinking to do about which one of the different roads to take.  These feel like extra decisions, and for me a little bit of stress.  When we remember that the destination is the same, it becomes apparent that neither method is superior to the other.  All that matters is what it feels like to the painter who is at work on the palette and the painting. 

 
 

A legitimate objection to this example might be that my snapshot has loaded this consideration toward my bias, and that some of those pigments listed have unique properties that either can’t be gotten, or can’t be gotten easily, with my more limited palette.  Let me use a convenient example with my hero, John Singer Sargent.  I notice all throughout his works, these happy notes of Burnt Sienna, and the bright warm shmeer out of them that these touches create.  I can see that he saw them in life, and loved them, and loved the pigment for that.  They “pinged” his heart in a delightful way. This is part of what I love about painting with life, by the way.  Our reactions to our subjects are genuine, raw, and unaffected or filtered.  While I also see some of those same notes of Burnt Sienna out in the world, they just don’t “ping” my heart in quite the same way it so obviously did his. My heart tends to be pinged by other notes. I celebrate them in my work, and the colors on my palette allow me to both seek and find all of my own little favorites in the worlds of color.  This is a very human-piloted artform after all. I think it’s good to notice our own biases, and just go with them.  We don’t really need to know why we love, just that we love.

 
Okay one more, we can't look at too many Sargent paintings ... my goodness, a piece like this makes me want to add Burnt Sienna to my palette too : >)
  Completeness
 

The starting point for this topic is what kind of completeness that we might have in mind.  The completeness that I’m referring to here are “the colors found in nature,” and even more specifically, “the colors found while looking at nature.”  Please notice that some color possibilities fall off of the map with that.  There are no neon or metallic colors in nature for example, and many color possibilities are extremely rare.  While this might sound like a somewhat fuddy-duddy beginning, let me say that it feels like a park so vast, varied, and beautiful, that its explorations and adventures feel like endless puzzlement and fun.

 
 

To start, let’s imagine the color wheel as points of pure hue around a circle, where the outer points are the brightest hues possible for all the colors. We pick some number of pure hues for our palette, and those become points around the circle.  What happens is this, we draw a straight line between the points we’ve picked, and all the potential points along that line are the colors possible to mix with those two colors.  The space that’s now created between that line and the outer arc are now hues that we don’t have access to.  So, if we have a yellow and a red for example, the orange hue we mix is not as bright as the orange hue that would live along the circle.  Our mixed orange is duller, because it has moved from the outer arc and toward the center of the circle, and the center point is where black, white, and all the neutral grays live. The farther away from the yellow that our red might slide around the circle, the more of the circle that gets cut off, and the duller our orange gets.  It’s good to be aware of this phenomenon as we select our colors.

 
 

With this in mind, I want to point out that my palette has two “holes” in it, or two obvious places where there is some space between two points.  The holes are purple and green. First let’s look at the Ultramarine Blue, since it plays a part in both the purple and the green.  If we were to imagine a pure blue that was absolutely, perfectly, nothing but blue, the Ultramarine is actually quite close, and possibly the closest.  It’s also quite dark, which is important.  Spectrometers note that it has a tiny speck of red in it.  The artist’s eye can see this too … sigh … scientists and art historians need to talk with artists more often.  This comes in handy with the purples, and what I’ve found through experience is that nature really doesn’t show me purples that I can’t mix from my Ultramarine Blue and Permanent Alizarin.  I have a couple purple tubes in my basement paint drawer that I haven’t touched in over 20 years. 

 
 

The green is more of an issue because of that speck of red mentioned, and it’s true that my greens are slightly duller because of it.  However, in my experiments with including various green tube colors, I found myself making many more color-mixing errors of over-brightened greens, than I do with my blue-and-yellow-make-green approach.  There really is a softness to the greens of nature for the most part, and the “brightest” colors are usually seen in nature and in paintings because they are playing off of the softness that so often naturally surrounds them.

The biggest hole within the topic of green would be the aquamarines, again because of that speck of red. I did a painting of a swimming pool once, and so I added Phthalo Green to my palette. As I explored the blues and greens that make up how a swimming pool actually looks though, there were many more grayed colors than I would have guessed, and I wound up using less than a pea’s worth of the Phthalo.  It hasn’t been used since, and so I carry on without much fear of aquamarine.  As with any episodes of bright colors, just a little effort is needed for cleaning the brush well at the right moments, and all goes well.

 
  Burnt Umber
 

As you look at my selected colors, it’s easy to spot the one that doesn’t live on the outer circle of the color wheel.  I painted plein air for several years without Burnt Umber, and I can say that it is not “needed.”  However, there is a matter of practicality here, or where we could say:  there’s theory, and then there’s practice.  I like to joke that I spend over half my life with the wrong color in my brush.  That just means that the color has been applied to the painting, and then it’s time to switch to another color.  That switch often involves going darker and warmer.  Without the dark brown, I would have to make sure that all of the white was cleaned out of the brush before I could dive into the red-yellow-blue approach.  When I added the Burnt Umber, I found that I could spend less time with the fastidious cleaning, and dive into some good slightly-dirty-brush painting, and carry on.  I loved that, and really enjoy the role that the Burnt Umber plays in making grays and blacks with my blue, and I wouldn’t want to paint without it.  There is one drawback, which is that the earth-tones tend to dry faster than the other pigments.  Wet-into-wet painting is my favorite mode, so it is a small drawback.  I shopped many of the dark browns though, and found that the Burnt Umber dried slower than most others.

 
  Hue, Value, and Intensity
 

I was educated in, and have lived with the theory where all color can be described by the three independent variables: hue, value, and intensity.  The power comes from combining the simplicity of the theory, with the wonderful wide world of color understanding that it leads to.  The fact that the variables are independent is the key.  After putting this theory into practice and living with it for many years now, I can happily add my testimony to so many others that it’s really true. One of the nicknames I give it is: “the key to the kingdom of color.”  It is a simple theory that leads to a world of enjoyment and fun.

The hue, value, intensity theory can tend anyone towards what is called a spectral palette, or colors of only the outer rim of the color wheel. There can be a little bit of extra zeal for purity there, and while it is true that all inner colors are mixed by the outer colors, it’s good to pause and notice that we are stepping from color theories about light and into the properties of pigments.  One important property is a pigment’s ability to either retain intensity, or dull as they are “tinted” or mixed with white.  Many “modern” colors have a noticeable and valued characteristic of retaining their intensity all through their range of tints.  Examples would include Azo Yellow, Napthol Crimson, Dioxazine Purple, Phthalocyanine Blue, and Green, etc.  These colors can create very bright pastel versions of themselves, or what we could call “popsicle” colors.  They can be grayed, but that takes some effort and extra vigilance around the component of intensity. 

 
 

Since my goal is to paint toward those colors found while looking at life, all of my selected pigments are considered “traditional.” These have the characteristic of the slight “dulling” as they are tinted with white. Instead of a limitation, this is incredibly convenient because it mimics what sunlight does to objects.  In other words, it makes my job easier, and believe me, I need all the help I can get : >)  Another important property of these pigments is their opaque nature.  I use the direct painting method as my routine, and really value that characteristic. So much of my passion is alive while trying to mix what it is that I’m seeing, and then seeing if what I’ve painted is hitting the notes of color that I’m after. While I do my best to wash in thin and slightly vague underpaintings as a way of approaching my final colors steadily, nature has a way of showing us remarkable variations, and many of them affect the courses of my paintings.  There will often be sun and shade where it wasn’t before, and it will be too charming to resist.  These pigments allow the artist in me to react to both the subject, and the adventure of the painting, without fretting or quarreling over what my materials can accomplish. It's true that some of my excited reactions to something new in my subjects get scraped back when reconsidered in the cooler moments in the studio, but many of them work out marvelously, and that is all a part of the fun.

 
 

Well, well, start painters talking about color, and who knows how long we’ll go on? I hope it’s apparent that I share this in the spirit of adding to the pool of things to consider, without trying to convince. It is our paintings that matter in the end, and not the things around them that help in their making. If you have favorite tube-colors that you love, or many more colors than I use, you certainly have my approval and friendship. All that really matters is how it feels to you while doing the work. I once heard it said that all an artist can know is what works for them. We are all so unique, and I hope this helps you find what works best for you.  The tent of Art is so vast, that it can hold all of us with plenty of room to spare. I wish you many, many happy hours of painting, exploring, and painting.

 
   
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