Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Oil Painter's Palette Updated

Hey all it has been year since I last wrote about my palette and colors. I am constantly trying new things to improve my working habits. When choosing my colors I look for pigments that are archival, fast drying and require little oil. I also like to use natural earth pigments and limit the uses of synthetic pigments as much as possible. For example a pigment like Lapis Lazuli would be replaced by Ultramarine Blue due to its high cost and varying qualities that are still in existence. 

My Wooden Hand Palette
From my post last year I spoke more about the tubed paints bought from the art store and nothing about grinding ones own paints. My last stay in Florence I really focused on changing my working habits and started getting back to basics. Mulling my own pigments became one of those tasks of enlightenment in the field of oil painting. Having an art store like Zecchi close by provided me a great opportunity to purchase and experiment with a wide variety of pigments. I practiced using the cheaper nontoxic pigments to get the hang of it and find the consistency I like to work with. It made no sense to me to mull up some costly Vermilion off the ripe and mistakenly over saturate it with too much oil.
Venetian Red with Muller 
I have found many pros to mulling my own pigments. It is true that the colors are much richer and brighter than store bought paints. I believe that the fillers and extenders of store bought brands make for short and chalky paint. When choosing your pigments you have a much large selection to pick form. Raw Umber depending on the which region of the world can be bright and transparent or grey-green and quit opaque. Some vermilions can be warm and look like cadmium orange while others may appear cool and similar to cadmium red deep. 
A Domestic Yellow Ocher
The Cons I have found is that you must put in the elbow grease to do it yourself. The other more serious Cons are that some pigments are very poisonous and is not recommended to be handled without proper protection. Even the nonpoisonous pigments when airborne can be unhealthy to breathe.

Yellow Ocher During the Mulling Process
So the colors on my present palette are: 

  •  Lead White #2 ( From Natural Pigments mulled in Walnut Oil with no fillers. ) 
  • Cadmium Yellow ( I switch between Cad. Yellow light and Cad. Yellow medium depending on the paintings I'm working on. ) 
  • Yellow Ocher ( This is the only earth yellow remaining on my palette to this date. I discontinued using Raw Sienna because it requires over 200% oil which can then lead to rapid darkening. ) 
  • Red Ocher ( Pigments such as Sinopia, Venetian Red and English Red are often make their rotation on my palette. I find them very useful in painting the flesh. )
  • Burnt Sienna ( Like Raw Sienna this pigment requires a lot of oil, about 180%. But I find it a useful color because it's more orange and less opaque then the earth reds. )
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Vermilion Red or Cadmium Red medium ( Lately I have been using more Cadmium Red over  Vermilion. Current research I've found states that depending on Vermilions preparation and exposure to sunlight can lead to irreversible blackening and splotchiness. Although I have not experienced this in any of my painting I figure it is better to be safer then sorry. If anyone reading this knows any better about this pigment please contact me about your findings. )
  • Alizarin Crimson or Matter Lake
  • Raw Umber ( I tend to use a medium tone Cyprus Umber from the Harz Mountains. I love the Warmth and transparency of this pigment. )
  • Burnt Umber ( I had stopped using this pigment for a while because I hated the way it would sink in so drastically. Recently I found myself using it more and more. I lean towards Burnt Umbers that are warmer similar to Red Umber. )
  • Manganese Blue ( I started using this instead of Cerulean Blue. When painting skies in landscapes I find that it is much more of a vivid and transparent color. Cerulean Blue had always been too pasty for my liking. )
  • Cobalt Blue ( A Fast drying blue. )
  • Ultramarine Blue Deep ( I use this blue the most. I often mix it with Burnt Umber to create my darks and substitute using black.
  • Bone Black ( Lately I haven't be using it that often but still haven't kicked it off my palette. I use black as the last resort dark color in the final layers of the painting. )

My Glass Studio Palette
My Plein Air Painting Box

Lastly I wanted to share with you all a couple examples of what I do when testing out new pigments. I like to make color charts and mix colors that I wouldn't normally mix together to find interesting color to put in future paintings. I found making color charts very helpful in figuring out interesting and beautiful flesh tones. At times they can be boring to do but in the process not only do you learn more about color but also the individual characteristics of each of the pigments. You may find one is more transparent or opaque then the other. In other situations you will also find the tinting strength and drying times varies from pigment to pigment. So Below is a couple examples of my color charts.

Flesh Chart using mostly Earth Pigments
Flesh Chart Using Cadmiums and Earth Pigments
A Yellow Chart mixed with other colors on my Palette
I hoped you enjoyed this post and knowing me I'll most likely be updating this next year with new habits and discoveries. Thank You stopping by.


  1. You've got a nice, informative blog here. Keep it up.

    Question- You didn't mention the change from wooden to glass (or handheld to tabletop). Are you not using the wooden palette anymore? I can't stand NOT holding my palette... I'd be interested to hear your thoughts to the contrary.

  2. Hey Thomas! Thanks for following this blog. I still use all of my palettes but for different reasons. My hand held I'll use while painting the figure or portraits in a class room setting where there is limited space. When I'm in my own studio I like to paint with a bunch of brushed and a maul stick in one hand so I like to limit the load. Also because I mostly work sights-size with still life I place the palette where I view my work. This forces my to spend time mixing more accurate colors and looking for any drawing mistakes. I feel what is more important is to have the pigments in the same order on what ever surface you mix on. Other than that I think It's just a matter of comfort so what ever works do that.

  3. Brian I have to disagree with you here. It's not a matter of comfort. The secret is discomfort. Like those fancy shoes women sometimes wear: they hurt.

    My wooden palette, a handfull of brushes, a rag and the mahl stick... I depend on the pain in my hand to keep me focused! I can't paint very well if I'm comfortable and daydreaming.

    But really, you're absolutely right about the order of colors. Whatever that order is, it needs to be regular. I cringe when I see students laying out their colors willy-nilly. I use the old typing analogy: you couldn't accomplish anything on a typewriter if the keys were laid out differently every time.

  4. I was kidding, of course.
    When I set my palette down I have a hard time seeing it. This is, no doubt, the fault of my inadequate lighting.

    Practically speaking, I could see myself using a glass table-top palette - especially if I painted while seated; less fatigue on the arm and a better surface for mixing paint. But at the same time It kind of just feels good using a wooden palette, knowing that's how it's been done for centuries. Do you ever get that feeling?

  5. You know, I do love the feeling of wood palettes especially when the have been sealed well with linseed oil. For a while I tried to think like a throw back purest and repeat what I thought the masters would have done. Now a days I am just trying to work in the methods that seem most intuitive to me in the present moment. I still tinker around a bunch like a gear head with their hot rod. But in reality the car never leaves the garage. So even though I love how interesting materials are I try not to let them get in the way of how the finished painting turns out.
    ANyways man, I liked your blog. The self Portrait is coming out well. The form is very strong.