Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Using a Restricted Color Palette

As I study Gennady Spirin's work (see previous post) I am coming to realize that using a color scheme which is restricted to warm or cool, and then again to two main colors can be very effective in setting a mood. Many of the old masters used a spare palette. I used to think this was because they didn't have the variety of colors we now have. Now I believe it was deliberate. Gennady Spirin's earlier books do this very well. His award-winning illustrations in "Gulliver's Travels" are done mainly in cerulean blue and raw or burnt umber (with the other earth colors washed in.) The dominant use of earth colors with soft blues such as cerulean, manganese, and cobalt produces a very soft, old-world feel to a painting -- if the earths are used as light washes and not overdone. I am in awe of how Mr. Spirin manages to keep his work muted without becoming muddy.

One way seems to be to use pure color starting with the lightest of washes to build value without too much mixing of other colors, and when shadows are desired, to wash your opposite color over it. For example, try using raw sienna as a very light wash, then, when dry, wash it again with the same color to darken some areas, then for shadow, use a very light manganese wash over the sienna. I have a tendency to do too much color mixing. While this can produce some interesting effects, it is also much easier to muddy the colors. And, if I get too complicated in my mixing, I can lose track of how I made that particular color in the first place. Simplicity rules in watercolor!

Another technique which Mr. Spirin seems to employ to great effect, is the use of light washes and a grey pencil as shading. I'm not sure whether this is graphite or colored pencil, and if colored pencil, whether he uses a wax-based pencil. Probably not. I would love to find out. (Mr. Spirin, can I be a fly on your studio wall for a day?) This mixing of mediums, of course, may not be acceptable to watercolor purists but in illustration, whatever works....

My palette tends to be on the cool, soft side. I find myself using cobalt and cerulean blues a lot, even though Cerulean is warm. I favor Alizarin crimson over Cadmium red as well. In fact, all the cadmiums are problematic for me because they are so opaque. I like a more luminous look. I would like to find a warm, transparent red that I like. I used to employ ready made purples and greens but now I mostly mix them myself. Paynes grey is nice, if used very sparingly in mixes. I love the luminosity of Quinnacridone gold and tend to use it a lot. Of the earths, I use raw sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Burnt Umber. A light wash of Venetian red is wonderful for flesh tones but I don't use it for much else. It can be very heavy. Yellows are problematic for me. They tend to jump off the page too much. I favor aureolin for its luminosity but use it only for mixing. Here is my palette now, soon to be reduced to fewer colors.

I will be experimenting more with color in the next weeks and months - using more pure color, more earths, lighter washes, and restricting my palette by a third at least. I will probably fill a brand new metal palette with paint to help me pare down. (This feels like going on a diet. I know it will be good for me but my mind still craves an abundant buffet.)
Wish me luck. I will show you my new palette soon.

PS. The palette above is loaded with the following colors from left to right.The colors that are starred I will definately be keeping in my new palette:
Top row:Gold, Aureolin, New Gamboge, Cadmium yellow med, *Quinnacridone Gold, *Raw Sienna, *Burnt Sienna, *Venetian Red (great for flesh tones), *Burnt Umber, *Paynes Grey, *Black
Bottom Row: Olive Green, Viridian, *Cerulean Blue, *Cobalt Blue, Winsor Blue, *French Ultramarine, Winsor Violet, Cobalt Violet, Rose Madder, Permanent Rose, *Alizarin Crimson, *Cadmium Red.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your palette and thoughts about a color diet. A palette like a pantry reveals what is to come.

    I use scarlet lake and rose dore and avoid all cadmiums because they lead to muddy colors so often.