Friday, July 2, 2010


     I recently started using an old palette of mine in the studio, so I thought it would be an apt time to write a blog entry about my color. I began using this palette during in my undergraduate days at Syracuse University, when I was just starting to seriously pursue oil painting. That was about 18 years ago, and it is now layered with many pages of painted history. The paint got so thick in some areas, that I had to scrape it down to find a level surface again.
     I like to mix my paints on wood, not only because it provides a middle-value background tone to mix on, but after many wipe-downs of paint, the pigment and linseed oil give it a durable stone-like feel; not too slick, not too absorbent.

My colors are laid out from left to right in the following way:

Titanium White
Yellow Ochre Pale
Cadmium Lemon Yellow
Cadmium Red
Alizarin Crimson
Burnt Sienna
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue Deep
Ivory Black
Raw Umber
Burnt Umber

     Initially, I started out using just the first nine, and later added the black, raw umber, and burnt umber. I was always told never to use black in color mixing, but like most rules, they can be broken if you have the acquired wisdom. I usually use the black in the beginning stages of the painting, to draw out the forms with a thin liner brush. It can be added to certain darker colors such as the browns and blues, but never with something like a cadmium yellow or white. I also found the umbers to be good 'weak' colors, ones which you can add to a tone to knock it down a bit (the burnt umber being a little redder, the raw umber a little greener). I've tried various other colors through the years, but find I can usually mix them using this basic palette.

     As for brands, I go with the highest grade paints (Windsor and Newton, Old Holland, Blockx, and Schminke) There's truth to the phrase "You get what you pay for". The Cadmiums and Cobalts in these high grade paints are beyond comparison; there's just more pigment content and better fluidity which can't be achieved in a low-grade paint. For certain colors I use certain brands, but I'm usually somewhat flexible, depending on what they have at the store. The Old Holland Lemon Yellow is the best I've found, as is, the Blockx Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna.

     For a medium, I use a mixture of 25% Poppy Oil and 75% English distilled turpentine. I used to use a higher oil content, but lowered it because I wanted the paints to dry quicker and have less sheen. The poppy oil is clearer than linseed oil, which tends to be sightly yellowish, and I've found it to dry a little quicker too. Like the paints, I find it best to use a high-quality, refined product, like Old Holland or Windsor and Newton.

     I'm usually mixing my colors with a brush, which allows me the fast reaction time I need when painting from observation. This usually destroys my brushes quicker, so I tend to buy less expensive brushes for this reason. I recently started using more synthetic sable brushes, which allows for a smoother application and less 'drag', but I also like a bristle brush, which can give you a chunkier mark.

     My education in color came mostly from a fellow student while I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Ignacio Valdez. He was from Spain and about five years older than me, and light years ahead of anyone in the program. (At the age of 25, he was able to paint the air between objects!) This guy knew so much about painting, and particularly Cezanne, whom he considered one of the greatest painters to ever live (which I would agree with). I spent countless nights listening to him talk about Cezanne's color use and compositional devices, describing his warm/cool color choices and the way he created a truely modern art form through the investigation a perceptual space. He taught me that the most important color you can have is Burnt Sienna, because it can make a cool color warmer and a warm color cooler (since it contains some blue). Mostly, he introduced me to Cezanne, who I have never gotten over, and return continually to study and absorb his work.

     My color sense was also sharped while working for a hand-painted wallpaper company in Manhattan, my first 'art' job upon arriving in New York at 22. I spent about a year hand mixing all the paint for their wallpaper production, sometimes laboring over a single gallon for 3 days, to get the color match just right. All their paper was made to order, so my job was to mix the paint to match the swatches they had in their master book. I could get pretty close by 'eye-balling it'; dropping various tints into the bucket and then mixing it together with a mixing bit on a power drill. Then the tedious part started; putting a drop or 2 of tint in, mixing it up, making a swatch, letting it dry, checking it against the master swatch, repeating until it was exact. This provided me with the best practical paint training I could have ever hoped for. It was, as you can imagine extremely boring and tedious, but when I turned to my own painting in the studio, I was abe to quickly de-construct the colors I saw and needed. It's left me with this uncanny ability to figure out a color mix quickly
and easily, and also not to be afraid of using large quantities of paint...easier to do when someone else is paying for the materials.


  1. This post is amazing! So many levels to your understanding of color, and so much training going back so far. It was great to hear you talk more here about your friend at Syracuse and your training at the wallpaper company. You do have an almost super-natural ability to mix an exact color. I love how with resistance and deep involvement in something you can develop a skill that seems almost supernatural. Is that amazing! Your knowledge of color blows me away! xo

  2. I still have my palette from Syracuse too! Haven't used it in a couple years but came across it the other day while I was moving stuff from my studio at school. I posted this on FB back in June in case you didn't see it: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/lucydavies/100007607/why-preserve-van-goghs-palette/

    has some pretty good links too.