While my artist friends use a whole palette of colors and shades, a long time ago I started to use a limited palette of just a few colors and have found that I am able to mix all the tints and shades I need.
It all started many years ago, when I became concerned about the permanency of my painting materials. Often I had purchased prints that after only a short few years their glorious colors faded to almost a dull monotone. Perhaps this partly because I live in sunny Southern California.
As a result, I decided that if I was going to spend a lot of effort in producing a painting, or if I was expecting someone to come along and spend serious money for a finished artwork, the least I could do is choose my materials carefully to minimize this fading problem.
When working with watercolors, years ago, this concern about this permanency issue led me to some research undertaken by artist Hillary Page.
She published her findings as a book: "Hillary Page's Guide To Watercolor Paints." Since then she has published several updates that may be downloaded from her website.
For her rsearch, she obtained paint samples from every watercolor manufacturer she could uncover. Using each sample she painted small test cards and placed them in her kitchen window.
After sometime, she examined each card to determine how each paint sample had withstood the light, and reported the results in her book.
Also, she reported how opaque or transparent was each paint, and how it changed when smeared to a thin layer: all issues important to a watercolorist.
Hillary's book provided me with an understanding about the dyes used to make the pigments from which all paints are formulated. In most cases, she was able to get the manufacturer to disclose which dyes they had used in each tube of paint. Often, but not always, this is printed on the outside of the tube.
Pigments manufactured from these dyes are ground into to various painting mediums to produce the commercial paints used by most artists. The paints are sold both as compounds of pure dye colors, or premixed blends.
Her book includes a Color Wheel chart – a common method of relating colors to each other. The chart shows the relationship of many dyes one to another.
Several other artists have done somewhat parallel research and developed similar limited color palettes.
Artist Stephen Quillar describes his palette and background thinking in his books "Color Choices: Making Color Sense out of Color Theory, "Painter's Guide To Color."
Artist and writer Michael Wilcox has done considerable research in this area. His book "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green" is probably the best introduction to his thinking.
Following Hillary Page's research and ideas, I selected six basic dyes (pure colors) spaced around her Color Wheel. These dyes were chosen to produce fully saturated and permanent colors that mix easily, and will not fade in sunlight.
The chosen colors are close to the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and the three secondary colors (green, orange, and ultramarine-violet).
Each dye is chosen, in addition to its permanency, for its closeness to a pure saturated color. Also, so that it is a near true complement to another color, in three pairs: red/green, blue/orange, and yellow/ultramarine-violet.
By using this limited palette of six colors, plus white (or with watercolor, by thinning with water), theoretically I may mix any tint I might need for my paintings.
Over the years since that initial selection, a few new dyes have evolved often closer to the pure color on the color wheel. I have made some substitutions to improve the choice.
PO67 – Coral Orange (Pyrozolo chinazolon)*
* The only a few manufacturers produce paints using this dye. I use this paint from Old Holland.
PV19rs – Red (Quinacrine Rose)
PV15 – Ultramarine Violet Complex (sodium aluminum silicate, with sulfur)
PB15.1 – Phthalo Blue (red shade) (Copper pythalocyanine alpha)
PG36 – Phthalo Green (Chloro bromated copper)
PY175 – Lemon Yellow (Benzimdazolone)
Above are listed the six basic dyes or pigment colors I use today. The descriptions are by their International Dye Number (such as "PO67"). This is followed by their common name and their chemical name.
I have used these same dye colors for watercolor, gouache, and oil painting.
All paint manufacturers utilize commercial chemical dyes to create the pigments that are the basis of their paints. Many use the same dyes but utilize different grit size, supporting mediums, and other materials that vary the flow, texture, and other characteristics of the compounded paint. This is particularly true in the case of oil paint.
Most manufacturers choose a unique name for their particular brand and color of paint – even for paint colors using exactly the same dyes.
Dyes have a long history, are known by many different names for the same chemicals, are continually being improved, and their range expands as new materials are introduced. The same dyes are widely used throughout all branches of commerce.
To identify the dyes for industrial use they have been given unique dye numbers (Colour Index International established by the Society of Dyers and Colourists) that are linked to their chemical compositions.
Whether I paint with oil, acrylic, gouache, or watercolors, when buying and choosing my paints I look for these International Dye Numbers. Often, but unfortunately not always) the data appear in small letters and numbers on the outside of the paint tubes.
Many manufactures publish these Dye Numbers in tables on their website.
Over the years, not caring about the manufacturer’s name on the tube, I have used many different brands of paint. When painting in gouache or watercolor, while choosing carefully depending always upon the dyes, I was only concerned about their availability, cost, and only slightly, about their supporting mediums and my experience of their painting quality, flow, and handling.
But more recently, when painting with oil, the handling and supporting mediums has became much more important.
Over the years, I have supplemented on my palette these six basic dye/color pairs, with a few additional dye/colors and earth tones, plus white.
I have found certain tints (particularly natural looking greens) difficult to produce by mixing the basic six dyes. So occasionally I use:
PV23 – Violet (Carbazole Dioxazine)
PB29 – Ultramarine (Complex sodium aluminum silicate)
Pbr7 – Burnt Sienna
PW4 – Zinc White
PW6 – Titanium White
PO49 – Neutral gold (Quinacrine quinone)
PR188 – Scarlet (Naphthol AS)
PR175 – Deep scarlet (Benzimidazolone)
PR122 – Magenta (Quinacrine magenta)
These additional paint colors are useful for highlighting and glazing after the structure of the painting has been completed.
Again, all these dyes are chosen for their permanency and mixing quality.
When painting, I rarely use black paint. By mixing my chosen complementary dyes of red and green, or blue and orange, I am able to produce beautiful blacks.
The near black produced by mixing yellow and ultramarine-violet is not as intense but has its own special uses for some effects.
Grays are generated by diluting these mixed blacks, or by mixing them with white.
Pushing the complementary pair mix towards one or the other of their basic constituents provides warmer or cooler tints as needed.
Of the whites, I find that the Zinc White mixes better with colors to produce lighter tints. There is nothing better than Titanium White when an intense white is needed.
For flesh tones, frequently I use various mixtures of Burnt Sienna and Zinc White. Other alternatives are, a little Ultramarine with the Burnt Sienna, or Burnt Umber with Zinc White. Sometimes a little red, yellow, or a little of my black mixture is helpful. As always, everything is mixed as needed to arrive at just the right tint.
I am always experimenting - trying new subjects, new methods, and new materials. If you wish to discuss these thoughts, please contact me.
If you are local or are planning a visit to Santa Barbara, contact me for an appointment to Visit My Studio and Private Gallery. I will be glad to show you how it is done and examples of the finished work.
Updated Septmber 2012.