Plein Air Palette
“When I run out of red, I use blue”
– Pablo Picasso
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ colors for plein air painting. I think you can make any color work and you can successfully use a palette that has anywhere from one to a hundred colors.
A serious painter’s choice of colors for a plein air palette is an individual thing. If a painter you admire uses a particular palette, it may not work for you. Each painter’s color sensibility is different. I think it pays to experiment until your palette really starts to work for you.
It is common to choose a palette that has a warm and a cool each of red, blue and yellow. Most plein air painters end up with a working palette between 6 and 12 colors. There seems to be broad agreement that black is not a helpful color for a plein air palette. Of course there are exceptions: Wolf Kahn is said to go out painting with as many as 60 tubes of paint, and Paul Bridenbaugh, used black very successfully in his great Bay Area plein air urban-scapes.
The palette I currently use has evolved over time and reflects my own personality. It is a moving target, in any event, as it continues to change. I haven’t included earth colors on my palette because, being close to the colors found in nature and considering my personal weaknesses, they would be too tempting for me to use straight out of the tube. For more than 20 years, I have used only bright hues on my palette because it forces me to mix all my colors. My current palette, in the order I lay it out, is:
Chrome Oxide Green – A warm, low-key green. Excellent for making opaque darks and shadows. Very opaque.
Cadmium Yellow Lemon – A very cool shade of yellow. Opaque. Toxic.
Indian Yellow – A warm yellow, which I use to “make” Yellow Ochre and a whole lot more. Transparent.
Cadmium Orange – I use this a lot mixed with blue—sparingly for skies and boldly for dark foliage greens. Opaque. Toxic.
Cadmium Red Deep – Like Chrome Oxide Green, excellent for making opaque darks and shadows. Very opaque. Toxic.
Alizarin Crimson (permanent) – I’m careful to get the new permanent version, as traditional Alizarin Crimson is not lightfast. Transparent.
Purple Alizarin Madder – A beautiful, smoky, red-purple. Unfortunately Winsor & Newton has changed the formula and it’s not quite as nice as it used to be. Semi-transparent.
Cobalt Viotet – A seductively beautiful pinkish violet. Transparent. Toxic.
Ultramarine Blue – The indispensable warm blue. I mix it with Indian Yellow for a “Sap Green”. Semi-transparent.
Cobalt Blue – A neutral blue for skies and mixing grays. Semi-transparent. Toxic.
Pthalo Blue-Green – Cool and transparent. I use this with Cadmium Red Deep and the blues for dense, flat “blacks.” Or I use it with Alizarin Crimson for bright, transparent darks.
Flake (Lead) White – A warm white that dries very quickly. Very traditional. Opaque. Toxic (Gamblin makes a nontoxic Flake White Substitute, which is almost as nice to work with).
Medium (1 part stand oil, 5 parts turpentine) – Not really fast drying, but quickly becomes very tacky, which allows me the opportunity for careful over painting in a matter of minutes.
For toning down and graying out this bright palette I do several things: 1) I’m not too fussy about cleaning my brushes while I’m painting, as the cross contamination tends to take the garish edge off of my color mixes and creates some harmony.
2) After I finish painting, I scrape up my unused color mixes into a little pile in the corner of the palette. I don’t mix these scrapings together but just kind of pile them side-by-side, accordion fashion. I always have this to dip into as a source of odds and ends.
3) I find small amounts of the Cadmiums and Chrome Oxide Green are very useful in graying mixes and giving opacity to darks.
Transparency and opacity are important to the way I paint. For instance, Cadmium Red Deep is even more useful to me for its opacifying power than for its color.
I vary my palette some from time to time, adding or subtracting. I use a pencil with my stand oil/turpentine medium for fine, dark lines, and I often carry a few fluorescent oil pastels for traffic signs and cone zones.
For my paints and mediums, I always use professional materials. When you paint small you can afford the best.