This post is a follow up from a post a couple of weeks ago where I attempted to paint an orange realistically using a very limited palette – on often referred to as the primary palette:
- Ultramarine blue
- Cadmium yellow
- Quinacridone rose (basically a slightly purple red, any will do)
- White (because it’s impossible to paint realistically without white)
Why this palette?
I’m testing the assertion that you can mix every colour you need from the primaries plus white.
If that’s true, then you should be able to paint realistically with this palette. A little while ago, I tested the range of colours you can mix with this palette and found it very lacking in some areas.
But I really wanted to try to make a painting or two with it to see how it really felt to work with.
A big surprise
I thought the biggest problem would be that I would not be able to reach high enough chroma in some areas of the colour space.
But in fact, the biggest eye opener for me was how difficult it was to mix low chroma colours (colours close to neutral grey) with these tube paints. Because they are all high chroma (quite intense) you have to reduce chroma by quite a lot to bring colours down to the range of most of what we see in the world.
And without black, you can only do that by mixing in the complement of a colour.
That process is fraught and difficult, because as well as bringing down the chroma, it swings the hue all over the place.
And whilst in theory it ought to be possible to mix a neutral grey from these colours, In practice it’s very time consuming and difficult. Without a true neutral, or even better, a lower chroma variant of a given colour, bringing down chroma is a really complicated, frustrating and time consuming task.
So what are you painting today, Paul?
You know, I’m glad you asked. I’m painting an apple.
Why an apple though?
I’m glad you asked that too. Because its local colour is:
- light in value
- high in chroma
That means it’s going to be a pretty effective test of what’s available in the green area of the colour space with this palette.
I’ve also put it in a dark shadow box, giving me a black background, which will test the palette even further.
I’ll explain a little later why.
First, the full palette version
Let me make one thing clear before we start: Painting a green apple in a black shadow box is not terribly easy, even with a full range of tube paints.
It’s all because of the chroma.
More than that, actually, it’s about the way chroma and value interact. When colours get close to the high end of the value scale, close to white, they lose chroma.
Yellow hits its highest chroma at about value 8, here:
Yellow is the highest chroma colour at a light value.
Yellow green, the local hue of the apple I’m painting, hits its highest chroma at about value 7, here:
Now that presents a problem. Because when I look at my apple sitting in my shadow box, and I compare it with the value scale I can reach on my painting surface, the light side of the apple is generally around a value 9.
Value 9 in paint is really close to white, and that means next to no colour information. Here’s the grey scale again with values 7, 8 and 9 from the Green-yellow page of the Munsell book. Each of these is at the highest chroma possible at that value:
I have almost no chroma at value 9. If I paint the light side of the apple at the right value, it will look colourless and washed out. I can’t get close to what I’m seeing with paint.
To compound matters, I can’t reach the deepest black of the shadows either, because my value range is much more limited than the value range of what I see in nature.
I have to compromise.
My lights will be darker, and my darks will be lighter than what I see. Already I’m struggling to match what I see, even with a full palette.
JUST SHOW US THE PAINTINGS!
OK, OK, no need to shout!
Here’s the first one, done with the full palette:
To paint this, I had to drop the value of the light side of the apple at least a step, so that I could reach the chroma. My background, too, isn’t as dark as it was in the subject. So the whole value range has been compressed.
I’ve painted the shadow side of the apple pretty close to what I saw, in order to give me a good separation between the lights and the darks, but that means that the dark end of the scale is compressed more.
Now, before I show you the second apple, let me show you how the palette looked before I started:
On the left are the tube colours I started with: Titanium white, cad yellow, quinacridone rose and ultramarine blue.
Across the top are a few near-neutrals I mixed from those colours, to help me reduce the chroma (a problem with a high chroma palette like this).
In the middle are the highest chroma greens I can get at the values I need, and some browns for the wooden board the apple is sitting on.
And here’s the painting:
A few things are worth noting about this version I think.
Firstly, it does have some feeling of light and form. It’s not impossible to paint with such a limited palette.
The apple has next to no chroma, it looks very washed out. That’s the area of the colour space I was testing here, and plainly, this palette can’t come close – especially at the higher values.
The value of the background is noticeable higher. The value range of this palette is very limited at the bottom end. It’s also blue. Kind of magenta, brown-ish blue. I got the value as low as I could without compromising too much on the colour. The very darkest value I can get with these tube colours is ultramarine on its own, but the background would have looked too blue and completely wrong. Just silly, in fact.
Lastly, I haven’t spent near as long on this second one as I did on the full palette version.
You could accuse me of not giving this second version a fair crack of the whip, and to an extent that’d be true.
I spent so long trying (unsuccessfully) to mix the colours I wanted, so long attempting (almost successfully) to mix a range of neutrals, that I had less time and energy to actually paint. But you see, I think that’s another, less obvious shortcoming of this palette:
Because it’s more difficult to mix with, you have less time on the painting itself.
Also, if I’m completely honest, I got involved in the first painting and enjoyed the process of making it. The second one was more frustrating so I didn’t spend as long. So the criticism is fair. This isn’t a scientific test, after all.
But no matter which way you cut it, this palette is not capable of doing a good job of painting a high chroma, light value object in a dark shadow box.
This was an interesting exercise for me, all the same, and I certainly learned something from it.
I learned that although it’s hard, it is technically possible to mix neutrals with this palette. I say technically because once you get down to very low chroma, it’s next to impossible to judge the hue.
So mixing the complement in order to reduce the chroma further becomes a shot in the dark. Usually, I got it wrong and ended up raising the chroma by mistake. But complement mixing does work to reduce chroma – it’s just very time consuming and inefficient.
Painting something twice is a really good idea. Seriously, I’m not being facetious. I did a lot of adjusting and messing about on the first one, so by the time I came to the second one, I was in no doubt about the value and chroma range I was seeing. I knew already what I would be able to reach and what I wouldn’t.
That actually made the process of painting simpler and in some ways produced a better painting, surprisingly. I like the brush handling more on the second one because I’ve fussed over it less. It gives it a kind of freshness and brevity the first doesn’t have.
But I do think the first one has something else, something more important, and something beyond just matching colours. I talk about it a little in this Facebook live session from when I was nearing the end of the painting.
It was just and exercise, but it became something a little more to me as I worked on it. I really didn’t mean to spend two days painting an apple, but I did!
Also in this video is a description of the value/chroma trade off I explained earlier. Perhaps explaining it twice might help it stick 🙂
I’d be really interested to hear what you think of this test.
Obviously, a different painter doing the same thing would get different results. And I know that some people choose to work with limited palettes for reasons other than technical ones.
None of those reasons convince me, personally, but I have no argument with artists that do that.
What do you think of my conclusions? Have you ever tried to work with a limited palette? And have you ever tested it like this to see what range you can really reach with it?
In the interests of fairness…
One last thing. You could argue that I’m not being very fair to this palette with the two tests I’ve done. I’ve deliberately picked areas of the colour space that I know it can’t reach.
But that’s the point. I want people to know what is and isn’t achievable with it, so they are under no illusions and won’t struggle unnecessarily. Remember that I was testing the assumption that you can mix any colour you need with the primaries plus white. You plainly can’t, at least if you’re attempting to paint realistically.
All that said, I do plan one final test with this palette, before I move on to the next one: Paint a low chroma subject, one that can be reached with the colours possible from this small selection of tube paints.
I’ll update you with what happens then.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,