I know, I’m asking for trouble.
Of all the controversial subjects artists like to argue about, one of the most tempestuous is tube pigment choices.
People adhere to their chosen palettes with an almost religious intensity at times. Whether it’s the split primary or the Zorn palette, I’ve seen discussion on palettes descend into name calling and derision faster than black disappears off an impressionist’s palette
Each of these palettes promises something special, and the people that use them will defend them to their last breath.
Here’s what I think: You don’t need any of them.
How to choose your tube pigments
What matters, I think, is the colour gamut you can reach with the paints you have. What I mean by colour gamut is the range of colours you can hit with the pigments you have.
Limited palettes can enforce a certain harmony on you, true.
But what happens when you want a really high chroma, low value red, or green? What about a magenta? Those can be pretty tough colours to reach. Even fans of the Zorn palette must be aware that he added other colours when he needed to.
Truth be told, you don’t really need the widest gamut possible. You can aim for that, sure, you’ll just need some well chosen the colours that hit the highest chromas possible at different values for each hue area.
I do this, when I need to. This painting was the first time I managed to hit the chroma I wanted for the dark reds of the rose on the left. If you’re interested, I used Michael Harding’s naphthol red to get the chroma and pulled the hue around towards red-blue with his quinacridone rose. I think, for this painting, it made all the difference.
But situations where you’ll really need that are quite rare, even for a flower painter. Much more often, the challenge is to get the chroma low enough, since most people, in my experience, over-estimate chroma.
But also, I’ve found that a lot of people have quite extensive collections of tube pigments, thinking that they are all necessary, without realising the amount of overlap there is in what they have. I’ve seen severe cases of pigment obsession where people have many, many tubes, all covering overlapping parts of the same hue area, but with different names.
Of course, the paint manufacturers love this.
The definitive pigment list
I’m joking, by the way, calling this definitive, because there can never be any such thing. Pigment choices are, to an extent, individual and will depend on what your subject matter and how you paint it. And there will always be outliers.
But here’s the list of paints that I recommend for my Mastering Colour online course. This will help you hit a pretty wide range.
Not everything, no. If you have a really intense magenta flower, you’ll be lucky if you can hit it at all. You’ll certainly need something extra to what I have listed here to get close.
But this is a pretty comprehensive list that will give you a wide colour gamut without breaking the bank. If you learn to mix properly, you’ll be able to mix almost everything you need with these.
- Ivory black
- Titanium white
- Burnt umber
- Raw umber
- Yellow ochre
- Cadmium orange
- Cadmium red
- Cadmium yellow (cadmium yellow light if it’s Winsor and Newton)
- Ultramarine blue
- Cobalt blue
- Pthalocyanine green or similar high chroma blue green (Winsor and Newton Winsor green is good)
- Alizarin Crimson
- Sap Green (Winsor and Newton)
- Lemon yellow
Of course, there are preferences for handling qualities, opacity and transparency etc. Those are things you need to figure out for yourself, though experience. And Actually, that’s part of the fun, and part of the natural evolution of your own style.
But if you just want a box of paints that will let you hit a usefully wide colour gamut without having tubes sticking out of every available draw in your studio space, this should do it for you. Get these and you’ll be sorted.
That lovely Indian yellow you can’t paint without? I bet you can mix it with these colours. There’s no reason at all not to use convenience pigments, of course, if you like them and they get you to a particular part of the colour space quickly. I have a couple added above, the earths. But my point is that you don’t need them.
Now I’m about to duck and cover because this is such a controversial subject that I probably shouldn’t have touched it at all! But before you start ranting at me, please bear in mind I’m trying to be helpful here and save you money whilst helping you hit a usefully large range of value and chroma at different hues.
And yes, I’ll probably edit this list (a little) depending on the comments and what I test because of them 🙂
I’d like to leave you, if I may, with a little advice:
Base your paint buying decisions on your own explorations of colour. Don’t simply follow someone else’s ideas, which are probably parroted without much personal testing and investigation anyway. Don’t even follow mine without testing them for yourself.
Here’s something really useful to try: Get the Munsell student book and try and match the highest chroma variants of all ten of the main hues on the Munsell hue wheel and see which ones you can’t reach.
Doing that alone will teach you more about colour than doing a hundred paintings. It won’t even take you that long. And you’ll carry that knowledge with you every time you sit down at the easel.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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