Be careful of bold statements made by apparent experts.
So much of art talk is people repeating what they’ve heard or read somewhere else, without bothering to test it for themselves.
I’ve taken bad advice a few times, especially when I was starting out. So I decided a long time ago that I would only believe what I could prove to myself, through doing it myself.
I have to admit I’m pretty surprised now by some of the stuff I see people say about colour. And sometimes, frankly, it winds me up.
Because I know that much of it is going to waste peoples’ time, hold back their development and keep them from learning.
I’ve had that happen to me, so I desperately want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people, as far as I can.
The counter balance to that, of course (which I’ve been guilty of forgetting at times and probably still am) is that I’m still learning. I have much further to go than I’ve already travelled. And of course, I get stuff wrong too.
My perspective, too, is limited by my experience.
Well, today I’m throwing caution to the wind, here’s my bold statement: It’s a mistake to limit your palette.
But bear with me.
Because I’m not just going to leave it there. I intend to test this assertion and to open it up for discussion here. I want to get input from other artists – as long as it’s thoughtful, well reasoned input. And preferably based on a lot of experience, brush in hand at the easel.
I’ll tell you a secret.
When I see people making assertions about colour that I find questionable, the first thing I do is a google search to find some of their work. If they can paint well, then I’ll take what they say seriously. I’ve got to tell you, that’s rarely the case.
For myself, I’ve already done quite a bit of testing the use of limited palettes as a way to learn colour. I took all the advice about painting with a limited palette so seriously that I did it myself, for years.
I certainly got better at value.
But I certainly did not get better at colour.
When did I get better at colour?
Well, I’ll get into that later. First, let’s have a quick look at some of the common reasons people give for limiting your palette – especially for learners:
- Constraint makes for creativity
- It improves your colour harmony
- Stretches your skills
- Forces you to consider value and composition more
- Helps you learn warm and cool
I do agree that constraint can make for creativity. But it doesn’t always hold true. You can’t apply it blindly to everything. Learn to play on a rubbish violin and you’ll never learn to play well. Learn to walk with one leg strapped up and well…you get the point.
Does painting with few colours make you learn to get more out of them? It does help you to learn well what those colours can produce, yes. But that’s not the same thing as learning colour.
As to whether it improves your harmony, I think that’s highly debatable.
If you limit yourself to very low chroma colours of a few hues, like say the much vaunted Zorn palette, then yes, your paintings will be more harmonious because none of those colours clash. You’re basically drawing, really.
People say that the black looks like a blue on Zorn’s paintings. Honestly? It looks like black to me. When he wanted blue he used one.
And if you paint with a limited “primary” palette, there’s still plenty of opportunity for creating poor colour harmonies – which after all, must be ultimately somewhat subjective.
To me, this one is too vague to be meaningful. If you want to create good colour harmony, practice with colour until you can. Don’t just use so few colours that you can’t create any harmonies at all. It’s just not the same thing.
No. I don’t believe for a moment that painting with a limited palette develops your skill with colour.
When I painted with a very specific, very limited palette for a year (burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, white) I got better at value. Because I was basically drawing. Here’s a couple of the studies from that time:
(I think that one may have had yellow ochre in it too…)
The thing is, I did that for a year. But when I expanded my palette, I still struggled with colour.
You can’t learn something without actually doing it.
Value and composition
Well, I suppose painting with limited colour choices can make you consider value and composition more because you’re not spending brain power worrying about colour.
Seriously, though, if you really want to develop your value practice value.
Take colour out entirely and run exercises focused purely on value. Take composition out too. I have a bunch of value exercises that you can do if that’s what you want to learn.
Same for composition. You want to learn composition? Get hold of a good book on composition – one that follows the tenets of deliberate practice and is chock full of exercises rather than theory and “rules”. A book like Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow. Get that book, and do the exercises. They’re actually very rewarding and a lot of fun!
That’s how you get better at something, by focussing on it and practising it.
Warm and cool
Ah, this again. I have a slightly different take on colour temperature – useful for lights, not for paints. I’ve been there already and probably stayed too long.
Now I realise that much of what I’m saying here goes against accepted wisdom.
But we realists lost so much knowledge in the years following impressionism. So much that was once common knowledge is no longer commonly known and has been replaced by untested assertions and misconceptions.
Don’t paint with black. Never use a rubber. Technical skill stifles creativity. The masters based their compositions on the Golden section.
Painting with a limited palette will help you learn colour.
I believe that we’re in a position now where we can no longer accept accepted wisdom. We must test it for ourselves.
And to be perfectly honest, I don’t see too much of that happening. Not many people are really prepared to commit to testing an idea – like, say, the limited palette – for a whole year.
Well I have. And looking back over that, now that I understand colour much better, I can tell you that it didn’t help me get better at colour.
I did get better at some other stuff, because I was painting. But when I expanded my palette again, I was just as confused as I was when I started.
Because I still hadn’t learn to paint with a full palette.
All right. I know I’m inviting controversy. But I have to call it as I see it, and hope that it helps someone.
Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to go a little further into this subject, and I’m going to test what range of colour is actually available in some of the palettes I see recommended. I’m going to share the results here.
If I can, I’ll go into what they might be good for, where they come from and anything else that might be useful.
I’ll start with the basic primary palette, and then cover the popular “split primary” palette.
If I come across any other really popular ones, I’ll cover those too, and if you have one you’d like me to test, let me know what it is in the comments.
Now I know that a lot of people out there reading this won’t agree with me.
If you’re a teacher, you might even be giving this advice, right now, to your students.
I don’t expect ever to put arguments over palettes to bed, or even to dissuade most people from the benefits of limited palettes.
But I do hope to give you a different perspective that might at least persuade you to question the accepted wisdom.
Please give my points at least enough consideration for that, and I’ll do the same for you.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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