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I’m putting together a list of the colours in my paintbox for the students attending our Galway urban sketching workshop in July this year. I change the colours a bit, but with the selection I’m going to describe here, there is almost no colour I can’t make. I will describe how the colours in my paintbox earn their place, and try to give you an example where you can clearly see each in action. All of them are by Schmincke, except for the last, which is Opera pink by Daniel Smith.
This is a great colour for shadows and darkening pretty much anything. You’d also be surprised how many people wear either black or navy, and it is fine for both. I never use black (it’s dead and heavy, in my view), so Indigo is a good alternative. Those familiar with my work will know that I am a fan of the limited palette, and if I didn’t have indigo I would fall at the first hurdle. This sketch made in a barber’s shop was composed almost entirely of indigo with a bit of variety for the hair and skin tones.
Not everyone wears black…some people wear jeans. (You’d be amazed at the uniformity of clothing, where I live, anyway.) Ultramarine mixed with Indigo is perfect for that. I also like to use Ultramarine mixed with Cobalt Turquoise for a nice lively sky. Sometimes I swap Ultramarine with Mountain Blue or Cerulean Blue Hue, as their differences don’t seem to be critical.
3. Cobalt Turquoise
I was using Helio Turquoise for a long time but I really wanted to change it for Cobalt Turquoise. I’m so glad I finally got around to it – the latter is so fresh and lifts anything. Dare I say it’s a really pretty colour? Not the worst reason for one of the colours in my paintbox to claim a place! Great for sky, especially near the horizon on a cloudy day. I’ve only had it for a couple of weeks so I don’t have too many examples, but here’s one with a bit of sky…
4. Phthalo Green
I wouldn’t be without Phthalo Green, even though I rarely use it unmixed. Mixed with Lemon Yellow, it makes a wonderful fresh, lime green. Mixed with Cobalt Turquoise and you have a great jade green. Mixed with Permanent Green Olive, or varying amounts of different browns, and you have a variety of foliage colours. And how would you paint a copper dome if you didn’t have Phthalo Green? I mix it with a little turquoise here, a little yellow there, to give a pretty uneven look.
5. Permanent Green Olive
You could use Permanent Green Olive neat for foliage, but it’s much nicer to mix it with differing amounts of Lemon yellow or Yellow Ochre to give a bit of life to your foliage. Mixed with Lemon Yellow it gives a nice spring grass colour. I did have May Green in my palette for a long time but I noticed I wasn’t using it – you can make your own with Phthalo Green and Lemon Yellow. Here’s an example where Permanent Green Olive came in handy.
6. Lemon Yellow
I never saw the point of including more than one yellow in my palette. This is no doubt a failing on my part. I used to keep two, side by side, only because every set came with two yellows, so I thought I had ought. Then I realised I didn’t distinguish between them and used them willy-nilly. So just one yellow, and for me that’s Lemon Yellow, because it mixes beautifully with greens for foliage or grass, and also because you can always add a dab of Chrome Orange to deepen it.
Here’s a nice use of Lemon Yellow (mixed with that dab of Chrome Orange) with Indigo being the dominant colour.
7. Chrome Orange
I debated with this one – who needs orange in a palette? What’s wrong with mixing your own orange from red and yellow? The answer is, I like a bright, clean orange, and my mixed ones were never clean or clear enough. As for when I use it…well, it’s 2016 – 100 years after the Easter Rising which led to independence – so everywhere you look there is a tricolour. I paint a lot of flags these days, and the orange is garish, not to mention the green – one of the few places I use Phthalo Green unmixed.
8. Yellow Ochre
I could not do without Yellow Ochre. Recently I tried to swap it for Raw sienna but it wasn’t as rich and smooth, so I swapped it back again. I use Yellow Ochre for all my skin tones, whatever the ethnic origin. Even the darkest skin tone will probably have highlights of Yellow Ochre. The majority of people I paint are white – this is Galway – so I need to use Yellow Ochre all the time, which I mix with Opera Pink in varying proportions to get the tone I want. I also use lots of Yellow Ochre in my foliage – whether grass or trees, it’s usually necessary to tone down the bright greens.
Here’s a sketch with a liberal use of Yellow Ochre, where it added considerable warmth to the backdrop:
Why not Burnt Umber? Vandyke Brown? The latter was my favourite as a teenager and I mean to give it another go. Meanwhile, Sepia is a good alternative to black, and mixed with Indigo it gives me a close approximation. The thing is, if you mix Sepia with Venetian Red, you get a warm dark brown which is fine anywhere you’d use Burnt Umber.
This sketch has a mix of Sepia, Yellow Ochre and a bit of Burnt Umber:
10. Venetian Red
I don’t really like this colour so I don’t use it on its own much, but it is very useful as a mixing colour. Hair shades, brickwork, mixing with Sepia or Yellow Ochre – I do try to leave it aside but I always end up putting it back in the box with my tail between my legs.
In this sketch of Judy Greene’s ceramic studio in Galway City, I had recourse to Venetian Red many times.
11. Permanent Carmine
A great colour for anything red. Lately I have started to paint half the red thing in Permanent Carmine, half in an orangey tone, in the hope that it will look “red”. I have tried using Scarlet instead but it doesn’t agree with me – I have no idea why not. Permanent carmine is a great addition to skin tones (especially noses). I seem to paint a good number of checked shirts, so it’s useful there too.
And when you need to paint red tablecoths in a restaurant? Check.
12. Opera Pink (Daniel Smith)
Wonderful colour. I was always on the lookout for a bright pink and this is the best I have found by far. At first it was just what I needed for flowers – nothing else was intense enough – but as my own voice developed my need for a light, fresh pink that was still hot became more urgent. This is because I have found that I really love to exaggerate the pink of people’s ears and noses – and cheeks of course, although I will usually use Permanent carmine for that – and Opera pink is the perfect answer. I have also found that it mixes very agreeably with shades of brown, and breathes life to a flat expanse of brown wall like nothing else.
But just look at this colour – only Opera Pink, used neat, could do justice to the glory of this stained glass window, which is original and dates back to the mid-nineteenth century:
This is my palette of twelve colours. Other colours lurk around the edges; sometimes they are invited to the party, sometimes they are asked to stay at home. These are Payne’s grey, Naples yellow, the few I mentioned such as Burnt umber, Mountain blue, Cerulean blue hue…a couple of others.
The kids I teach see the white paint in their palette. They ask me why I don’t let them use it to make light colours. When I explain that their colour will have more translucence if they lighten it with water alone, they ask me how come all the paint sets come with white. I tell them it’s a very good question, and that watercolour artists all over the world have pans of white paint in a drawer, along with Ivory black.
Have some fun with your colours: try taking out a paintbox with just six colours, or two sets that are markedly different…remember you’re the boss. The colours in my paintbox are one of the things that make people say “I knew it was yours before I saw your name”. The same will apply to you: as your voice develops, you’ll cast certain colours aside in favour of others.
These are my twelve colours that give expression to my artistic voice, but yours will be different…vive la différence!