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Mastering a limited palette using color scales

Guest writer and artist, Julie Petro, shares with us her tips to mastering a limited palette using color scales.

Limited palettes are a great way to learn and practice many fundamental aspects of painting. Yellow ochre, cadmium red, ivory black and white are known as the Zorn Palette and were used by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn when he first began to paint in oils. I painted this portrait called Maria’s Heart using only these four colors. It shows the rich flesh tones possible with this limited palette.

Maria’s Heart by Julie Petro. Available from RS Hanna Gallery.

I often start students off with some color studies such as these. I got the idea, of course, from Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima book. I’ve done color studies several times over the years as my palette changes, and it never ceases to provide me with a ton of new insights. At the very least it deepens my understanding of the properties of color – hue, value and saturation.

In fact, I think color charts are so important that I liken them to the scales beginning music students learn in order to gain proficiency with their chosen instrument. If you’ve ever played an instrument, you know what I mean. In the exact same way, by doing color scales you can learn the properties of your chosen instrument – your tubes of paints. You’ll quickly gain an understanding of how they respond to other colors on your palette, how their temperature changes with the addition of white as well as their value. Your eye will also detect subtle changes in value, and also how to control that value. And at the end, you’re left with these fantastic charts you can use over and over again to inform your painting process.

Below are some color scales I have adapted from the Zorn Palette, which I often use for portraits or figures. It’s pretty exciting to see the variety of colors that can be mixed with just these three primaries: cadmium red light (traditionally vermillion), yellow ochre, ivory black (the “blue” in this lineup), and titanium white. The first scale shows how you can create secondary colors (outlined in white) – orange, green, and purple by mixing the three primaries (outlined in gray).

Other color charts I find useful to create use mixes of the complementary colors: orange, green and purple, produced by and combined with Zorn’s three primaries.

I call this the Green Palette as I mix the two complements – green and cadmium red light. The green and cadmium red light I use in the top row is straight from the tube, and I don’t use any titanium white. Smack in the center is what my students have dubbed “the icky pink band aid color.” It’s definitely not icky, but it is pretty close to the flesh tone color of a band aid.

The next three scales really show the magic of this palette. By mixing each secondary with its complementary, you can see just how wide of a range of fleshy neutrals can be achieved with this palette. Green with cadmium red light, orange with ivory black (again, the “blue” in this palette), and purple with yellow ochre.

My Orange Palette uses orange mixed with the complementary ivory black.

The Purple Palette uses purple mixed with the complementary yellow ochre.

When I do color scales, I use a small, diamond-shaped palette knife (similar to 24T on this page). You can use a brush if you wish, but it’s an awful lot of cleaning up in between each square and definitely not for me! I use the knife, and easily wipe it clean. Another tip is to tape off between squares to make it neater – use 1/4″ painter’s tape. If you do this be sure to get about five rolls.

Each square in the bottom of these scales is the lightest row and should be equal in value. When you’re done with your columns, you can test this by squinting down at the scale. You shouldn’t be able to detect any shift in value when you look at any of the bottom squares, but when you open your eyes you should be able to tell there is a hint of color.

But don’t try to compare the squares of any of the other rows against each other. They will all be different, because the values of the tube colors are all different. Each column should be done in turn. First square should be the top one – using pure tube color. The second square I do is the bottom one. The idea is to keep it as high a saturation key as possible while retaining a hint of discrete color. To test this, squint your eyes. The bottom, lightest square should be barely discernible from the white of the canvas, but when you open them, you should be able to detect color. The third square I did was the middle one – a halfway color between the tube color and the lightest color. The fourth square was the midpoint between the lightest and middle color, and the last was the midpoint between the tube color and middle color. By doing them in this order, you can more accurately judge an even progression from dark to light in each column.

Good luck, and I hope my tips help you on your way to creating your own charts and appreciation of the limited palette

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