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Choosing Your Own Color Palette

Published on December 21, 2014 under All Posts
Choosing Your Own Color Palette

In the next few posts I will be answering frequently asked questions from students and professional artists about painting on location with oil paints and discussing how to use color, value, and how to create a personal palette by using 4 colors plus white. I will explore how choosing your own color palette can be easy as you develop your style of painting. This is aspect of painting will be included as an essay in my book that I am writing titled, “Everything You Need to Know about Plein Air Painting.” For more information, please go Artist’s posts at

If you want to be a successful Plein Air artist, you must be practical about the supplies that you bring with you on location. Everything that you bring must be evaluated as to the weight, accessibility and convenience of your supplies. The heaviest items in your box of supplies are your tubes of paint. It is important to use as few colors as possible to produce the effects you want and minimize the weight. I have watched artists on location squeeze out 32 colors of paint on their palettes before painting their first brush strokes on canvas. Using numerous tubes of paint is a waste of time and paint, and they weigh a ton! And what is worse is that students wonder why they are having so much trouble matching colors and why their paintings look so muddy. If you want to be a Plein Air artist, you must travel light so that you have the freedom to go where ever you want to paint, and this means you can’t bring your “studio” with you everywhere you go.

I have noticed that students frequently don’t understand how to use color or how to choose a color palette that is their own. Many teachers just assume that their students have already taken a color class. I invite you to consider painting with a limited palette that includes 4 tubes of paint plus white. In theory, everything can be painted with the three primary colors of Red, Blue and Yellow. This sounds crazy but it is true. Look into your computer printer and you will find three colors of ink that are used together to create the amazing photos that your printer can print.

What three primary colors should I use? This is part of the wonderful journey of becoming an artist. The colors YOU choose will ultimately be part of the uniqueness of your own artwork. I ask many participants in my workshops, “What colors do you use in your color palette?” Many of them answer that they use various palettes recommended by art gurus like Richard Schmid or David Levell. When I ask them why they haven’t created their own palette, many of them look at me with a puzzled expression. The truth is that many artists haven’t had training in color basics and they use colors that they have acquired in the past, adding colors that they find in art stores that are pretty or on sale. Many artists think it is easier to supplement their palette with a variety of colors or buy premixed colors to save time. But if you look back in history, there were fewer colors available to the Impressionists in the 1800’s and despite that limitation, they were very successful.

To learn color theory, it’s important to begin with three primary colors, Alizarin Crimson, Thalo Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light. (Because Thalo Blue is so saturated and messy, I recommend that you substitute Cobalt Blue.) Then, with time and patience, you can mix these three colors together and create a beautiful black. The initial goal of a Plein Air painter is to use only these three colors, black, and Titanium white and complete a painting from start to finish. After doing this a couple of times, you will begin making your own choices about what to add to your palette. For example, you may need a bright red for a truck in your painting. After you have exhausted all attempts at mixing Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow to make this red and have come to the conclusion that this combination will not make the red you want, then, and only then, you can search through the box of colors you have been collecting and choose a red that will punch up the color. If you believe that red trucks are going to be a part of what you paint frequently, then include this color as part of your own palette. If not, toss it back into the box. You will start seeing that only few colors will need to be added to create the subjects you select and style that you enjoy painting. You may eventually substitute the first three primary colors in your quest to find the perfect three colors for your paintings; so experiment and find out what works for you. Save some backup colors to keep in the trunk of your car but go on site with as little as you can carry in one trip.

Remember that White is not a color and is only used to create values of a color. The quality of white paint does matter. I recommended that you use a good to best quality of white like Old Holland Titanium White that contains both Titanium and Zinc. The Zinc makes it cooler and balances the warmness of Titanium white making it a true white. Stay away from Permalba White because it contains less pigment and produces a muddy color quickly. If you want your white to have a soft appearance, mix some linseed oil into the paint on the palette.

As for the cost of the paint you choose, except for the white, it does not make any difference if you use a cheap name brand paint that you find at Michael’s or the high-end paint like Vasari or Old Holland. They all produce the same effects when mixed. So, save your money to spend on something that really makes a difference, like buying oil primed linen canvases to paint on.

Oh, yes. The fourth color that I use is an earth color. I could name the one that I use, but why not chose one for your self. Any transparent brown will work. Now play, experiment, and always be curious about the outcome. You’re on your way to developing your own palette and style, and with a limited number of tubes of paint, you are free to paint where ever and when ever you want.


Plein air and alla prima artist Stefan Baumann, host of the PBS painting series “The Grand View, America’s National Park through the eyes of an artist” and author of “Observations Of Art and Nature,” travels in his vintage travel trailer painting America’s western landscape. Baumann paints outdoors with oils and canvas capturing stunning vistas, wildlife, western landscapes, National Parks and still life, thrilling art collectors throughout the world. He has many international collectors acquiring his paintings as investments. His painting style is called Romantic Realism with Luminism, and the extraordinary way he captures the effect of light is a truly American style used to paint the Western landscape. He can be seen plein air painting in Yellowstone, Yosemite and in the Grand Canyon. Baumann’s “how to paint” DVDs filmed on location in the National Parks are the very best on the market.

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