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The kitchen sink palette

Mix­tures are usu­ally lower in chroma than paint straight from the tube. So with just a few paints on your palette, there will be col­ors you can­not approach, because when you try to mix the right hue you lose too much chroma. One way to deal with that is to sim­ply have a very large num­ber of paints on your palette. That way, when­ever you need to rep­re­sent a high-chroma color, you are likely to have one that is close. You can then get the right color with a min­i­mum of mixing.

My teacher, Den­nis Cheaney, uses this approach. It is based on the method advo­cated by Ted Seth Jacobs, his teacher. Here’s what Ted says about this in “Light for the Artist,” the book I’ve quoted from in a num­ber of posts.

Some painters pre­fer to work with the fewest pos­si­ble col­ors (called a “lim­ited palette”). The dis­ad­van­tage to this method is that mixed col­ors are not quite as chro­mat­i­cally intense as their coun­ter­parts out of the tube. For exam­ple, an orange made of red and yel­low loses some chro­matic inten­sity as com­pared to tube orange. The lim­ited palette reduces our avail­able chro­matic range.

Another one of Ted’s stu­dents, Tony Ryder, was pro­filed in a recent arti­cle in Amer­i­can Artist. His palette for one paint­ing has 47 paints on it:

flake white, misty blue, zinc white, tita­nium white, Naples yel­low green, jaune bril­liant, Naples yel­low light, Naples yel­low, Naples yel­low red, cad­mium yel­low lemon, cad­mium yel­low, cad­mium orange, coral red, bril­liant pink, cad­mium red, cad­mium red scar­let, alizarin crim­son, rose grey, cobalt vio­let, cobalt vio­let light, Win­sor vio­let, ultra­ma­rine vio­let, cobalt blue, king’s blue, ultra­ma­rine blue, cerulean blue, cobalt green light, virid­ian, green grey, chrome oxide green, cinnabar green, Bohemian green earth, sap green, yel­low ochre light, yel­low grey, raw sienna, Old Hol­land ochre, deep ochre, raw umber green­ish, mars yel­low, mars orange, burnt sienna, mars vio­let, burnt umber, Van Dyke brown, Payne’s gray, ivory black.

That’s a lot of dif­fer­ent paints.

I don’t claim to know more about paint­ing than Ted Seth Jacobs, Tony Ryder, or Den­nis Cheaney. But at my lim­ited level of skill I do see a cou­ple of prob­lems with this approach. One is sim­ply that it is much harder to learn the mix­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of 47 paints as well as you can with, say, 6 paints. When mixed, pig­ments react in unpre­dictable ways. If you use a more “lim­ited” palette, you can learn with great speci­ficity the ways that each color mixes with every other color. If you don’t really know your col­ors, then you’ll often be sur­prised at the results of any given mix­ture. What you end up doing is hav­ing to fid­dle with mix­tures. You mix two paints, observe how the color shifts, then add another paint to com­pen­sate for the color mix­ing shift that you didn’t pre­dict, then maybe have to do that once or twice more before the color is exactly right. As that hap­pens, the chroma inevitably goes down. So you might have to then try to add some more of a brighter paint to pull the chroma back up. With this approach, you can spend a lot of time chas­ing color.

In his book, Ted also points out how mix­ing col­ors reduces chroma, but fails to account for that when he is select­ing paints con­tain­ing mul­ti­ple pig­ments. In describ­ing the value of a kitchen sink palette, he shows five dif­fer­ent greens: gray green, sevres green, cobalt green light, cad­mium green light, and olive green. The book was writ­ten awhile ago and he doesn’t say what brands he is using, but I think that at least two of those are multi-pigment paints. There is no such pig­ment as “cad­mium green,” for example—it’s usu­ally a blend of cad­mium yel­low and pthalo blue. Sim­i­larly, a num­ber of the paints on Tony’s palette also con­tain mul­ti­ple pig­ments. If the ratio­nale for the large num­ber of paints is to avoid chroma reduc­tion from mix­ing, then I don’t see how it makes sense to choose paints that the man­u­fac­tur­ers have already mixed for you. Paint com­pa­nies don’t have any spe­cial way of mix­ing paint with­out the sat­u­ra­tion costs that we have to cope with when we do the same thing on our palettes.

That is not to say that any of these guys don’t know how to mix paint. I’ve watched Den­nis do it, and it’s impres­sive. In a few sec­onds, he’ll pull sev­eral col­ors together to pro­duce a mix­ture with just the right value, hue, and chroma. But when I put that many col­ors onto my palette I get all mixed up. I lose track of which col­ors I’m using for what pur­pose. When mix­ing, I find myself either (a) using too many dif­fer­ent paints in each mix­ture, chas­ing color all over the place, and toss­ing some mix­tures and start­ing over; or (b) ignor­ing most of the paints on my palette and using only a few.

Nev­er­the­less, some artists can man­age a large palette of paints with­out appar­ent dif­fi­culty. Ted, Tony, and Den­nis do it bril­liantly. But it is not an approach that works for me.

Related arti­cle

Color and color mixing

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9 Responses

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  1. painterdog says

    Wow, 47 col­ors. I think that’s over kill.
    I am more into a value sys­tem, its about pitch not chroma.

    I have a palette of white,lead,or tita­nium or both, cad yel­low lt, cad yel­low med, yel­low ochre, raw sienna, vermillion(or cad red),burnt sienna, cobolt blue, ultra­ma­rine blue, mad­der lake, Ivory black. I might also have some earth greens, and if I have the time I will mix a row of grays that are the same val­ues as the col­ors on my palette.

    If I am paint­ing land­scape I will have a row of blues, vio­lets, and greens all mixed up like the grays.

    So if I know that the mid­dle pitch of the paint­ing is orange value than I know that Ihave to mix up and down to go to the lights and to the shadow values.

    Why would you buy a tube of gray/blue paint?

    All those color can be mixed, and not to take away from Ted Seth Jacobs and his stu­dents, but this kitchen sink idea is a bit wacky.

    By the way they do sight mes­sure as a method, that is they do this nice tight draw­ing and fill in the paint­ing. Its draw­ing and fill.

    I stud­ied with Frank Mason who is also a clas­si­cal painter(http://​www​.frankma​son​.org) He does not do that and while I respect Jacobs, and Ryder, they can draw, there paint­ings are based on the 19 cen­tury French academy.

    Frank was a lot more into the old mas­ters and draw­ing was more about action and pro­por­tions and flu­id­ity. He was big on learn­ing to draw with a brush.

    He was aslo into the light effect. The val­ues of what is before you as it relates to the real object.
    Not the same as do a tight draw­ing, and fill it in.

  2. David says


    I think your approach is very rea­son­able. While I think there is a lot to learn from Jacobs and his stu­dents, I agree with you that the paint mix­ing scheme just isn’t that well thought out.

    To his credit, when I took classes with Den­nis Cheaney, he did not try to insist that I use that kind of mas­sive palette. He’s very flex­i­ble as a teacher. I’m also grate­ful that, although the teach­ing method derives in part from the French aca­d­e­mic tra­di­tion, there wasn’t any oblig­a­tory cast drawing.

  3. painterdog says

    I think the draw­ing part of what the peo­ple who come out of the Flo­rence Acad­emy is amaz­ing. Some of these peo­ple draw so well. Jacob Collins , who I think is an amzaing artist, is the cream of this movement.

    My main prob­lem with this is that they are pro­duc­ing so many peo­ple who paint and draw the same way. The real tal­ented ones show through, but I keep see­ing these labor inten­sive aca­d­e­mic draw­ings of casts that look good but for the most part they are dead in a visual sense. It’s an inter­est­ing bal­ance, but I have to admire the tenac­ity of train­ing like that.

    Frank Mason was asked years ago to join the fac­ulty at the Grad­u­ate School of Fig­u­ra­tive Art, he turned them down because he does not beleive in the method­ol­ogy of the French Aca­d­e­mic tra­di­tion, which is what they base the pro­gram on.

    He ought to know as he stud­ied with some­one who came out of that, Frank Vin­cent Dumond, who if your inter­ested in color the­ory should look up as he was out of the Bellows(Maratta) school of color theory.

    I read that dis­crip­tion again of Tony Ryder’s palette and I feel that sums it up, they think to much. You don’t need misty blue to paint a painting.

    I don’t even know about col­ors with names such as misty blue or coral red, I don’t know about you but I don’t trust any color that start with a noun. Well I guess sap green is an excep­tion and Bohemian green earth which I have used and is very nice.

    but the more I read his palette and I go an look up say Monet’s palette and I see that there is a bit of the ‘kid in the sweet shop’ thing going on here.

  4. David says


    I absolutely agree on Collins. He’s very, very good. I don’t get the sense of stilt­ed­ness with Jacobs and his stu­dents that I get with pure ate­lier trained artists. Jacobs stresses ges­ture and vital­ity in life draw­ing, not end­less prac­tice to become a human photocopier.

    As far as weird color names go, unfor­tu­nately that’s how Hol­bein names their paints (that’s where “misty blue” and “coral red” come from. They must have hired an inte­rior dec­o­ra­tor to come up with names for their paints ). Other man­u­fac­tur­ers do the same, of course, but Hol­bein is the worst offender among the mak­ers of artist-grade paint.

    For an artist, a color’s mix­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics are far more impor­tant than just how pretty it is right from the tube.

  5. Anna Sellers says

    I am cur­rently work­ing with a lim­ited palette to learn on. What would be the best way to incor­po­rate more col­ors? One color at a time and learn how it works with what I have? Move on to a warm/cool com­bi­na­tion? Although I am not ready for the kitchen sink approach, I would like to start mov­ing forward.

  6. David says


    Good ques­tion. That’s some­thing I’ll be talk­ing about in more detail later, but here’s a preview.

    I also have a col­lec­tion of higher-chroma paints. Stuff like ver­mil­ion, Pruss­ian blue, Doak’s mar­velous Alger blue, cad­mium yel­low light, and so on. I don’t know these paints like I do those in the core palette, because I don’t use them all the time. When I’m plan­ning a paint­ing, I con­sider whether I will need one, two, or three paints from the extended list. If so, I spend some time play­ing with them, try­ing out mixes to see if they will work in the con­text of what I am plan­ning. Some­times (not as often as I should) I will do a small loose poster study to see how the color mixes I’m con­sid­er­ing har­mo­nize together and rep­re­sent the subject.

    If you think this strat­egy might work for you, then my sug­ges­tion is to decide on a core palette that allows you to mix vir­tu­ally all of the low chroma col­ors you will use. Get really famil­iar with how these paints mix together, because you’ll rarely apply them unmixed. Then add one or two addi­tional paints at a time, grad­u­ally, and use them as you need them for a par­tic­u­lar painting.

  7. painterdog says

    Hello Anna,

    I use the palette I stated above. I think you want a bal­ance of warm colors(reds, yellows),and cool(blues, mad­der lake, cool red) If you want a more earth based palette you could use the Mars based yel­lows and reds and earth reds, and find yel­lows such a chrome yellow(caution its posioness).

    I have used both cads mars based col­ors, I have to say the cads are great for the yel­lows and reds as they are very intense.

    In short I think keep­ing it sim­ple is the best way. You could just use red, yel­low, and blue, pri­mary col­ors, and tita­nium white or a zinc-titanium mix­ture and ivory black.

    If your more inclinded to the impres­sion­ist palette than you can omit black, which is what Monet did, he mixed his blacks.

    My palette:

    white,lead,or titanium/zinc or both, cad yel­low lt,cad yel­low med, yel­low ochre,raw sienna,venitian red, vermillion(or cad red),burnt sienna, cobolt blue, ultra­ma­rine blue, mad­der lake, ivory black.

    I might also have some earth greens, and if I have the time I will mix a row of grays(12 steps) that are the same val­ues as the col­ors on my palette.

    If I am paint­ing land­scape I will have a row of blues, vio­lets, and greens all mixed up like the grays.

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