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The core palette

I’ve dis­cussed some palette strate­gies lately, and I thought I’d go over mine. I am very com­fort­able work­ing with a lim­ited group of low-chroma paints, but I don’t always want to make low-chroma paint­ings. So I use what I call a core palette.

That means that I have a core group of paints that I almost always have on my palette. These include flake white, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yel­low ochre, and ultra­ma­rine blue. I am very, very famil­iar with how these paints mix together. I’ve used them over and over; they no longer hold any mys­ter­ies for me. Lots of paint­ing prob­lems can be solved with just these paints, because most of the world is pretty low in chroma and is filled with hues and val­ues that can be mixed with these paints. By using low chroma paints, rather than neu­tral­iz­ing intense col­ors as some painters pre­fer, it is much eas­ier to avoid acci­den­tally drift­ing the chroma too high.

When needed, I will add some other low-chroma paints, includ­ing red ochre, Stu­dio Prod­ucts’ Tus­can red, Williams­burg Ital­ian terre verte, Doak French ochre extra pale, burnt umber, raw umber, ivory black, trans­par­ent blue oxide. When I want very bright, opaque whites, I add tita­nium white. When I want very sub­tle mix­tures with white, I add zinc white. I’m pretty famil­iar with how all of these col­ors work

That’s 90% of the paint I use. But there are times when I need more chroma. If so, I pull out some of my big­ger guns: virid­ian, Pruss­ian blue, cad­mium red, bis­muth yel­low, cobalt blue, gen­uine ver­mil­ion, pyrol ruby, Doak Flo­ren­tine lake, Doak Alger blue, Indian yel­low, diox­azine pur­ple. I don’t know these col­ors that well, so when I use them I often need to spend time exper­i­ment­ing with how they mix. Often, I use them to inten­sify mix­tures of my more stan­dard col­ors. When appro­pri­ate, I use them with only slight mod­i­fi­ca­tion, for those small areas of chro­matic color that can really make a paint­ing jump (or fall, if done badly). Lots of my paint­ings don’t have any of these intense col­ors, but I like hav­ing them there when I need them.

Posted in color, painting.

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13 Responses

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  1. Anna Sellers says

    Thank you for shar­ing all the thoughts on color.

    As I use up paint I am replac­ing the Win­ton with Win­sor and New­ton Artist qual­ity paints. I am curi­ous as to why you choose the dif­fer­ent brands. What makes you choose this color in this brand and that color in another?

  2. David says


    I tend to pre­fer high qual­ity oil paints with very high pig­ment load that have a con­sis­tency sim­i­lar to hand-mulled paints. I don’t like paint mulled in poppy or saf­flower oil. I find that paints by Stu­dio Prod­ucts and Robert Doak have those prop­er­ties. Williams­burg tends to be thicker than I like, but their earth col­ors are so beau­ti­ful that it is worth it. I have some Old Hol­land paints, but they tend to be rather thick and are very expen­sive. I also have some paint by M. Gra­ham, but they have a small range of col­ors and are some­times a bit too loose in con­sis­tency. Win­sor New­ton paints seem OK to me, but they use saf­flower for some of their col­ors and don’t have as high a pig­ment load as I like.

    Of course, like any artist, some of the col­ors I own are just a mat­ter of ran­dom pur­chases to try stuff out. But the three brands I keep com­ing back to are SP, Doak, and Williams­burg. Of these three, SP is the most expen­sive, but has the best and most con­sis­tent han­dling. If I could afford it, I would prob­a­bly buy mostly from them. Doak’s paints are almost as good and are much less expen­sive, so most of my more expen­sive col­ors are from him.

  3. Angel says

    Hello, so you have moved. I am think­ing of doing the same myself. Won­der­ful site, and a wealth of knowl­edge here. I have been using DANIEL SMITH oils, and I rec­om­mend them to you to try out, sim­ply because they sound just like what you use — low chroma, great con­sis­tency, very nice earths, and did I men­tion h-u-g-e selec­tion?.. (I also have heard of a rel­a­tively new brand of Michael Hard­ing Oils, but since these are new, the selec­tion is not so great, and I per­son­ally haven’t tried them) I was very sur­prised to find your site, since I have very recently dis­cov­ered Flem­ish tech­nique, I am so lucky. I am hav­ing a bit of trou­ble in the dead layer, you call it a mid-tone. I just don’t get it, so if you ever get time, write about this stage in detail if you please.

  4. David says


    Both Daniel Smith and Michael Hard­ing have good rep­u­ta­tions and I would not hes­i­tate to try them. I will try to post some sam­ple swatches of Doak paints, although color sam­ples on the inter­net are never per­fectly accurate.

    Have you seen my post on Flem­ish tech­nique? What prob­lems are you hav­ing with the dead layer?

  5. Angel says

    Actu­ally, my instruc­tional book­let says to apply a mix of “dead” color, which is a mix of black/white. On your page, I just see that you apply basic col­ors with­out going into too much detail…which makes more sense. I am look­ing for­ward to see­ing your art­work and maybe a demon­stra­tion or two. Keep up the good work!

  6. David says


    There are lots of ways to do a lay­ered paint­ing. One is to do a mono­chrome gri­saille (although I pre­fer a neu­tral mix of 50/50 black and raw umber rather than straight black, which makes very cool mix­tures with white). Another is to do a true “dead col­or­ing” layer with broad flat areas of color, fol­lowed by pro­gres­sively more detail. That’s usu­ally how I do it: pro­ceed­ing from less to more detail rather than from a mono­chrome value paint­ing to the estab­lish­ment of hue and chroma in upper lay­ers. But either approach is per­fectly valid and can pro­duce a good painting.

  7. teresa says

    I would like to men­tion that I have been using RGH Artists Oil Paints for a num­ber of years now. I find them to be of the high­est qual­ity; Com­pa­ra­ble in qual­ity to any of the top brands and their prices are quite rea­son­able. Teresa

  8. David says


    I haven’t used the RGH paints. Thanks for the recommendation.

  9. tombobiche says

    it seems like if youre gonna work in water­color or mixed media or mar­ble you should be so skilled at it that your doing some­thing bet­ter than any­one else; I see Bev Doolit­tle doing won­der­ful stuff in water­color that few could sur­pass, but I admit that for me its too limpid a medium; or to sim­ply cut to the chase do photography

  10. Andy C says

    Hi David,

    firstly I want to say thank you so much for your really info­ma­tive site/blog.

    Sec­ondly I want to ask, what colour/type of oil paint would you use to replace alizarin crim­son. I’ve been using it for a while now becuase of its won­der­ful qual­i­ties but I didn’t realise just how quickly the colour fades away, and i’d like to know wht you think is the near­est equivalant

    Any ideas??

    thanks Andy

    • David says


      I’ve never used true alizarin, so I never became depen­dent on it. Var­i­ous com­pa­nies sell spe­cific paints designed to replace it. Williams­burg sells a “per­ma­nent crim­son” as well as “Carl’s crim­son.” I’m sure they’re both nice. Other com­pa­nies sell alizarin replace­ments. I like Doak’s pyrol ruby, although it is cer­tainly not the same as alizarin. He also sells a gen­uine rose mad­der, which is a nat­ural pig­ment sim­i­lar to syn­thetic alizarin (but per­haps slightly more permanent).

      But none of these will mix exactly like alizarin. These oth­ers have their own qual­i­ties that you may or may not like. I’d sug­gest that, instead of look­ing for a sub­sti­tute, you explore sim­i­lar col­ors that might fit well into your palette.

      Best wishes,


  11. Richard says

    David, love your blog. I was won­der­ing, what brand of burnt sienna do you like to use? More specif­i­cally, which do you think is best to use with ultra­ma­rine blue? I’ve noticed that Win­sor Newton’s burnt sienna is much more orange than other brand’s, while Williamsburg’s is more like a red ochre. Mix­ing the the lat­ter with ultra­ma­rine, you can get what’s close to a very gray­ish pur­ple, which is nice. And what brand raw sienna do you like? Thanks for all your help —

    • David says


      I like earths (RS, BS, etc.) by Doak and Williams­burg. You’re right that sub­tle dif­fer­ences between brands and batches make for dif­fer­ent degrees of neu­tral­ity in mix­ing “com­ple­ments.” Doak’s blues, by the way, are magnificent.

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