Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Palette for oil painting

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – June 2009.

The word palette refers both to the physical surface used by painters to lay-out and mix their selection of colours and to the selection of colours itself.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms defines a palette as “a thin oval or oblong board with a thumb hole and fingerboard at one end on which the painter arranges his colour. Traditionally made of light wood, some are now made of aluminium or plastic.” A few comments on this definition. Many palettes are rectangular so that they fit inside paint boxes or easel boxes and a plastic palette would work for watercolour or acrylic, but not for oil. Some painters prefer to use a glass palette because it is easy to clean and you can change the background by placing a sheet of tinted paper under the glass. Glass palettes are fragile and only suitable for work at home or in the studio, placed on the flat surface of a table.

If your palette has a thumb hole, you can hold it with one hand while painting with the other hand. The palette rests on your forearm. The thumb that sticks out of the thumb hole can clip a small rag folded and laid on the palette. It is also possible to hold at the same time a couple of brushes, secured between the edge of the palette and the dip between your thumb and your index finger. It seems complicated, but with a little bit of practice, you can hold all your material with a comfortable grip.

Add a dipper full of thinner clipped on one side of the palette and you have everything you need to paint. The advantage of this set-up is that you can step back to look at your painting and your subject at the same time and continue to mix your paints.

Any non porous surface will make a suitable palette. If you make a palette yourself with a piece of wood, you will need to finish it by either varnishing it or rubbing some linseed oil on its surface to seal the grains of the wood. Pick a good size palette to have a large surface to mix your paints on.

With proper care, your palette will last you many years. It is important to clean your palette at the end of each session, before the paint hardens. Start by wiping out the paint with a rag. To finish cleaning the surface, I pour in the centre of the palette the dirty thinner left in the dipper after I cleaned my brushes and wipe the surface with a rag. A grey film will form over time on the top of the palette and create a nice neutral background to mix your paint on.

The word “palette” also refers to the range of colours used by an artist. There are no firm rules on colours selection as your palette is a matter of style and personal taste. As an example, my typical palette consists of: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Sap Green and Viridian green. I may use a subset of these colours or some variations. For instance, if I am working on a marine painting, I will use more hues for blue and green colours.

There is no right or wrong way to lay-out your palette. It’s down to personal preference and experience. Here are a few possibilities:

(1) You could arrange colours according to the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, black and white;

(2) Group warm colours together on one side of the palette and cool colours together on the adjacent side of the palette;

(3) Lay colours from light to dark; or

(4) Put colours that you often mix together next to each other.

You need to find the arrangement of colours that suits you. Try an arrangement for some time and see how it works. Give it some time before you alter the way you lay out your palette. Once you have found your way of doing it, systematically arrange your palette in the same order. This is important as it is not easy to recognise some dark colours when they have been squeezed onto the palette. You need to be able to reach for a particular colour without having to think about it every time. See your palette as a keyboard: it would not make sense to have to learn each time the location of the notes before being able to play a tune on a piano.

Colours are spread in the periphery of the palette, the centre being left free for mixing. Squeeze enough paint to avoid having to interrupt your flow when painting. Squeeze twice the amount of white compared other hues; you will need more of it. Squeezing the paint in a line instead of a puddle makes it easier to pick a small part of it with the brush or the painting knife while keeping the rest of the colour clean. Some painters pre-mix their colours (either together or with white to have different tonal values) before they start painting. This method saves time later and, by mixing colours with a palette knife rather than the brush, the mixture will be more homogeneous.

If at some point the mixing area of your palette becomes too busy, stop for a moment and clean the centre of the palette with a rag and some thinner.

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