Painting With Just 3 Colors

I've done many paintings in watercolor using a "limited palette" - basically mixing all the colors from the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. One of the first times I tried this was for "Americana". More recent examples include "Grandpa's Fiddle Break,"  "Jerry Van, Music Man," and "Jesus Saves." For some reason, I never thought about doing the same thing with my acrylic paints until recently.

I was exhibiting at an outdoor show and I wanted to set up a small area on the end of a table in my booth to do some painting. Passersby like to see artists at work, but the artist usually spends more time talking than painting. So I wanted to work small and I didn't want to bring lots of art supplies - an ideal chance to experiment with a limited palette of the acrylic paints I use, Golden Fluid Acrylics. Golden Paint has great resources for artists and their website is very informative. The website even has a "color mixer" so you can test various colors. I also have a "Golden Acrylics Color Mixing Guide" booklet in which they recommend an artist's palette using eight colors:
  • Hansa Yellow Medium
  • Quinacridone Magenta
  • Phthalo Blue (green shade)
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Naphthol Red Light
  • Phthalo Green (blue shade)
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Titanium White (or Zinc White for more transparency)
In theory, red, blue and yellow, called the primary colors, mix to create all other colors. In reality, you have to be careful which hues you use. It's easy to end up with brown instead of green from mixing an orangy-yellow with a redish-blue, like the sample I picture here, in which I used ultramarine blue and diarylide yellow. This is because both the yellow and the blue have red tones in them, rather than being more "pure." I highly recommend Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green - an excellent practical book on mixing artist's pigments.

 With Golden's recommendations, I chose 3 colors I already had in my collection: Quinacridone Red, Hansa Yellow Medium, and Phthalo Blue (green shade) and packed a bottle of Titanium White also. Remember, mixing all colors from the primaries works in theory, but the reality is not perfect. The three colors I chose are high chroma or bright colors, and that's why the others in Golden's recommended 8-color palette listed above are used, to tone down the hues and make more natural earthy colors. Also, the Hansa Yellow Medium in my selection is not a strong 'tinting' color, so I have to use more of it than the other two primaries when mixing. For example, to mix a medium orange I need more of the yellow than the red, rather than equal amounts of each. Golden mentions this in the Mixing Guide and recommends Hansa Yellow Opaque instead, but since I was using the colors transparently I didn't go that route. Notice that black is not included in these palettes; mixing complementary colors (colors opposite on the color wheel, like red with green) yields black and grays which are rich and vibrant; black just tends to dull a color. Mixing complements also reduces their intensity. Before packing my paints for the show, I made a color wheel and also mixed white, black, and complements with my 3 primaries, as helpful guides.

It's springtime and I am overwhelmed with the beauty of the blooming wildflowers on my land, so I decided to do a small flower painting, using my limited palette of acrylics on watercolor paper transparently. My subject was a bloodroot flower, which is one of the first flowers which open in late winter, with pure white petals against the forest floor. When I paint with acrylics on watercolor paper (vs. on canvas), I mix the colors with water and Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid. The latter slows the drying time, facilitates blending, and allows for transparent layers of color. Golden paints are very rich in pigments, so I literally put out one drop at a time on my little butcher tray, and mix away. This proved to be a good setup while in my show booth, since I wasn't filling a palette with loads of different colors only to have them dry up while I stopped to talk to a shopper.

I was surprised to have enough painting time during the 2-day show to complete this small painting. The limited palette experiment was successful; I was able to mix all the colors I wanted to use, including the variety of warm and cool browns in the background leaves. The primaries did prove to be bright colors, so I used the white, thinned down with water, as a top coat on the flower petals, to tone the colors down. I consider this painting more of a 'study' than a finished work of art, and decided to leave the rough edges of the image.

May: My Kind of People



I greatly admire the work of portrait artists, since I know it takes a high level of skill to capture the human face. My 'portraits' are largely limited to dogs, cats, and wild animals. However, I occasionally include people as the focal point in my paintings - what I call 'characters.' Rather than depicting a face in a formal pose, I prefer to show people involved in some type of activity. Sometimes the character is anonymous, like the little girl on the beach I featured for my watercolor painting called "In Her Own World." At the opposite end of the scale, some of my figures are recognizable for who they are, as with my award-winning painting "Jerry Van, Music Man."

One of my first character paintings was "Cleaning The Conch." Rick and I were vacationing in the Bahamas and had just returned from a session of scuba diving. Our boat driver Greg was under the dock, brushing off a conch shell which one of the other divers had found. I was immediately taken by the scene, intrigued by the way the sunlight was streaming through the wooden boards above, the fabric folds in Greg's clothing, the variations in his skin tones, the sunlight on the shell, the smoothness of the wet sand, and the textures in the post and rocks. I took lots of reference photos (so long ago I was using film) and used them to create one of the largest watercolor paintings I have ever done, 28" x 36". This painting won awards in both the Jacksonville FL Watercolor Society Exhibit and annual exhibition of the Florida Watercolor Society. The original sold long ago.

"Molly-By-The-Sea" holds a dear place in my heart since it depicts my niece as a little girl (she's now in her 20's). We were all visiting my parents in Hampton, New Hampshire, and walked to the beach where the low tide exposed interesting pools of water reflecting the blue sky. Molly's striking red hair created a perfect accent to the blues in the scene, particularly because the complement of blue on a color wheel is orange. Her skin tones were close to the hues in some of the rocks and her turquiose/white top fit the color palette perfectly. I was inspired to photograph her for a future painting, and have long since been happy that I captured the moment.
    Molly is the youngest of her generation in my family so I decided this painting might please my parents (her grandparents). I surprised them with it as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary. My parents have now passed away, so Molly's mom, my sister Jean, displays this painting. Someday it will likely belong to Molly!

I was attending a re-enactment at Fort Loudoun State Park in East Tennessee, back in 2001. A costumed soldier was at the open window of one of the rustic period buildings, with his head bowed, deep in thought. As always, the irregular weathered boards and rusty hinges appealed to my senses, and the young man's red vest was just the right flash of color among the otherwise neutral tones. When the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers occurred just 2 days after I had photographed this re-enactor, many prayers and soldiers were on my mind. I titled this painting "A Soldier's Prayer."  From a technical point of view, I painted the wood siding in cool grey shades then used warmer grey/brown tones for the window shutters, to draw more emphasis to the figure. The original painting, done in acrylics used transparently on watercolor paper, is sold.

"When She Was Three" turned out to be a dynamic painting which always gets comments when I display it. Little Aubrey was innocently playing at the edge of the gently flowing Tellico River. The sunlight on her soft hair was the first thing which caught my eye, and I crouched down to her eye level to photograph her quietly, so as not to distract her. I painted this in acrylics on canvas, using a lot of pure white for the bright highlights in her fine whispy hair, the folds of her shirt, the sparkles on the water, and the pebbles under foot. You can see a time-lapse slide show of my painting process for When She Was Three on the home page of my online art gallery.  The original painting sold to her family, but I have giclee prints on canvas for sale which matched the original perfectly.
    Image Size: 16" x 20" for $225 unframed; $325 framed
    Image Size: 8" x 10" for $75 unframed; $125 framed

I've written lots in this blog about my painting "In The Spotlight" during the last year, since it won a major award for me in the Tennessee Watercolor Society biennial exhibition then traveled around the state for the remainder of the year. I actually sold the painting to someone who was reminded of his own son by the image of my friend Mike, showing that my 'characters' can have a broad appeal, perhaps more so than a real portrait. I have 8" x 10" open edition prints of this painting for sale for $18.