Limited palette experiments

If you’re up for a challenge and enjoy experimenting with colour, here’s an idea for a rainy day. Try painting the same scene several times with different triads of colour. The experiments below are ones that I prepared for my workshop this weekend at the Chicago Sketch Seminar. My palette is filled with 12 Daniel Smith Colours that I’ll be using for my session titled Bare Bones: Working with Limited Palettes in Watercolour. For these experiments I worked in a Hahnemuhle Zigzag Accordion book, so that I could have all the samples on a single surface.

I was pretty methodical about the process, first painting each triad of colour as swatches first, and you might have seen a preview of this a few days ago. After painting all the swatches I did a pencil sketch of a little scene from Kamouraska, Quebec, from a photo I took a few years ago. I chose the scene because it had sky, water, rocks, trees and a house, which gave me lots of opportunity for colour. When the pencil sketch was done, I painted the scene using only the three colours from the swatches on the left.

Although it started to get tedious by the sixth or seventh combination, it was really interesting to see them all side by side. If you check out my Instagram feed you can also see a video of one side of the book.

The combinations are titled so I can keep track of them, although they were hard to name since some are quite similar, like the Bright one and the Bold one. At the bottom of the swatch page, you can also see the beautiful neutrals and darks that you can create by mixing all three pigments together.

The Traditional palette gave me some unexpected results. I incorporated pure red into the sketch, and loved the way it contrasted with the cool greys in the sky. The name for this one comes from an article about limited palettes by Nita Leland in Watercolor Artist magazine from a few years back.

The Art History palette got its name from a similar palette in the Adobe Illustrator colour library. After years of teaching this software to my college students, these names are hard to forget.

The Opaque palette is one I love to use on cloudy or misty days to create atmosphere. With this combination it’s hard to create deep darks but the greys are luminous.

Sometimes the name doesn’t quite match the sketch. The Muted palette swatches are quite soft looking but the painted sketch is much bolder.

The Warm palette is made up of a warm yellow, a cool red and a green instead of a blue. This is one that I have never tried before but I will certainly be experimenting with it again.

As you can see from comparing all of these, using a limited palette often creates a harmonious combination of colours. Sometimes these colours are not what you might see in the scene in front of you, but they make for a more chromatically unified sketch or painting. I learned a lot from creating these samples and I know I’ll have a good time incorporating some of these combos into my sketches.

I hope this has given you some new ideas for your own sketches, and if you want to tell me about your favourite triad of colours, I’d love to hear.

Dreaming Alice

Even when asleep and dreaming of chasing tennis balls in the park, Alice is constantly shifting positions on her bed. That’s why my drawing tool of choice for dog sketching is a brush pen. With the open line of this pen I can adjust my contours for a paw that shifts, a nose that gets tucked in, or a single eye that opens to look at me.

The good stuff

Spring is the best time in my garden. That’s when all the good stuff blooms. After that it’s mostly hostas and other low maintenance plants that are good in shade. Nothing worth cutting or sketching, unfortunately. In spring there’s also lots to do in the garden, liking hauling around bags of mulch, but my reward at the end was that I picked a jar full of this good stuff, and I got to sketch it.

Magnolias in the rain and a new car palette

The magnolias are in full bloom, but falling fast with the rain. I had to paint from my car today but wanted to capture them before they’re gone.

I experimented with something new in my car studio today. A few weeks ago I received a Portable Painter palette to try out. I filled it with Daniel Smith colours in preparation for my workshop at the Chicago Sketch Seminar (more about that below) but hadn’t had a chance to try it out in the field until today.

Wow, it’s basically the perfect system for the type of car sketching I do. The palette holds 12 half pans and on the sides there are two water reservoirs. There’s a spot for a travel brush, and my other brush is resting across the water reservoir. Very compact and neat compared to my usually messy setup.

If I had purchased this years ago, it sure would have saved a lot of mess in my car. My palette is usually on the passenger seat which results in lots of dribbled paint on the gear shift as I dip into the colour. With this setup the only mess will probably be on my jeans, but that’s a lot easier to resolve than cleaning the whole car.

The new palette is filled with 12 Daniel Smith watercolours. They’re sponsoring some of the workshops in Chicago, including mine, which is titled Bare Bones: Working with limited palettes in watercolour. Since the workshop is about creating unity and harmony in your sketches by using fewer colours, I’ve been creating different triads of colour in a small sketchbook. If you look on the Daniel Smith website you’ll find a great post about colour mixing charts. Mine (below) is adapted from their six-colour template. You can see how two colour combinations work together, and also how they all mix to form different greys and neutrals (across the bottom of the page).

Fredericksburg workshop recap

I’m just back from a weekend in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which I can say was the official start of summer workshop season. I was given the gift of great locations, perfect weather and very talented students, so no complaints on this end.

We worked on all kinds of things over the three days — value studies, composition, page design, brushwork and colour — so lots of little demos in my sketchbook (the big tree above and the little vignettes below).

At the end of the first day I finished with a small demo of the Fredericksburg railway bridge. Everyone appreciates a demo at the end of the day when they’re tired and they can watch the teacher struggle to paint the constantly changing reflections in the river.

We spent Saturday at the Fredericksburg farmer’s market. My demo (still not finished) was how to simplify a complex scene with moving people and multiple tents. The results from the group were very impressive, and that always makes it a pleasure for me.

Our last day was spent at Chatham Manor. This is a place where I could easily spend a week painting the perfectly tended gardens, the Georgian-style main house, or the panoramic views across the river to Fredericksburg. Coming from Montreal where we are experiencing the late arrival of spring, the peonies, climbing roses and deep purple irises were a feast for my eyes.

Thanks to this talented group for working so hard!

From above

Spring is late this year, and all I could find to sketch in my garden were these three tulips, seeking a bit of sun like all of us this May. It took a while to figure out the right mix of colours to get the glowing orange/pink of the blooms. Quinacridone Rose, Azo Yellow and a bit of Transparent Orange did the job, in the end. And although I rarely use it, Lunar Black mixed with Alizarin Crimson gave me a dark that was just right for the centres. Sketched in a Travelogue Watercolour Journal, 8″ x 8″.

Brick house on Lakeshore

Shadow patterns are worth waiting for. They add so much to a scene, don’t you think? When I started out sketching this house on Lakeshore Road in Pointe Claire, it was sunny, but then clouds appeared. I painted the local colours of the house and trees, but the scene was flat. I’m an optimist, though. A patient optimist. I loaded up my brush with shadow colour and waited. And waited. And waited. When the sun reappeared, I rewet my brush and quickly added in the shadow areas. I probably could have tried to do this from memory but the shadow patterns from the mostly bare trees were quite dynamic and I wanted to get it right.

All or nothing

For the past few weeks I have been looking for outdoor subjects to paint, but it’s been a bit of a wasteland of grey days, bare trees and yellowed grass.

And then all of a sudden, there’s too much choice. Tiny buds are opening on trees, the grass is green, and today I drove by the market and was thrilled to see all the hanging plants on display. It made me realize how starved for colour I am. The red and yellows on my palette are getting some attention again, and before you know it the boats will be in the water too. Seems like the start of summer sketching is finally here.


Isn’t Lungwort a most unfortunate name for a beautiful spring flower? Besides the crocuses that I sketched a few weeks ago, this is the only bloom to appear so far. All the spring flowers have been late in coming this year, especially in my garden where they were fighting to emerge under a thick mat of leaves. But they have finally been uncovered and hopefully will make an appearance in the coming days.

Veer left

I haven’t sketched in downtown Montreal in a dog’s age, so when I had a mid-morning appointment there today, I left a little early and sketched in Griffintown first.

With luck on my side, I found a coveted parking spot on Wellington, facing this scene. I do love a good jumble of road signs and construction bits, and in this one the pattern of orange cones and signs and barricades was exactly what I was hoping for on a grey day — a few spots of colour in the urban landscape to make up for this endlessly dismal spring in Montreal.