A limited palette for winter and, hopefully, for summer

So far we’ve been having a milder winter than usual in Montreal. When I walk in the woods, the colours seem warmer than they usually are in January, and that is reflected in the pigments I choose when I paint. For this scene in Angell Woods, near my house, I used a limited palette of colours that includes — for the first time in one of my winter scenes — Lemon Yellow. That’s usually a colour I reserve for spring and summer landscapes, but there was so much warmth in the trees that Ochre or Raw Sienna just seemed too tame.

Introducing a new colour into my winter palette yielded some surprises. The brand of Lemon Yellow I was using (Van Gogh) is quite opaque, so when I combined it with Carbazole Violet, the result was a milky brownish grey that was perfect for the bare trees. The deeply purple Carbazole Violet is a strong colour, but it’s in just about everything here: in the snow shadows (along with Cerulean Blue) and in the deepest darks beneath the fallen logs (along with Burnt Sienna). And although there are no obvious areas of purple in my painting, it acts as a unifier for the entire scene. Below are the swatches for this painting: Lemon Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Burnt Sienna and Carbazole Violet.

I love to teach the use of limited palettes during my in-person watercolour workshops. This coming August, provided we can safely travel again (I am an optimist!), and the Canada/US border is once again open, I will be teaching with my friends (and amazing artists) Uma Kelkar, Paul Heaston and James Richards at Madeline Island School of the Arts. The Urban Sketching Summer Retreat has been rescheduled from last year, and the new dates are August 16-20, 2021. Madeline Island is a superb setting for both landscape and waterfront scenes, and I’m sure I’m in good company when I say I’m truly looking forward to painting with others in a visually stunning environment. Have a look here for more info about the event. And if you want to get started with limited palettes, have a look at my recent online course release “Sketching Boats: Simple Solutions for a Complex Scene”.

34 Comments on “A limited palette for winter and, hopefully, for summer”

  1. Betsy says:

    Love, love, love it.

    Your notes on color observation and mixing are educational, thank you.


  2. Barry Van Dusen says:

    LOVE your results from the new winter palette, Shari! Your painting has that feeling of a winter day when you first sense that SPRING is not so far away – that the sun is gaining strength and suffusing everything with a welcome warmth! I agree with you that violet is “in just about everything” at this time of year. I’ve got Sennelier Cobalt Violet Deep on my palette, but that Carbazole looks tempting. Is it colorfast? -Barry


    • Barry, thank you so much for your wonderful comments. You know they mean a lot.
      I just checked and yes, Carbazole Violet is indeed very lightfast. It just does wonderful things to yellows. I use it all the time to dull down bright yellows, and of course it’s great mixed with blues. And now you have sent me on a search to see what Sennelier Cobalt Violet Deep looks like. I bet it is gorgeous but their tubes are so small and I go through so much paint!! Hope all is well with you!


  3. mcammeehan says:

    What a cheerful palette, yet nicely conveys January. Fingers crossed for the workshop in the summer!


  4. karim waked says:

    so precious

    514 9944433


  5. lois says:

    I really like the perspective from which you painted this, Shari. I feel like I’m standing right in the water to get the perfect view.


    • I never thought about that, but now that you mention it, it does seem like I was standing in the water to take my reference image. In fact, the stream curved around right in front of me so I was on land. Someone on Instagram said I did it from the point of view of a beaver, which I thought was very funny.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Tami says:

    Love limited palettes and this one is no exception!
    Had a question about mixing browns and what is your ‘go to’ Combo to make these? I’ve used blue and orange and it’s ok~

    Many thanks for your posts!


  7. pw57 says:

    I love how you captured the sprkling light in this sketch. Really great tips on how to use a limited palette, thanks


  8. pw57 says:

    I love how you have captured the sparkling light in this scene. Great tips on using a limited palette, thanks


  9. J says:

    Beautiful color and painting. As is obvious, I am abale to comment now. Thanks for your help.
    BTW, I have been using carbazole violet and it is a very good color. to mix with others.


  10. Laura Kate says:

    Great palette. I’m going to give it a try.


  11. Nice painting, and nice palette. You mentioned Van Gogh Watercolour, I thought of trying them, are they any good? I find Coteman Watercolours are very brittle once they dry. You really captured the patttern on the Birch Trees well. And it looks like the work of a beaver laying those logs across the creek.


    • Shawn, Van Gogh watercolours are student quality, like Cotman.
      They have more binder and less pigment in them than artist quality paints, but they are fine for quick sketches. Also, student grade paint may not always be lightfast so check the label or the manufacturer’s website.


  12. Ikuyo says:

    I’ve been enjoying your posts. I’m glad I have all four colors on my palette. I love carbazole violet, too. Question – how do you keep white for trees when painting the sky? Do you use liquid frisquet?


    • Hi, Thanks for asking about frisket. I never use it. I just plan where the whites will be and paint around them. For small white areas I use little dots of white gouache. Do you use frisket?


      • ikuyo says:

        Thank you for the response. I use frisket occasionally when I paint at home. Nowadays I sketch outdoors regularly (ok, from car), as an Urban Sketcher, and work on a small sketchbook (6×8”), I can get by with Gelly roll pen or white gouache. I live south of Seattle.
        One silver lining of this pandemic is that I discovered YouTube. I enjoy USk talks and Sketching PlayLab, thus I see you, Paul Wang, and Suhita Shirodkar among others. Thank you for introducing me to the art world.


  13. joantav says:

    Amazing what you can do with a limited palette. As I was reading your post I kept checking back to see if I could notice the purple anywhere. This is really lovely!


  14. I love art. I am inspired by your drawings. I love the colours. It is very nice.


  15. Lisa Baratta says:

    Shari, this is beautiful! There’s a lot going on here to admire (reflections, leaving white for snow, the layers of trees, demonstrating the contour of the river bank) – really nice! Something for the rest of us to aspire to.

    Thanks for the notes on color. I never use the Winsor Violet I have in my palette, and this was an inspiration.


  16. Lizanne G says:

    Shari, This is just gorgeous! I love the limited palette! Which brand of paint are you using for the Carbazole Violet? I’m guessing the cerulean and burnt sienna are W&N?


    • HI LIzanne. Thanks so much for having a look!
      The Carbazole Violet is from Daniel Smith. Gorgeous colour!!
      And yes, the Cerulean and Burnt Sienna are from Winsor & Newton.
      I think those two are in everything I do, so much so that I now buy 37 mL tubes!!


  17. Lu Gay Lanier says:


    Looking forward to the Madeline Island workshop with you! Cheers! Lu Gay


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