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”.

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.

Limited palettes, for today and for Chicago

I’m very excited to be returning to Chicago this spring to teach at the Chicago Sketch Seminar. If you don’t know much about this event, the organizers call it a Symposium-like experience but on a much smaller scale. This year there will be 18 workshops, designed for all levels of sketchers — beginner to advanced — and the home base for the three-day event is the American Academy of Art on Michigan Avenue.

My workshop is called “Bare Bones: Exploring Limited Palettes in Watercolour“. It’s a workshop that I first taught at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Manchester, UK, in 2016. This time we’ll be exploring new ways of working with colour, with the beautiful skyline of Chicago as inspiration. Dates of the Seminar are May 31-June 2, 2019, and registration opens this Saturday, March 16 at 10 am CST.

With limited palettes on my mind, I went out sketching in Pointe Claire Village today. The warmer weather is on the way and the snow is melting quickly. I wanted to sketch the watery reflections of the traffic signs in the wet street but a car parked in front of me after my drawing was done so much the colour was done from memory. Limited palette was Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Quin Rose and Quin Gold.

Limited palette, really

Thanks Delta Airlines. My suitcase is still somewhere in luggage limbo, and inside it: my palette, my tubes of paint, my sketchbook and lots of paintings. Thankfully my brushes were in my carry-on bag, along with pens and a tiny travel palette. I am still hopeful it will be found soon and make its way home to me. I can replace everything except the work I did in Savannah and Palmetto Bluff, but it’s a lesson learned, isn’t it? Never leave artwork in the suitcase!Mini-bananas

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).

Winter’s palette

Winter requires a limited palette. I don’t usually carry Raw and Burnt Umber in my kit, but added a bit today to paint the tree scene in the cemetery. Even though you had to look hard to see colour in the cloudy landscape this morning, when the sun came out everything changed. The contrast in values between the trees and the snow became sharp, and suddenly there was movement and direction. Today was also a good day to use the Indanthrene Blue that sits in a corner of my palette. Mixed with the Burnt Umber and some Alizarin it makes a great dark for the trunks and branches. Painted on Arches Rough Paper, 10″ x 14″.


The Utah palette (and paintings)

When venturing into unknown territory it’s best to be prepared, or so I told myself when I was invited to paint Utah’s National Parks this past August. I looked at many images of the parks before leaving and tried my best to bring along a palette of colours that would help me capture the reds, pinks and greens of the rock layers. I even made a colour chart and carried it in my bag. It seems like overkill when I look at the chart now because many of the colours are so similar, but as I said, better to be prepared. In hindsight, the colours were the least of my problems. The bigger challenges were the ones I hadn’t anticipated, like trying to cover 1,400 miles in one week, or painting a scene where I could see 150 miles into the distance, or looking down into a vast canyon that was shrouded in cloud, or painting in 100°F heat. And there is nothing that can prepare you for the incredible beauty of these five parks, no matter how many images you look at. Below is the palette I used and following that are the ten painting I did of the parks, some done on location and others painted in studio from my sketches and reference photos. All are half sheets (15″ x 22″) of Arches 140 lb. cold-pressed watercolour paper.



Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef was the first park I visited and perhaps my favourite because I spent the most time there and got to see more of the sights. “Grand Wash Trail” and “The Waterpocket Fold” were both painted on location, although a storm blew in while I was painting the latter and the final details were added from the car.





Arches National Park

There was a lot of pressure to get Delicate Arch right because, after all, it is Utah’s most recognizable landmark and is even pictured on the state’s license plate. I arrived at the park at midday, in extreme heat, humidity and rain. My attempts to paint on location were thwarted by storms, so I sketched, drank lots of water, took lots of photos and painted both “Delicate Arch” and “Park Avenue” in studio.





Canyonlands National Park

Nothing prepared me for the strange beauty of Canyonlands. This part of the park — which is the least accessible of the five parks — is called Island in the Sky. To get there you drive 30 miles in from Moab and see the park from a series of overlooks. That is, if there are no clouds. “Green River Overlook” was painted on location and “Island in the Sky” was painted in studio. Both of these were painted wet-in-wet.





Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is another park that is first admired from a series of overlooks, although there are trails that allow you to descend into the hoodoos. The pines around the perimeter of the canyon provide great shade for sketching, which is what I did, since my time in the park was very limited. Both “Thor’s Hammer” and “Inspiration Point” were painted in studio.





Zion National Park

Of all the parks, Zion seems to be the most crowded — and for good reason. The only way through the park is by shuttle bus, which made it impossible to carry all my painting gear. I sketched at various stops along the route and painted “The Virgin River” and “The Cottonwoods” in studio. One of my only regrets about my week in Utah is that I had no time to hike the trails, especially the spectacular ones at Zion. Truthfully, I would have had to spend a week in each park to see them properly as well as to paint many of the famous viewpoints. I hope I’ll get back there one day to see them again.






Edited by necessity

When I posted this sketch on Instagram earlier today, someone commented about the way I edit a scene to simplify it. But that was not the case for this. I was sitting in full sun, which I really dislike, so I had to abbreviate my paint strokes. I edited out the details in the far shore because I couldn’t wait to move to the shade, although I started off in the sun because the view from that spot was so perfect. One boat, one reflection. A great little vignette. I’ve painted this boat before but the result was overworked and lacked the spontaneity of this one. Maybe sitting in an umcomfortable spot isn’t so bad after all, if it forces you to simplify.

I used a limited palette on this, again, not intentionally. Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna had overflowed on my mixing tray after I filled my palette this morning and I had to use them up. Sketched in an Etchr Perfect Sketchbook, A4 size.

First day, last day

It’s the first day of April, but it’s the last day for these tulips that have been sitting on my counter for many days. Today I continued playing with gouache, this time using a limited palette of Primary Magenta, Ultramarine and Cadmium Yellow, plus White. My favourite paper for gouache is hot press, and this one is in an Etchr sketchbook. Although I rarely use hot press paper for pure watercolour, I love the creamy texture of gouache on the smooth surface of this book.

Fill up

There was a window of opportunity this morning before the rain to do some car sketching in Valois. I brought along my gouache palette and some new M Graham gouache colours that I’m trying. I’ve been reading a lot about this brand of gouache, and although I have been perfectly happy with both Holbein and Winsor & Newton, these colours are really nice. M Graham paints are made with honey and gum arabic, so they’re very creamy. And after testing them out with this quick sketch, it seems to me that they are also highly pigmented. More testing needs to be done but so far, so good. Sketched with a limited palette of Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and White with a bit of Cadmium Red for details.