Sunday, December 25, 2011


To learn how to control color and use it creatively, try an experiment that limits the number of colors you use. Find a photo -- really any subject matter will work -- but make sure it’s something that you find intriguingly colorful. (This may not be a brightly colored photo, just color you like.)

You’ll begin with only 10 colors, so choose them carefully. Use dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and light colors, based on the photograph. If it is a high-key photo with lots of light colors your darkest dark may be a medium. If it’s a moody, dark photo, you may choose far more dark colors and only one or two medium-light ones. Lay out the colors you’ve selected on a paper towel and put away your palette. It’s much easier to do this exercise if you can’t see what’s missing.

Work all over the painting with the colors so that you structure things altogether at one time, relating all the elements to one another. Don’t start with details. If you don’t have the right color, layer the ones you do have to achieve the right value instead. Make use of the different colors and values on hand to make new ones, layering or scumbling with a slightly harder stick over softer pastels. Notice how the color effects differ when you layer them in a different order. Pay attention to the way some colors look dark in light areas and light in dark areas. These ‘bridge’ colors are very useful!

After you have painted for a while, you’re likely to find yourself missing one or two key colors. This is not the time to add 10 new colors -- only one or two. You may need a particular color that’s missing. You may need a darker dark or a lighter light. Whatever you really need you can add. Cover your palette after choosing them so you aren’t tempted to grab more. Then work to your conclusion using only those colors.

I suggest you make a separate chart of the colors you chose. You’ll find it comes in handy later to remind you how you made those colors, so it might be a good idea to stick it to the back of the painting.

• Evaluate this painting a bit differently than you would your other work.

• Look for the things that happened that pleasantly surprise you with their clarity, despite the spontaneity.

• Where are the accidents that please you, and what did you do to create them? Which colors did you layer together?

• Did you blend them?

• Why do you think that grassy foreground look good or the tree-covered hillside work?

• What is it about the lavender you were forced to layer into the sky that is so pleasing?

• What color combinations did you find surprisingly successful?

When you have developed a small body of these paintings, lay them out together and analyze what’s working and what isn’t. There’s a lot to be learned from this. Put up a little show for yourself in the studio and analyze them. Look for trends, for those things that happen repeatedly that please you. Put them in order of your own personal preference and ask yourself why you chose this order. Find the specific things in each one that works and ask why.

You can see that I chose three colors as the most significant ones, the medium blue-violet, orange and rose. In addition to those main colors I chose a deep lavender, dark green, a medium yellow-green, a light cerulean blue, peach, light yellow-ochre and two peaches, one pale and one medium. The colors in wall behind the pot with the dappled the sun and shadow please me.

I found three key colors here, as well, a light yellow-orange, medium magenta and cobalt blue. The bright orange and intense yellow-orange layered over the light and medium-light blue sky work well. I added a dark red-violet and blue-violet, as well as touches of deep turquoise and dark blue to finish the palette.


  1. Very helpful as I will get confused by all the choices in my palette. Forcing myself to work with what I have should lead to more creativity and innovation in the painting. Will definitely give it a try.

    Love the blog and your book in progress, Deborah

  2. Have a wonderful time with this experiment...

  3. These look like so much fun! It's going to be interesting trying different subjects and different color choices with this exercise. I especially like the way you pointed out three key colors on each of them, that's a way to help me organize a limited palette.

    It also might, with enough experience, help me pack better for plein air. Once I'm used to the key colors in Arkansas landscapes, making sure I have those in the plein air box could mean having much less trouble with limiting myself to what fits in a 30 stick Unisons box.

  4. Thank you so much and God Bless you for publishing this. I am trying to learn how to make pastel paintings. Not to try to sell any, just to try to make one thing that is beautiful. I'm hoping if I keep trying and keep learning someday I will create a painting I can feel proud of and hang on my wall. Thank you again so much!


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah