That Special Color


A field-sketch with color swatches showing my favorite pastels. They are easy to identify in the painting.

Color and light are the two biggest attractions artists mention when describing what draws them to subject matter. They are synonymous; one doesn’t exist without the other. Science has proven that no two of us perceive color in exactly the same way. The complexity of the human eye, combined with environmental and cultural influences, make each of us unique and individual artists.

As pastelists, we have a rainbow of colors from which to choose in our paintings. A well-structured palette will represent the full spectrum of the color wheel in a full range of light and dark values completed with the addition of an assortment of weaker grayed tones, which are easily mixed with paint but problematic to the pastelist. This affords the pastel painter the ability to work without limitation (see previous blog post about palette setups). Over time our palettes expand, we make additions and subtractions to better fill in what seems to be lacking. As this process unfolds, it becomes apparent which areas are our favorites. They are the pastels most often replaced and a larger portion of the palette is devoted to them. This may reflect subject matter choices but those choices also reflect a personal attraction. These expanded, well used, areas are the color families you are attracted to. How many times have you selected individual pastels at the art store only to find that you already had an abundance of them when you return to the studio?

Understanding our individual color preferences, and realizing they will inevitably be placed in a painting, can make the other color choices easier. They are major players, producing an influence over the whole of the painting. Sometimes it is expressive, relating more of how we feel. At other times, they are old-friend colors that we have grown to rely on. These color preferences should not be something to fret about. They are part of what makes us the painters we are.

Over years of painting I have had color preferences that have come and gone. One that has been a big influence the last decade is violet/gray. At times it leans to blue, at other times to red, but without a doubt, it is always present. For me, it is the tone in the landscape that threads the scene together, adding atmosphere and continuity. I am not sure if it is really present in all the scenes I paint or if I have just convinced myself it is there. Whatever the answer, it is a major part of my palette and finished paintings. What are yours? Please reflect on your work and post a comment. Then, look for that “Special Color” in other artists’ paintings you admire. It’s often what makes them stand out.

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8 thoughts on “That Special Color

  1. Jo Castillo

    I, too, have a love for purple and bright saturated color. I seem to identify with Winston Churchill who said, "I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns."

  2. richard mckinley

    Ed, The gray pastels in my palette are a variety of brands. The few shown represent: Great American Artworks, and a couple Girault Gray/Violets.

  3. jane mcgraw teubner

    Hi Richard,
    I will see you soon in NY/Salmagundi workshop. I can’t buy enough purple pastels. I teach and my students tease me that I solve every problem with purple. Recently I exhibited quite a few of my paintings and I was very surprised to find that my paintings are very yellow and orange. Perhaps favoring the purple propels me to use the opposite! Thanks for a wonderful blog. Jane McGraw-Teubner

  4. Carole Buschmann

    I am in to yellow now but I remember Robert Henri referred to each painting or art work having a "special color". I’ll have to dig out my copy of "The Art Spirit". Thanks for reminding me of it as it is a good time of year to read.

  5. Phyllis Gustafson

    I’ve had a love affair with orange for at least 30 years and this winter it has bloomed again. All shades of orange with a little violet has really chased the gray days away.

  6. Mary Ann Pals

    For me it’s cerulean blue (medium blue) and french ultramarine blue (blue-violet). I just can’t get enough of them. That’s probably why I enjoy doing landscapes with water in them. And I do exactly what you were describing…about going to an art supply store and coming home with yet another pastel color (blue) that I already have. The blue-violet is a bit harder to find and I’m enjoying using a grayed version of it in my artwork as of late. It works wonderfully in a sky as well as in distant background.

    My husband claims I suffer from PAD – Pastel Acquisition Disorder. To be more exact, it’s probably BPAD – Blue Pastel Acquisition Disorder. 🙂