Why have a section for “neutrals” in your pastel palette?

palette_web.jpgMy palette is like an extension of my arm. Like a surgeon reaching for a tool, I want to organize my palette in a way that allows me to paint with familiarity and skill. I decided, therefore, to organize my palette to represent the color wheel and value scale. The first part was easy; I organized the pastels by color families, beginning with the family of yellow on the left and working my way across to green. Then I organized by value, placing the lightest value at the top of the palette—because light lifts—and the darkest value at the bottom, creating weight. Then, off I went. And paint I did!

Over time I evaluated my finished pastel paintings and came to the conclusion that I really like color—a lot! So, after giving it considerable thought, I decided what was missing in my color selection was sensitivity to chroma, which is the relative intensity or weakness of an individual color. There are plenty of weaker colors in every color family, which I had placed in their family of origin within the palette. Because of “simultaneous contrast” (refer to my previous post), these colors appear grayer and weaker when compared to the brighter tones. As a result, they were often overlooked. We all like the “eye candy” and are drawn to the bright luscious hues that lay before us. Me too. Given the choice, I would select one of the brighter tones, unconsciously filling my paintings with overly saturated colors—making for a garish finished result.

To prevent this, I decided to segregate these weaker colors (what I refer to now as the “neutrals”) to the far right side of the palette, thus allowing them to cohabitate among their kindred weaker tones. It was only then that I truly saw the potential waiting in each stick.

Like that surgeon, I continue to hone my skills and hopefully more patients will survive!

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7 thoughts on “Why have a section for “neutrals” in your pastel palette?

  1. BlueBerry Pick'n

    oh yeah…
    that’s the stuff…

    rubs powdery little paws together & pounces on her palette drawers…

    this is why I subscribe…
    thank you!!

    one day, McKinley will give a course in Southern Ontario… & I’ll be there with bells on!

    Spread Love…

    BlueBerry Pick’n
    can be found @
    "We, two, form a Multitude" ~ Ovid.
    "Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced"

  2. Morgaine Swann

    Thanks for the info. I just watched a video clip from IAPS and I think the idea of using your method is really growing on me. I tend to use a limited kind of palette that’s heavy on the pink/purple/blue and very little green or brown, so I think making a range of the ones I like from each set is a good place to start. I should be able to tell most of them apart, as you say, by touch. There’s a big difference in some of the brands.

    Have you seen or tried the new Pan Pastels that are coming out? What did you think of them?

    Thanks again. And no worries about the email address – people can always get me through my blog, so it’s an address I give out to the public.

  3. Anne Hevener

    FYI, you can fine out more about the Heilman box at http://www.heilmandesigns.com

    The website for Dakota Art Pastels is http://www.dakotapastels.com

    Also, a little technical note: When you post a comment, there is a place to enter your email address. If you’d rather not have your email address appear in the comment, you do not have to fill that in in order to post.

    Great to hear from some blog readers!

    Anne Hevener, Editor
    The Pastel Journal

  4. Richard McKinley

    Thanks Marina and Morgaine for the questions. The pastel case I use is the Heilman box, there information can be found in the Pastel Journal. The other case I have found quite good is the Dakota case available from Dakota Art Pastels – a great mail order supplier for the pastel community.

    Concerning separating brands; There are good reasons to keep them separate if you use different brands for different stages of your work, and really good reasons to place them all together and work with them as one palette. I personally place them together and by touch can tell which brand i am working with.

    Hope this of some help. -Richard

  5. Morgaine Swann

    Ha ha, that’s funny! I came to ask the same question. Which pastel box is that?

    I have some boxed sets, like the big yarka wooden box with all the colors – would I be better off keeping them like that and having other brands stay in their boxes or is it better to combine a palette without regard to the brand?

    Thanks so much for agreeing to do this blog. I’m in an isolated area and can’t take art classes, so it’s nice to have a place to ask those questions.

  6. Marina

    Hi Richard, I really like this concept of separating out the neutrals. I would like to do this but need a better storage solution to make this separation. Can you tell me what kind of box you are using in the photo contained in the article?

    Thanks, Marina