Plein Air Palettes

Michael Chesley Johnson knows plein air painting, and as a contributor to The Artist’s Magazine and an instructor for, he often shares his expertise with students of pastel and oil. Preview his art workshop videos here (USE CODE WINTER30 FOR 30% OFF AT ARTISTSNETWORK.TV THROUGH JANUARY 31, 2016, and see what he has to say about plein air palettes in this excerpt from The Artist’s Magazine.

Plein Air Palettes by Michael Chesley Johnson

Feeling mischievous? Ask a group of outdoor painters what colors are best for painting landscapes—and then sit back and enjoy the show! Some painters will argue until the cows come home over what blue is best. There are, however, some basic considerations when selecting a plein air palette.

Practical Considerations

Plein air palettes

First, think of weight. Although I do know one painter who claims to take 40 colors to the field, most painters take only a few. Paint is heavy. For a plein air palette, you don’t need the full set of colors you may use in your studio.

Second, think of the physical size of your actual palette or mixing area. I tell my students that their physical palettes for plein air should be as big as the surfaces upon which they’re painting. Because most outdoor painters work small, their plein air palettes should be small, too. This is another reason to limit the colors you take.

So which colors do you take? Let’s explore the possibilities by taking a look at my Southern Head series. Only one painting in this series was actually created en plein air on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada; I then re-created the work several times in the studio to show how different palettes change the look and feeling of a piece. All the colors I refer to are oils by Gamblin Artists Colors, but you can select similar colors in any brand and apply the principles to any medium.

Harmonious Earth Plein Air Palette

Earth Colors Plein Air Palette: The earth palette gives my landscape a warm feeling. Note that there appears to be a good bit of blue in the painting, even though I didn’t use any blue. Surrounding “blue” passages with an orangey mixture of yellow ochre and burnt sienna increases the illusion of blue. Colors on the palette, left to right; yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black, titanium-zinc white

If you’re particularly interested in achieving harmonious color, you might consider a limited palette of muted earth colors—neutrals that harmonize naturally. One such palette uses yellow ochre for yellow, burnt sienna for red and ivory black for blue. You can create some lovely, atmospheric paintings with these colors. (See Earth Colors Plein Air Palette, above.)


High-Chroma Plein Air Palettes

If your goal is to paint the brilliant, high-chroma colors of a sunset, you’ll need something other than earth colors. Consider using a color theory palette instead. Based on the color wheel, these palettes are typically made up of intensely colored, modern pigments, such as the cadmiums. I’m one among many artists who like a split-primary plein air palette, which includes a cool and a warm version of the three primaries (see Split-Primary Plein Air Palette—High Chroma, below). With this palette, you can mix almost anything and go all out with rich color.

Split-Primary Plein Air Palette—High Chroma: This is actually the first work I created in my Southern Head series. I painted it en plein air with the six-color, split-primary palette but decided later that the colors were a bit too intense and inharmonious. These colors were on my palette: cadmium yellow light (cool compared to cadmium yellow deep), cadmium yellow deep (warm compared to cadmium yellow light), cadmium red light (warm compared to permanent alizarin), permanent alizarin (cool compared to cadmium red light), ultramarine blue (blue with a violet cast), phthalo blue (blue with a green cast)


Another way to build a color-theory palette is to add secondary colors to the primaries rather than splitting the primaries into warm and cool colors. Such a plein air palette might consist of cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium red medium, dioxazine purple, ultramarine blue and phthalo green. The danger with this palette is that you may have difficulty maintaining color harmony. Unless you know how to calm the colors by mixing complements and creating rich neutrals, your painting will have high-chroma color everywhere—something you see in Saturday morning cartoons but never in nature.

Primary Plein Air Palettes

One way to avoid overly high chroma problems is to limit your color theory palette to just the primaries without splitting them or adding secondaries (see Primary Plein Air Palette, below). A trio of cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light and ultramarine blue will keep your color mixtures on a short leash. For example, my split-primary plein air palette has two yellows and two reds, and from these I can make four different basic oranges. But with a primary palette, I can make only one. What’s more, because I have fewer choices, I can mix colors faster.

Primary Plein Air Palette: The primary palette gives a more realistic range of warms and cools than palettes with split primaries or primaries plus secondaries; however, some of the colors—especially the greens—aren’t as rich as they are in the original piece (see Split-Primary Palette—High Chroma, above). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think the colors are a bit too vivid in the original. Colors on the palette, left to right: cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, ultramarine blue, titanium-zinc white


If you want an even easier way to create color harmony with a primary palette, for your white try using Naples yellow hue, a light tint of muted yellow (see Primary Plus Naples Yellow Plein Air Palette, below). You can put a little of this color into almost every mixture. I use Naples yellow hue rather than Naples yellow because the hue doesn’t contain the lead found in traditional Naples yellow. You may have to add white to Naples yellow to get a light enough tint, but the effect is the same.

Primary Plus Naples Yellow Plein Air Palette: Most color mixtures involve white, but for this palette, rather than mix my colors with pure white, I used a light tint of Naples yellow hue. A bit of this tint went into all the color combinations except the very darkest darks (this practice is referred to as using a “mother color”). Like the earth palette painting (above), this one has lots of warmth, but because I used a real blue rather than black, I was able to put in cooler notes for greater contrast. Colors on the palette, first row, left to right: cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, ultramarine blue; second row, far left: Naples yellow + titanium-zinc white.


Add Gray

Another way to put a brake on high-chroma colors is to use grays. I use Portland grey (available only from Gamblin Artists Colors), which comes in three values: light, medium and deep (see Split-Primary Plus Gray Plein Air Palete, below). Adding a bit of these to your paint mixtures reduces the intensity of the colors. For example, I’ll generally use ultramarine blue and alizarin permanent to mix a mid-value purple for a shadow, but this very strong purple can look unreal. By adding Portland grey medium, I retain the right shadow value but at a less intense chroma, which looks more natural. You can use chromatic black (plus white, when necessary) to achieve a similar result. Although you can add these grays and the black to a primary palette, I find them most useful with my split-primary palette. Adding a little gray to each mixture is much easier than trying to mix the right combination of complements to achieve the same results.

Split-Primary Plus Gray Plein Air Palette: Although adding grays to a split-primary palette takes a lot of space on the palette, those grays make putting a “brake” on colors easy. Without the tube grays and black, I’d have to create those neutrals myself by mixing complementary colors. Colors on the palette, top, left to right: cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, alizarin permanent, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue; middle, far left: titanium-zinc white; far right column, from top: Portland grey light, Portland grey medium, Portland grey deep, chromatic black


Fine-Tuned Plein Air Palettes

No one plein air palette will be right for every condition. I use my split-primary palette in most cases, but occasionally I find a need to replace a color or supplement it with additional ones. When I’m painting in Sedona, Arizona, I may choose to add terra rosa and yellow ochre, colors that are great for Sedona’s red rocks. I may also add dioxazine purple for more realistic shadows. If I’m painting flower gardens, I may add quinacridone magenta for the roses.

Unlike the French Impressionists, who were limited to earth colors and a few of the earliest modern pigments, today’s plein air painter can choose from a broad spectrum. Your goal should be to find a palette that lets you get outdoors and capture the landscape with a minimum of fuss and worry.

This article on plein air palettes by Michael Chesley Johnson first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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