There is nothing that defines an artist quite like his or her palette. Some consist of premixed colors and others are developed in the moment, determined by the needs of each painting. Some artists are meticulously organized with their color mixing, with paints arranged by color temperature, while other artists arrange colors based on their dominance in the specific work.
Another defining characteristic of an artist’s palette is the sheer number of paints he or she chooses to work with. Kerry Dunn, an artist and instructor at Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia, employs an extensive palette and has a highly developed use of color. “I have 22 colors on my palette, and some of my colleagues have even more, around 30,” Dunn says. “There’s a reason I use as many as I do—it is the way I was trained. The palette was passed down to me by my mentor, Nelson Shanks, and is a part of a lineage that goes back to his mentor, Henry Hensche, who had a very expansive color theory, as well as to the color theory developed by the Impressionists.”
The tutelage Dunn received under Shanks revolved around developing an enhanced ability to perceive color. Basic color theory studies were a common practice in the studio, and they lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours. The purpose was for students to learn how to paint by exaggerating each and every color they were seeing. “When my fellow students and I started out, it was challenging because we were so used to thinking and seeing browns and grays,” Dunn recalls. “We were retraining our perception to see everything as a color. See it and exaggerate it. Some people rebel against it, saying it is too much. And, yes, the color studies can be garish. Some call them ‘candy paintings.’ But it as an exercise with a purpose, which is to ‘mess up’ your way of thinking.”
The result is an art colors palette that looks like a rainbow, incorporating strong, prismatic colors with very few earth colors and no black. When applied to the canvas, these colors make bold statements that the artist can then go back and neutralize. Essentially, it is the opposite of developing a tonal painting and then adding color.
Pros and Cons of an Extensive Palette
The high-octane nature of Dunn’s palette does bring with it certain difficulties. Every color mix makes a strong statement, but as a painting develops colors must eventually become more muted, and neutralizing potent colors can be difficult. “The struggle is to make every color, even a neutral brown or gray, interesting,” he says. “But in the end, we are all setting up a range of color and value relationships. Some color palettes are saturated, others less so, but establishing that range is what every painter strives to do.” According to Dunn, the only difference in his approach is that he establishes those relationships with a greater color range.
The artist has found that the number of colors in his palette has decreased over the years, as he eliminates the ones he doesn’t use. Even if he only utilizes a fraction of the paints at his disposal, having a wide-ranging palette allows Dunn to paint anything, no matter the locale or subject matter he is working in, and that freedom has definite appeal. “Whether I’m doing a still life, portrait, or landscape, the palette is broad enough that I can mix anything I need in any situation,” the artist says. “It is like a pianist practicing their scales. You use the instrument or palette no matter what you are playing or painting.”
Dunn’s approach to color and the development of his palette are the result of intense study and training, and his willingness to share his experience is valuable to both beginning painters, who may be deciding what kind of color theory they want to adopt, and practicing artists interested in seeing how fellow painters work. At Artist Daily, we are equally devoted to just this kind of painting instruction—valuable information direct from master teachers. Basic Color Mixing with Mark Menendez is a video workshop available through ArtistsNetwork.tv and offers an inside look at yet another approach to color with insights and advice on how to make the most of any palette you put before you. Enjoy!
P.S. Painting palette choices are endlessly interesting to me. Let me know how your palette came to be and why it works for you by leaving a comment below.