A query by email from an artist who is studying classical drawing and painting got me thinking, this morning, about my painting process and the materials I use. I suppose I have a somewhat idiosyncratic process which I’ve developed over the years. I begin with Raw Umber, Ivory Black and Cremnitz White - and use that (thinly) to get the drawing and approximate values down. After that I then often do the first layer or two of colour with a super-limited palette. For a portrait, that would normally be Raw Siena, Cadmium Red, Raw Umber, Ivory Black and Cremnitz White (which is a variation of what is often called the Zorn palette). Sometimes I’ll drop the Cadmium Red in favour of one or more of the earth reds (Light Red, English Red, Venetian Red, or Indian/Persian Red). I prefer Raw Siena in preference to Yellow Ochre - which I hardly ever use these days because I dislike its gritty texture (though some love it). Depending how I feel I’ll sometimes complete the entire painting in this type of limited palette.
If it’s another subject I usually just start with as few colours as I can possibly get away with - depending on what the subject requires. The reason I start limited is that I feel the fewer colours I use to begin with the more likely it is that the overall painting will be coherent. Plus I can get started in a more instinctive way when I don’t give myself too many mixing options.
If I do decide to move onto a wider palette (which I often do, once the overall rough colour scheme has been established) - I tend to go to the opposite extreme with a very wide palette. For that I use all of the following: Cremnitz White, Lemon Yellow (or similar), Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Viridian, Raw Umber and Ivory Black. This palette gives an extremely wide range of possible combinations and it includes a ‘warm’ and a ‘cool’ variety of all three of the primary colours - plus one each of the secondary colours. Raw Umber, Black and White are used to adjust saturation and value. I find this quite handy since it enables me to really ‘think my way’ around the colour wheel. I can easily add complimentary colours to temper strong mixes or produce interesting neutrals - and it enables me to plan clearly in terms of temperature combinations. I used to be quite dogmatic and a bit scornful of wider palettes and synthetic pigments. However, when you look in books like Harold Speed and Solomon J Solomon, those accounts actually reveal that the highly limited palette wasn’t as universal as commonly supposed (at least in the 18th and 19th Centuries) and I believe that a lot of the anxiety around synthetics (but by no means all) is misplaced and ignores the fact that many have been very rigorously tested.
My medium of choice is refined linseed oil and odourless mineral spirits. I start the painting with just the mineral spirits and then go up to a 50-50 mix of the two for the bulk of the painting. I don’t obsess over fat-over-lean too much - but I just make sure that I never actually increase the amount of mineral spirits in any paint layer. A 50-50 mix for most of the painting seems to work well. Refined linseed oil isn’t really the best quality (cold-pressed or sun thickened would be preferable) - but they’re quite expensive. In the past I’ve experimented with stand oil, and tried Dammar and Canada Balsam. I used to mix a medium with these myself but I have recently been buying Michael Harding's ready mixed medium containing these, for reasons of laziness. However, I generally find that I dislike the sticky quality of this kind of medium and these days I rarely use it, except towards the very end of a painting or as a glazing medium.
(Image: The Artist's Palette - Lev Meshberg).
Ben Laughton Smith
Contemporary works of art in the classical tradition.