Discover How to Use an Extensive Painting Palette

18 Jun 2013

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 paints arranged by color temperature, while other artists arrange colors based on their dominance in the specific work.

Brett, oil on linen, 18 x 28. All works by Kerry Dunn.
Brett, oil on linen, 18 x 28.
All works by Kerry Dunn.
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.”

Color Trials
Kerry Dunn's palette is fairly extensive, consisting of 22 colors. His colleagues' palettes feature as many as 30 colors.
Kerry Dunn's palette is fairly extensive,
consisting of 22 colors. His colleagues'
palettes feature as many as 30 colors.
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 a 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.  

Still Life with Gray Kettle, oil on linen, 16 x 20. Eastern State Penitentiary, oil on linen, 16 x 16.
Still Life with Gray Kettle,
oil on linen, 16 x 20.
Eastern State Penitentiary,
oil on linen, 16 x 16.

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. Painting Light: The Cape School Method is available now on DVD 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!

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.


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Comments

Oruhito wrote
on 28 May 2010 7:12 AM

Nice article. However t's wrong to say that it is the opposite of developing a tonal painting and then adding colour - the studio incamminati technique as taught by Nelson Shanks involves a preliminary 'drawing' of neutral brown paint (a mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue) which acts as a tonal map before either attacking the painting with full colour, or moving on to an open or closed grisaille stage.

Having had an Alber's approach to color education and having been trained in the lineage of incamminati, I can say that I prefer working with their palette because of the chroma. Of course, every palette you inherit becomes your own when you take a few out, add a few in to personal taste etc, but I still pretty much use the same palette as my teacher and mentor.

Kisu wrote
on 28 May 2010 8:56 AM

Interesting.  In contrast, Degas remarked that if he used a neutral background, such as a warm brown, and then did the painting in monochrome with just black and white, by adding one strong color like a red in various values he could suggest a much wider spectrum.  There are numerous examples where he actually achieved this with such limited means.  

Is it necessary to go through such a training program in order to perceive the color around us?  I think many artists already have an innate sensitivity to color and actively use it, but it's interesting to read about this.  

ikree8 wrote
on 28 May 2010 3:10 PM

I think this is a great idea.  

I almost always use a neutral grisaille tonal underpainting and work on top of that.... (I encourage this method with my students....)  It's an excellent method to acquaint oneself to their subject in a basic and simple way.... and it covers up the white of the canvas.  With the knowledge that the underpainting provides , it's easier to focus on the color aspects of the piece.

However I can see that there is a lot to be gained by pushing color to the extreme and then neutralizing parts of it.  That certainly would add life and zest to what might otherwise be a dull and boring piece.  I'll try it, and get my students to try it as well..... Each artist must experiment and find what brings out the best for them.

Betsy Kellum, Virginia

Katiebeth wrote
on 28 May 2010 6:40 PM

I am not personally as knowledgeable about the subject, or as artistically gifted as Mr. Dunn (or any of the other artists who have left posts here), however my feeling is that he is obviously passionate about his work, exceptionally talented, and he's kinda cute too.

Mr. Dunn's mother.

David Tanner wrote
on 29 May 2010 7:57 AM

I was essentially self taught, and thought my color perception was okay, not great, so when I was introduced to a palette like Kerry's at a 2004 Studio Incamminati workshop, I could see immediately the benefit of a more saturated palette.

Kerry's explanation of perceiving color relationships, as well as his gifted colleagues at Studio Incamminati, opened up a new world to me involving color perception.  It's made seeing and painting so much more satisfying.

David Tanner wrote
on 29 May 2010 7:57 AM

I was essentially self taught, and thought my color perception was okay, not great, so when I was introduced to a palette like Kerry's at a 2004 Studio Incamminati workshop, I could see immediately the benefit of a more saturated palette.

Kerry's explanation of perceiving color relationships, as well as his gifted colleagues at Studio Incamminati, opened up a new world to me involving color perception.  It's made seeing and painting so much more satisfying.

Joan Nixon wrote
on 29 May 2010 8:18 AM

This strong pallette is most interesting and challenging.  As a mentor/teacher, however, I find students are less confused by the use of a limited palette and a separation of cool pigment and warm pigment on their palette.

A continued "thanks" for your interesting features.

Joan

on 29 May 2010 10:46 AM

I thought I knew how to mix any color that I could see with a moderate number of colors on my palette... but since I started taking classes with Camille Prezwodek in Petaluma, CA - I realize how little I know... and how much I have to learn. She was also one of Henry Hensche's students. So far- learning to see the color of light, and the relationships of one color to another in a given atmosphere - and then interpreting that into paint on a canvas is what I'm struggling with/for. There is a very nice facebook page on Henry Hensche, a lot to learn there if you don't have access to one of his predecessors.

Ann Bacchus wrote
on 30 May 2010 11:42 AM

I absolutely loved this article!

I am self taught & although I have had some success, I think inside the box & wanted to learn how to get out.

Wonderful

thanks

Ann Bacchus

living in Saudi Arabia

on 3 Jun 2010 1:40 PM

Mr. Dunns work is quite impressive here and I have admired Nelson Shank's work for some time now. I am a great fan of Henry Hensche's work and  the "Cape Cod" school ( I believe that's what it is referred as).

Personally, I have found the three color primary palette plus white to work for me

and my own artistic temperament and aesthetic.  I believe artists should experiment with many different approaches/palettes until they find what works best for them.

Very informative article- thank you so much!

JT Harding wrote
on 3 Jan 2011 10:46 PM

I studied portraiture with Kerry but we didn't get into that much color practice.  However,  I did study color with his schoolmate Jafang Lu, who I credit with teaching me all I know about (indoor) color. They are both great people and if you get a chance to study with them, consider yourself lucky!

ken massey wrote
on 24 Jul 2012 10:21 AM

I believe Nelson Shanks borrowed the idea described here from Henry Hensche.  Hensche operated the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, MA., for 60 years. Somewhere during his development he realized a tonal analysis for outdoor color didn't work as reliably as did an analysis based first on hue perceptions. This may have occurred in the 1940's, and he remarked about making the change from using value analysis to the comparison of hue and relative chroma and saturation as a turning point in his understanding of outdoor color keys. Shanks may have studied briefly with Hensche, though am not certain of that. However he used to send students who wanted more color study to Hensche. The main difference not made clear in this article is between outdoor and indoor color study. Even if a student exaggerates color for indoor studies, as the Shanks school seems to do, it doesn't automatically translate to a better visual grasp of outdoor color. Outdoor color is effected by the atmosphere, the seasonal and time of day, and type of day changes that greatly alter what spectral rays actually reach the eye and reflect off the surface of objects.  While the study idea itself is useful, a painter can mistakenly apply a tone conception to colors , or a colored tonalism, unless they study forms in outdoor lighting with particular attention to the shifts in hue in the color modeling of the form.

nick-ynysmon wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 7:08 AM

yes, I agree, it does allow one to apprecite the many pigments at our disposal. my own pallete reflects my life, a bit hayware, and chaotic, in a controlled sort of way though. I have great freedom now,  , to sit back and simply paint with no worries of any kind. and haveing a pallette that is not too disciplined in its layout allows even more freedom of expression I find. even though I tend to run out of space for my mixing sometimes!!!! I like lots of different pigments, am not a minimalist usually, though most of my browns I mix from primaries these days. far more effective as Monet found.

andrelloyd wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 8:21 AM

Hi

I have been reading your Artist Daily reviews for sometime now and I would just like to say what a wonderful and marvellous job your editor Courtney does.

Her comments are enlightening interesting and stimulating.

Many thanks Courtney

Kind regards

Andre Lloyd

andrelloyd wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 8:22 AM

Hi

I have been reading your Artist Daily reviews for sometime now and I would just like to say what a wonderful and marvellous job your editor Courtney does.

Her comments are enlightening interesting and stimulating.

Many thanks Courtney

Kind regards

Andre Lloyd

andrelloyd wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 8:22 AM

Hi

I have been reading your Artist Daily reviews for sometime now and I would just like to say what a wonderful and marvellous job your editor Courtney does.

Her comments are enlightening interesting and stimulating.

Many thanks Courtney

Kind regards

Andre Lloyd

andrelloyd wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 8:23 AM

Hi

I have been reading your Artist Daily reviews for sometime now and I would just like to say what a wonderful and marvellous job your editor Courtney does.

Her comments are enlightening interesting and stimulating.

Many thanks Courtney

Kind regards

Andre Lloyd

andrelloyd wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 8:23 AM

Hi

I have been reading your Artist Daily reviews for sometime now and I would just like to say what a wonderful and marvellous job your editor Courtney does.

Her comments are enlightening interesting and stimulating.

Many thanks Courtney

Kind regards

Andre Lloyd

Yamakawa wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 9:09 AM

I've painted with oils so I can understand extended pallet but now I paint in acrylics.they dry so quickly,I think there would be a lot of waste.does anyone have any suggestions?

leasbeads wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 10:12 AM

I use a similar palette, based on a workshop I took with Susan Sarback, who also studied at the Cape Cod School. I wanted to be able to get that beautiful light in my paintings, and this method is great for that! My palette is not 22 colors, but 16, which I find plenty. The amazing thing is that I actually do use most of the colors in most of my paintings.

I also got a lot of good color knowledge, and found some very good color exercises in the book "Yellow and Blue Do Not Make Green" or it might be Blue and Yellow....anyway, the title sounds counter-intuitive, but the results are the same, just with a better understanding of how it happens. I'd highly recommend that book, as well as the Susan Sarback workshops for anyone interested in finding out more about color and light.

Jlesnichy wrote
on 19 Jun 2013 11:37 AM

I am really familiar with Cape Cod approach to color on a landscape, as I studied with Lois Griffel, a student of Henry Hensche. I learnt a lot from her classes and her book Light and color. Impressionist landscapes. I must tell you that I usually have many colors on my palette, i never count, but i try to use a variety of blues, greens, yellow and reds. I keep on mixing them en plein air and I also keep on trying new colors produced by various oil paint makers, Holbein, Schminke, etc.. The way you see or dont see colors does not depend on a number of colors you use. An artist is like a chemist - always looking for new shades, new hues, on his palette and in nature

on 19 Jun 2013 2:21 PM

Saw his work today at the Michener Museum. Beautiful, beautiful paintings but for myself this is just too many colors on a palette but it obviously works for him!

on 24 Jun 2013 3:11 PM

Thanks for this interesting piece. And all the others. Courtney, you have bloomed as editor/writer. I had only a mild interest in reading the newsletter in the past, but this new, smoothly accessible site for Artist Daily is such an improvement. I just signed up so I could comment, a rare urge for me.

I look forward to much inspiration from you and the staff, and the valuable comments from other artists.