What Secret Oil Color Do You Love Most?

During interviews with artists, I always ask them to list the colors on their palette because I know that information can be helpful to people who read articles in our magazines. In most cases, the lists are predictable samplings of earth colors, cadmiums, white, and black. But occasionally oil painters mention colors that are unfamiliar to some because they are made from a combination of pigments, have a proprietary name, or are a variation of a standard tube color. For example, many artists use burnt umber, but Donald Demers told me about green umber—a wonderful dark, rich green that’s perfect for painting trees in shadow. Nelson Shanks introduced me to perylene red several years ago during a portrait-painting workshop, but I just talked to an artist who uses perylene green in his landscapes and explained why it is the only tube green on his palette. Ed Terpening mentioned in an American Artist April, 2009 article that he prepares a wonderful “California blue” by combining phthalocyanine blue with carbazole violet when he’s out on location.

In almost every case, the artists who introduced me to these unusual colors wanted everyone to know how surprisingly useful they are for painting specific subjects or for trying to achieve certain visual effects. In the Summer, 2008 issue of Workshop, for example, Susan Lyon strongly recommended using transparent oxide red instead of burnt sienna because the transparency of the tube color is appropriate for laying in an initial sketch of a subject on a toned canvas. In the same magazine, Max Ginsburg recommended mixing cinnabar green into flesh tones when painting a portrait.

Many of you love the challenge of using a limited palette of colors to its maximum potential, but others have fallen in love with colors that aren’t included on most artists’ palettes. Members of the American Artist online community would appreciate it if you would post a comment below recommending colors you have discovered and discussing the specific ways they have proven helpful with your painting.

M. Stephen Doherty

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

15 thoughts on “What Secret Oil Color Do You Love Most?

  1. Gamblin’s Asphaltum
    I’ve always two tubes in my paint box because I’m just addicted to the color and wouldn’t want to run out in the middle of the night. It’s a good choice for inital sketching.

  2. I work with acrylics and I am finding the Golden Historical colors to be a
    welcome addition to my palette. VanDyke Brown Hue is a wonderful dark full bodied orange. It was not meant to replace Burnt Umber but I find that I am using it place of that color. It is not as “dead” as Burnt Umber. The Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson Hues create an exquiste purple.Another favorite of mine is made by Daniel Smith. Their Moonglow acrylic color is terrific for shadows and when tinted out with white is very useful for atmospheric effects.

  3. I have three tubes of oil color that comprise my palette on plein air trips. Winsor & Newton Transparent Yellow, Grumbacher Thalo Blue and Grumbacher Thalo Red Rose. I use these because of the ease of mixing any color you want -including a marvelous live black. If you are a fan of white you might add a less intense white like zinc white and tone it down a little.

  4. Thanks for bringing this up, Steve – I love to hear what colors others are using–and how they’re putting these colors to use. Perhaps a full article with photos of how these colors are mixed and used on the canvas! But WHO MAKES PERYLENE GREEN OIL paint? I’ve only found it in watercolor on the Web so far …

  5. I love trying out new colors. I have had others marvel at how many I have on my palette as we plein air paint. I use Gamblin Transparent Orange to warm up things. Winsor and Newton Green Gold is a wonderful addition to my landscape palette. Gamblin Manganese Violet is great for adding to shadows. Old Holland makes a Violet-Gray that I got hooked on for distances and often add it to my sky. My latest addition is Indigo for darks. Happy Painting.

  6. One of my favorites is Grumbacher’s Brown Madder. Wonderful for landscapes. Mixed with Ultramarine Blue gives you a rich purple for landscape shadows. I also like Green Umber.

  7. I love three colors from Gamblin — Asphaltum, Transparent Earth Red and Transparent Earth Yellow. I always seem to reach for Rembrandt’s Cadmium Yellow Medium for great green making. Holbein makes a great mixer called Monochrome Tint Warm.

  8. Edith,

    Several paint manufacturers offer a “green umber” or a “greenish umber.” As the name implies, it’s like an earth color with a dark, rich, green appearance. Don Demers uses it for dark foliage, grass, and seaweed clinging to piers and sandwiched between rocks along the shoreline.

  9. Most of these “extra” colors I occasionally use I associate with people who taught me or gave me needed help.
    Naples Yellow Light and King’s Blue speak to me of my beloved teacher Lou Sloan. Another PAFA teacher, Margaretta Gilboy, introduced me to the delights of Permanent Rose. Sap Green was suggested to me by a friend and classmate, Jon Redmond, and Frances Galante lent me her Transparent Oxide Yellow one day which was a big find. Another friend, Scott Noel, turned me on to the delights of Old Holland’s Violet Grey, Yellow Ochre Half-Burnt and also to Mars Violet. Most recently, when painting in Maine this past September I borrowed some Williamsburg Courbet Green from friend Alexandra Tyng which exactly matched some of the greens we were seeing in that northerly landscape. Because of who introduced us, these colors (and even many of my everday colors) all carry emotional overtones beyond their actual pigmenting properties!

  10. I like to sketch in Burnt Umber and Titanium White or alternatively Burnt Umber and Titanium White in establishing a good composotion and tonal values. A very nice red that I use Is “AZO RED MEDIUM” fabricated by Amsterdam Oil Colours in Holland.

  11. I cannot live if I don’t have a tube of Daniel Smith Quinacradone Gold in my oil paint box. It is so luminous and luscious! Their line of watercolor paints are outstanding. I have used them for years too.

  12. I love gamblin terra verte, warm white and chromatic Black 🙂 Terra verte is beautiful for skin and the warm white is amazing for highlight on a portrait & in landscape. I also mix warm white with other colours instead of white and love the outcome. The chromatic black doesn’t give a flat look when mixing. I also love holbein luminous opera. Great colour to mix with terra verte for cool skin tone 🙂 or a strong blush (or subtle if glazing)