It's easier to understand a painter's palette if you see it both as an abstract pattern on the color wheel, and "in action" as a finished painting. This section presents a gallery of very different palettes and a painting by the artist who uses them.
Palettes aren't merely a mechanism to mix colors: they harmonize with a style of painting. "Photorealist" painters typically use rather small brushes and often exclude granulating paints from their palettes: pigment granulation conflicts with the aim of exactly controlling the color textures. Other artists prefer granulating paints and large, juicy brushstrokes because these produce unpredictable, expressive texture effects. Still others build their paintings through the patient layering of glazes, and therefore want a palette of transparent colors. A painter's palette embodies the logic of his technique.
Besides stylistic or technical considerations, all artists confront the four fundamental palette values the value range, the gamut range, the pigment material qualities (texture, transparency, wet in wet behavior), and the choices made for mixing convenience. Imposed tradeoffs among these values become more acute in smaller palettes, especially those that adhere to the "primary" triad palette and its offspring, the split "primary" palette.
How a painter responds to these limitations is also a reflection of her technique. The artists who most emphasize the accurate representation of value and light, such as Jean Grastorf or Nita Engle, often have the most restricted palettes of all a dozen or fewer paints. Color variety can detract from the control an artist wants to achieve over the value range.
Artists who become exuberant colorists, or who tackle subjects (such as botanical or floral motifs) that invite intense and contrasted colors, often expand their palettes. Jim Kosvanec uses two dozen or so paints, and Joseph Raffael may use 40 or more different paints in a single massive watercolor. In part, this is because hues spaced closer together on the hue circle create more saturated color mixtures, so more paints means maximum color intensity. But frequently the main attraction is the contrasting character of the pigments themselves, and by using pure colors that are mostly mixed wet in wet, there is little time spent in mixing.
Often a large number of paints signals the artist's desire to accent pigment variety, the luxury end of palette choice. But the simple mixture of grainy burnt sienna and fleecy ultramarine blue is capable of extraordinary effects, and pigments such as moody iron blue, shimmering cobalt blue, liquid phthalocyanine blue, powdery cobalt teal blue or roughly granulating cerulean blue and viridian are especially admired for their texture effects. Artists with a meticulous painting technique are sensitive to the handling attributes of different paints staining vs. nonstaining, transparent vs. opaque, saturated vs. muted and this also can lead to a larger selection of paints.
Despite the fussy and pointless prohibition against using black paints in "transparent" watercolors, many of the artists included here, like Chuck Long or Michael Rocco, choose one or more "black" paints (usually convenience mixtures such as sepia, neutral tint, payne's gray or indigo) to extend the palette's value range into the deepest darks. Most artists even those such as Lucy Willis who adhere to a split "primary" palette choose a convenience green permanent green, hooker's green, sap green or olive green to provide a dark, muted green without mixing.
Four themes seem to influence the design of the palettes presented in this section:
emphasis on "primary" colors: some artists rely on a mixing framework built explicitly on the so called "primary" colors. This is often the concept behind a palette lacking violet, orange and/or green paints. The basic form is the three paint primary triad palette, which in the right hands is capable of beautifully subdued and harmonious paintings. Many artists prefer the split "primary" scheme, which consists of three pairs of red, yellow, and blue pigments a "warm" and "cool" color in each pair.
"Primary" color palettes have the interesting attribute of emphasizing the control of color temperature within a hue span, while producing relatively dull (though often lifelike) color mixtures in the oranges, violets and greens. Nita Engle and Michael Rocco, whose very different painting styles disguise their common interest in the effects of light and atmosphere, both use a modified split primary palette. However there are many minimal or restricted palettes (such as the Trevor Chamberlain or Velázquez palettes) that work very well without any particular focus on "primary" colors.
balance of warm/cool colors: the warm/cool contrast is the spine of our color perception, a kind of "metacomplementary" contrast anchored in natural light. Although warm colors typically predominate over cool in modern palettes, artists differ in how far they handle this balance: some artists choose many more warm than cool colors, others choose their paints to produce chromatic balance on the two sides of the hue circle, and some use mostly green and blue paints.
maximum color intensity: palettes became brighter (more saturated) in the middle 19th century, during the Victorian era, a change that appears clearly if you compare the 18th century classical palette or the economical Velázquez palette with many of the modern palettes shown here. A preference for subdued rather than intense color mixtures also appears in the choice of "earth" (iron oxide) pigments, which formed the core of the classical palette: some artists, such as Liz Donovan, include several iron oxide paints (siennas, ochres, umbers, reds or earths), while others (Chuck Long or Lucy Willis) omit them almost entirely.
number of paints: some artists, such as Chuck Long or Jeanne Dobie, manage with a small but wise choice of paints, and the minimalist artist's primaries, split primary or secondary palettes carry this preference to an extreme. In contrast, colorist artists prefer an ample palette, and the tertiary color wheel often forms the basic footprint. In some cases the paint choices seem intended to permit mixing directly on the paper the ample selection of greens included in the palette by Mel Stabin, for example. In other cases, such as Carol Carter's large palette, the selection seems designed simply to provide the most intense colors possible, used unmixed on the page.
I encourage you to analyze a painter's palette for yourself. Each artist's page lists the pigments used in the palette and locates them in a palette scheme diagram. Use the complete palette to select a pigment or paint in the hue category where that paint belongs. Make as close a selection as feasible with the paints you have, and make a painting. This will tell you more about the palette than any web page can.
Surprisingly, the artists profiled here have been slow to change their palettes by giving up a favorite but fugitive pigment. Many art books still recommend the use of aureolin, alizarin crimson and rose madder genuine, even though these are unsuitable for museum or gallery quality artworks.
However, as these choices are an intimate part of an artist's approach, I've let their recommendations stand rather than insert my substitutes (benzimidazolone yellow PY154, perylene maroon PR179, quinacridone rose PV19) for the same pigments.
In a few cases I've silently edited the artist's selection of a discontinued paint with the manufacturer's own replacement color or the closest equivalent I know of: quinacridone maroon for brown madder alizarin, benzimidazolone orange for chrome orange, and so on.