Art & Design Magazine

The Vital Palette and Other Secrets for Successful Paintings

By Ingrid Christensen

The vital palette and other secrets for successful paintings

A generously loaded palette allows plentiful, rich mixtures

I've been teaching a lot of workshops lately, and it's reminded me that there are some simple things that are crucial to creating a rich, colourful painting.  So here's my list for things that painters can do to help them achieve good work in a workshop or in their own studios:
-Bring plenty of clean, flexible brushes in a variety of sizes and bristle types.  Brushes that are worn down, stiff from old paint, or loose at the ferrule are a major roadblock to success.  So, too, are brushes that are all one type - especially if that type is a bright, the most firm, uncompromising brush type there is.  My favorite brush type is hogs' bristle filbert, and I have them in many sizes from small (#4) to large (#12).   It's the brush I use most often though I also bring soft mongoose brushes, synthetics flats, bristle eggberts, and bristle rounds along just in case I feel the need for the particular marks that they make.
- Paint on a good quality support.  That doesn't mean the expense oil primed linen, but it does mean that a pretty surface will make a prettier painting.  Artists who bring pads of canvas paper are the most disappointed with their outcomes in my experience.  There may be some canvas paper out there that isn't ugly, but I haven't seen it!  Artists with cheap, floppy craft store canvases also suffer needlessly as their paint sucks into the poorly primed surface and stops them from achieving lush passages of the good stuff.
For workshops I recommend:
- primed good quality canvas cut from a roll and taped to a board (foam core is a lightweight choice)
- gessoed watercolour paper -surprisingly pretty and you can get some nice surfaces by experimenting with the brush, roller, or foam roller gesso application.
- oil paper - though it is very absorbent to start and should be explored before the workshop
- gessoed hardwood panel - as long as there is some tooth for the paint to grab, and you're experienced with this tricky, featureless surface.
- Use artists' quality paint.  I can mix many colours into one pile to get the exact color I'm looking for, but, on the single, awful occasion that I tried student grade paint (Winton, I believe), I found that even 3 colours in a mixture made complete mud.  There are a lot of fillers in student paint, and much less pigment, so you'd have to be a real master (and masochist) to work with them.  I advise painters to invest in their own happiness, and buy the good stuff.  They'll be stunned at the difference it makes to use quality paint.
And the most important and most often neglected:
- A clean large palette is vital.  There's so much to learn in a workshop, and, the painters who bring small, paint crusted palettes have to work much harder than those who have generous amounts of paint on large, clean surfaces.  I recommend a minimum 12 x 16" palette.  If it's wooden, it must be sealed with varathane so that paint sits on top instead of sucking into the fibers, and if it's a paper palette, I advise using gray paper because it's easier to gauge values of paint mixtures on the mid tone paper than it is on white.
- A generous amount of paint will make a luscious painting.  Whenever I see a pea sized amount squeezed out, I ask the painter to put out 3 or 4 peas' worth, instead, and to keep replenishing the piles of paint as they are used up.  By having a full palette always squeezed out, painters are more likely to make complex, lively, and unexpected mixtures, and to apply luxurious passages of paint.
This is harder for acrylic painters as their paint is drying so quickly, but I advise a Stay Wet palette, the addition of heavy gel to each pile of paint, and the occasional squirt of water on the paint to keep it open as long as possible.  And then I ask them if they've ever considered switching to oils...
If these simple, technical things are addressed, painters can focus on making good paintings, and they stand a much better chance of success.
Happy painting!

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