I’m currently working on a painting that’s mostly blue with traces of green and white. When I set my palette down to get a drink yesterday, I fancied the way it looked, snapped the photo below, and posted it to Instagram without much thought.



As the afternoon went by, my phone occasionally blinked with notifications for favorites or new followers, and later I realized that #palette is a pretty delightful rabbit hole on Instagram, mostly to do with cosmetics. I browsed through other artists’ palettes, reflecting on process and studio habits with a nearly voyeuristic curiosity.

I think palettes are a bit like handwriting. Everyone learns similar ways to organize and handle their paints in art classes, but over time we develop idiosyncrasies and preferences that are deeply personal and, I think, reflect the way the hand works. Art historical publications and exhibitions are starting to include palettes like van Gogh’s, which gives tremendous insight and sometimes revelations into materials and techniques. Recognizing artists’ preferred pigments is invaluable in art conservation research, but palettes also give hints about the way artists regarded paint and their craft.


Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait c. 1887-8
As I scrolled through Instagram, I found myself repulsed by some sloppy, muddy palettes (are they just trying to get rid of all their paint quickly??) and charmed by almost fetishistically beautiful palettes (no comment on how that may or may not relate to the actual finished artwork produced). As you can learn a lot from someone’s handwriting, I found I was often able to predict what style of paintings would be produced from various palettes.

So I looked back at mine and thought about my way of working. I tend to use only a few colors at a time, and I work almost exclusively wet-on-wet on the canvas. I go for pure pigments and am fascinated by their individual properties, so this current painting is being made primarily with a red-toned blue, cadmium yellow, and titanium white. If I were going to add another color (which I thought of doing with a phthalo turquoise and reconsidered), I’d have to consciously open it and add it to my palette, rather than dip into something that was already available.

I’m not sure if it is a reflection of my deliberate nature, or if I’m so used to being economical that I loathe the idea of wasting paint, even leaving very little on my palette by the time I finish a painting. One of my professors in undergrad suggested that if a painting starts to feel static, you can try working an unexpected color around a few places to see what happens, dab some spots of bright orange or pink on a blue-gray composition and see how you respond. I liked the idea, and for a while I would throw every color on my palette at paintings until they became big colorful messes with muddy colors. I was frustrated that forms were flattened into bodies of color and the attempts I made at drawing within the painting were reduced to color relationships instead of modeling. When I learned more about the different transparencies and opacities of various pigments, I started to simplify and more tightly control my palette, but my tendency to make basically monochromatic paintings lately suggests I may have overcorrected in my attempts at clarifying.

I have a few canvases in progress that have more complex color relationships going, and I think I’d like to challenge myself with a more robust palette when I get back to those. I don’t imagine I’m ever going to be inclined to squeeze thirty tubes of paint out to make a painting of a rose, but I do love color, so I’m curious to see how it goes.


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