Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Quest for Looseness: Limited Palette

12/8/16 water-soluble colored pencils
Further examining the question of achieving looseness, it occurred to me that when I was using watercolors, my palette never exceeded eight colors because that’s all that would fit in my Trader Joe’s mint tin. I found eight to be a good balance between too many (when I spend too much time deciding which colors to use) and too few (the ideal three watercolor primaries elude me). But another benefit of having a relatively limited palette is that it forced me to simplify, which also encouraged looseness (a brush pen with black ink is perhaps the epitome of simplification that encourages looseness).

The limited palette used on today's pear. 
With those thoughts in mind, I grabbed the remaining comice pear from the counter again before it got eaten and decided to sketch it with a limited pencil palette. I typically use as many as 15 or 20 pencil colors to sketch a pear because it’s fun to mix all the subtly different hues (and OK, I admit, I have so many at my disposal, it’s hard to resist). I thought four or five colors would be a productive limit, but then I started to waiver. . . which four or five of my hundreds of pencils to choose?

I decided to go the easy route. I had just received my December box from *ArtSnacks, which included five Caran d’Ache Supracolor water-soluble pencils: scarlet, orange, lemon yellow, yellow green and cobalt. Four of the five hues were good for my pear anyway, and the cobalt would be an interesting challenge.

Instantly I felt constrained and a bit frustrated – on my desk in front of me were dozens of variations of yellows and greens that would be warmer or more subtle or somehow better for rendering this pear. And I wanted several shades of brown for those scars and stem. But that frustration was almost immediately replaced with the realization (as in “Duh!”) that I could easily mix varying browns from the red, yellow and blue. Using the slightly off hues (by that I mean colors I wouldn’t have chosen if I’d had the run of my entire pencil collection) was fun – and dare I say it? – somehow looser!

Although spending less time was not necessarily the goal, it took me about half as long to finish this sketch compared to my typical pear still lifes because I had fewer choices to make. I also simply stopped sooner because I wasn’t trying to achieve precise color matches, so I fussed less. Does it look looser? You decide. But I must say it felt looser because I wasn’t trying so hard to emulate reality.

What I learned today is probably very basic to painters – I don’t have to try to emulate the exact hues I see in reality! That is, after all, one of the prerogatives of being an artist. And yet, unless I’m deliberately trying to be abstract, I find it immensely difficult to paint or color something in a hue that isn’t “right.” I see so many sketchers use unreal colors with aplomb, but I struggle immensely.

Maybe I’m onto something here . . . a limited palette as a path to looseness! Stay tuned.

Here's what came in my December ArtSnacks box.
* If you’re curious, ArtSnacks is a subscription service that sends a selection of several art materials each month. It’s a good way to be introduced to products that might otherwise be off your radar. I’ve only been subscribing for a few months, but it’s been a mixed bag in terms of products being new to me or that excite me. My favorites so far are the Copic Gasenfude Brush Pen (which I like a lot and will be buying more of) and the Plumchester brush marker (not yet available for individual purchase, but it came in my November box). Most of the other products have been markers, paints and other things that I doubt I’ll have much use for. The colored pencils I used today made me happy as all colored pencils do, but they weren’t new to me (and, in fact, I have a large assortment of Supracolors already). I admit, though, it’s fun to get a surprise box of art goodies each month. And in the case of today’s limited palette, it was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time!


  1. You can't tell you used a limited palette of colors for the pear. I've done paintings using just 3 colors and it works well. In fact, I should try that again. lol I like the idea of the art supplies coming in the mail, but I'm sure I would never use half of what arrives.

    1. I remember seeing some of your paintings using3 colors, Joan -- they were great! I think it's about choosing the right colors and understanding how to mix them. I like this experiment, and I'm going to keep going with it!

  2. Personally I find looseness to be highly over-rated and glad that DaVinci, Renoir, and Rockwell weren't interested in it. But I share both your desire and your struggle to break from the colors we see. Nice pear, though :-)


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