The Warm and Cool Palette and Then Some

Is this thing on?

Testing. Testing. One, two.

I can’t believe it’s been two months. We took a winter break from the middle of December to the middle of January. On Sunday before we resumed, Juliette asked me to move my supplies from the large 3rd-floor studio housing first and second year students to the small 1st-floor studio housing the 4th years. One of the 4th years had to leave the program suddenly to tend to her father and I was asked to take her spot downstairs in order to make room for two new first year students. We don’t typically take on students mid-year, but these two newbies are strong artists and super committed. Glad to have them aboard, though the first years are by far the largest class now. Don’t tell them.

So now I’m downstairs far away from my 2nd year classmates and friends but in a great cozy studio with beautiful light surrounded by advanced students. I hope they’re ready to field all of my questions.

The other major change of plans is that we wont be painting strictly in grisaille this year. We’re moving into warm and cool palette which is an extension of grisaille but not quite color. We’ve been learning to see and recreate value for the past year and a half. Now we’re going to learn to see temperature and judge the difference between warm and cool. Over the break I made these color charts to get started. The warm color is burnt sienna (red orange) in both charts and that color was mixed with cooler colors, ultramarine blue in one chart and viridian green in the other.

Here’s a color wheel so you can see what’s happening in terms of color theory.

color-wheel-300You’re probably familiar with complementary colors, opposites on the color wheel. As you mix those paint colors together they neutralize. So a 50/50 mixture would give you a perfectly neutral grey in the middle of the color wheel. A mixture of 40% blue and 60% orange would give you a warm grey, whereas 40 orange and 60 blue would give you a cool grey. You can see that reflected in the burnt sienna and ultramarine chart I made below. The top row is pure paint out of the tube mixed 10/90 to 90/10. The columns below that are mixed out with white into values with the pure paint as the darkest value, 9.


Look back at the color wheel and you’ll notice that if you traced a line between green and orange you would not go through the middle of the color wheel. That means mixing those two together would not give you a perfect neutral but the whole relationship would stay more on the warm side. Even though viridian is a cool color, it’s not as cool as blue (the coolest) and it’s not opposite orange in the color wheel.


I used the ultramarine blue and burnt sienna palette to do a quick study of a still life set up.


Isn’t it amazing what you can get out of just two colors? Even though we’re supposed to be working in two colors Juliette acknowledged there’s a problem when adding white to make colors lighter. White naturally cools colors so things can end up looking chalky instead warm. To resolve this, she gave us the go ahead to add yellow ocher to our palette. I did a second pass of this study with yellow added to my palette and you can see how it allowed me to play with the warmth of my lighter values (the featured image at the very top is the finished study painted with yellow ocher, burnt sienna and ultramarine).

Meanwhile, in life room the struggle was real. This was a three week pose and after the drawing was done, I transferred it to canvas and made a poster study using only ultra marine and burnt sienna.

That’s around the time Juliette said to add yellow. So that’s how I began the painting. Then she told us to add venetian red to the palette because the model’s coloring in her legs was warmer still than we could achieve with burnt sienna. Four colors on the palette was not something I thought I’d be wrestling with in January of my second year but there I was. I only got to do one pass on this painting so in sum, it looks bananas. I’m posting it because this is what learning looks like.


The hardest thing about these limited palettes is that, as with pure grisaille, you’re not supposed to color match, per se. You’re not matching the exact color you see because you can’t achieve it with what’s on your palette. You’re approximating as best you can by using only the tools you have: light and dark (value), and warm and cool (temperature). One has to adopt a temporary color blindness. The general effect of these paintings approaches reality but still flounders a great deal offshore. And that’s the frustration of year two, lost at sea. The awkward adolescence of atelier training. But as in adolescence, you realize there’s a great opportunity to try, fail, and try, try again.