Thinking about Colour Palettes

Here are some colour palettes I have been working on in the colourlovers website, which gets me looking at colour combinations in new ways, as they can be applied to paintings. You can see way more on my colourlovers page.

Color by COLOURlovers
Color by COLOURlovers
Color by COLOURlovers
Color by COLOURlovers
Color by COLOURlovers
Color by COLOURlovers

Lately I have been thinking about colour a lot. Sometimes I think I have already thought everything there is to think about colour, and I have reached the end of the line. Then, something surprises me. Once, on a boat trip down the Yukon river, I was waiting for something worthy of photographing to appear, such as a bear on the shore, or at least a stand of aspen trees in bright autumn gold. My friend beside me said “wow, the cliffs are so beautiful!” but… I was thinking… they look like cliffs! We were looking at only bare walls of rock rising straight out of the water at that point. I knew then that she was right. I had not appreciated all those subtle, warm mineral hues enough before that, because I was so focused on looking for the kind of subjects, or colours, that I thought I liked, or thought I was supposed to like.

It seems to me that artists tend to limit our palettes towards certain habits or preferences. This is good and bad. It’s good that inevitably with practice, we develop our own style, and express our individuality. From an art as career point of view, that would appear be a good thing, because you want to be recognized for your style. It’s also natural, especially for women who are taught these things are important, to lean towards the colours you know are your friends. For example I know I look better in bright or dark colours in the blue to red range. I could not walk around holding up a picture of yellowish cliffs to my face and not look yellow. Does that matter when it comes to the colours I choose for a painting? I don’t think so. It’s good to stretch beyond your comfort zone, because that gets you looking at things differently, and that is inspiring, and inspiration is really what art making is about.

In western industrialized society, we are also psychologically limited by the colours in the man made environment, and the objects that we see and use all the time. Now you may wonder why I say that, when such a variety of colours are available, even if the ones that are flogged most are changed from year to year. We are taught that it’s important to co-ordinate colours. The easiest and most obvious way to do this is to combine a bright colour with neutrals, or just stick with neutrals. Oh, sure, we have all kinds of neutrals, like brown and beige, but nine times out of ten, what do you see? Black, true grey, white, black, grey, black, black, and black. The effect is dependable, often fashionable, but it’s cold.

If you look at nature- really look, with unbiased eyes, which I know isn’t always easy to do, you see an infinite variety of subtle tones, as well as bursts of colour, such as flowers or the brightness of a sunset. Nature doesn’t limit itself. It is up to the artist to find in it- if painting nature is your thing- the colours that you want to paint, perhaps bringing some out more, and others less. I myself have tended towards a lot of blues and greys, especially in the last couple of years, when I was into “the atmosphere.” Now I’m inspired about finding ways to bring in more variety in the warm and earthy tones.

It helps a lot to have a way to play and experiment with colour independently of paintings per se. That way as an artist you can discover new ideas about what inspires you, and not feel limited by just trying to capture what things look like.

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2 responses to “Thinking about Colour Palettes

  1. Hi Mary,
    It’s kind of amusing to read you and recognise myself in your stories like this one as your friend on the boat. I remember the cliffs, I think the beauty of them was a combination of well, their natural beauty off course (you know me I LOVE rocks of any kind) and the light reflecting on them at this particular moment.
    You got me thinking when you said/wrote “psychologically limited by the colours in the man-made environment, and the objects that we see and use all the time.” You made me wonder why there isn’t more variety, but for me nothing will ever compare to the beauty of nature, natural light, sky and seasons.

  2. Bonjour Doodoo! Thank you for your comments. I think to be fair, there can be a lot of variety of colours in the man made environment, but some colours and combinations dominate a lot more than others, because of needing to compete for our attention. That was starting to really bug me before I left Vancouver, even though there are pockets of nature in the city.

    For fun I should include a story about you in every post from now on. For example, “once my friend (no name) and I were walking and saw Beavey Weavey swimming in his pond…” or “we were on the boat, crossing the water, when my friend (no name) was stunned by my brilliant insight into the philosophy of life…” heeheehee.

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