Palettes of the Masters

The Cliffs at Etretat by Claude Monet. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Color is the magic ingredient that evokes emotional response in a painting. Learn from the masters, both past and contemporary.

Here are some oil palettes the masters have used. Although their pigments vary, the palettes have four factors in common:

  • limited palette
  • range of light/dark values
  • range of warm/cool temperatures
  • usually include a version of the primaries

REMBRANDT (1606 – 1669)

Earthy colors: flake white, yellow ochre light or Naples yellow, vermillion, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, burnt umber, ivory black. Transparent blue, such as pthalo or ultramarine, broaden the palette.

MONET (1840 – 1926)

“…the most important thing is to know how to use the colors. Their choice is a matter of habit. In short, I use white lead, cadmium yellow, vermillion, madder, cobalt blue, chrome green. That’s all.”

– Claude Monet

RENOIR (1841 – 1919)

“On the whole, the modern palette is the same as the one used by artists of Pompeii-- I mean it has not been enriched. The ancients used earths, ochres, and ivory-black. You can do anything with that palette.”

– Pierre-Auguste Renoir

VAN GOGH (1853 – 1890)

“I am crazy about two colors: carmine and cobalt. Cobalt is a divine color and there is nothing so beautiful for creating atmosphere. Carmine is as warm and lovely as wine…”

– Vincent Van Gogh

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862 – 1918)

Predominantly golden yellows, light yellows, ochres, browns, greens, and gold leaf. A bit of red, blue, and white round out the palette.

JOE ABBRESCIA (1936 – 2005)

One warm and one cool of each primary plus a range of neutrals, excluding black.


Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre Light, Cadmium Red, Terra Rosa, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Oxide Red, Viridian, Cobalt Blue Light, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Titanium White.

These are versatile palettes that apply to acrylics and watercolors, too. Experiment while following your natural instincts.

Art Technique and Product Roundup

In this entry I offer some tips and product ideas worth considering. I hope you find something you can apply. 

Radiant Oil Colors

Try Gamblin radiant oil colors. They’re truly “radiant” and more light reflective than other oil colors. The radiant white is fantastic for mixing bright light colors. The others are gorgeous pastels to use straight from the tube or mixed with other colors. I use them to add a lively note to grays. My personal favorite is Radiant Violet. 

Soft Oil Paints

Titanium White from the Bob Ross Floral Soft Oil Colors assortment is incredibly soft and facilitates smooth blending. Pink is another versatile choice. If you paint landscapes, use pink to make greens both lighter and dustier.

Poppy Seed Oil

Charvin Extra Fine oil colors are made with poppy seed oil. They’re wonderfully creamy and responsive to your brushstrokes, won’t yellow, and mix with all oil paints. Try white and a couple of trial colors. Poppy seed oil also comes in bottles for adding to paints. It dries slower than linseed oil, so if you like a soft painterly look, they’re worth exploring.

Painting on an Easel—Literally

Some artists use their easels as palettes! They squeeze out their paints on regular palettes, but mix colors right on the easel supports! Use wood or metal easels, full scale or tabletop. Acrylic paints are practical because they dry fast, but oil paints work beautifully, too. 

After completing some paintings this way, you'll have generated a bonus masterpiece: an avant-garde artwork in the form of an easel. Your colorful easel will serve as an attention getter for displaying your paintings, too.

Varnish-Turp Magic

Try amazing transparent effects over a thoroughly dry oil painting. It works best on paintings of flat texture without heavy brushstrokes. Mix a solution of retouch varnish and 10% transparent oil color. I create a neutral from ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, but color is up to you.

Lay your painting flat and use a soft brush to coat the entire surface with the varnish solution. For areas where you want less color concentration, use varnish only. Now splatter and dribble turpentine onto the wet coating. Rings and organic shapes will develop and spread as the coating dries. To minimize the spreading effect dry your painting quicker by laying it in the warm sun--if possible.

Alcohol-Acrylic Magic

Create amazing effects by mixing a solution of 50% acrylic paint with 50% water. Apply the mixture to a dry canvas or board, which may or may not have been coated with acrylics. While the solution is still wet on your surface, splatter, drop, or dribble 91% alcohol onto your surface. The alcohol creates exciting rings and spots. Move the color around with a chopstick or brush handle. If you tilt your canvas, the alcohol will marbleize the paint. 

Try mixing metallic paint or iridescent powder into your 50-50% solution. Alcohol makes the metallic color separate from your acrylic color, creating outlined rings and surprising effects. Create layers of effects, letting the canvas dry flat between applications. This technique makes wonderful backgrounds as well as being their own statements.


Adding new products and techniques to your repertoire can put a jolt of freshness into your art without significantly changing your narrative. 

I have no affiliation with the products mentioned. This article first appeared in the February issue of "The Creative Edge," the newsletter of the California Art League.

The Still Life: Still Lively

06 still_life.jpg

Here's a photograph of a possible still life setup. Old and new items tell a cheerful story. Note the repeated circle shapes, analogous colors, and variety of sizes in the composition.

A  still  life  lets  you  express  the  vitality  of  painting  from  life  in  the  comforts  of your studio. Forget those boring vases you drew in art school. Set up whatever delights you. Simple  shapes  and  solid  colors are  easiest  to  portray,  but  there  are  no  rules.  Some suggestions:

  • Home: Kitchen  utensils,  framed  photos,  perfume  bottles, stuffed animals, even piles of laundry. The phrase, “doing your laundry” has a new meaning to an artist! 
  • Closet: Handbags of various shapes, a rainbow of scarves, sprawls of hangers, and vintage jewelry;
  • Yard: Rocks, muddy boots, rusty tools, and fallen leaves and fruit;
  • Found objects: Flea market and thrift store finds, broken or not, offer great shapes and stories;
  • Packaging: Cereal boxes, canned goods, board games, and more put words and designs into your statement;
  • Art supplies: Paintbrush bouquets, palettes, and paints are colorful props every artist has on hand;
  • Unexpected: Add  a  jolt  of  interest  to  a  traditional  still  life  with something  unexpected,  such  as  a  toy  robot next to vase of flowers

Composing a Still Life

A pleasing arrangement is the foundation of your artwork. Determine a vantage point (eye level or slightly above eye  level works well)  then arrange  things  on  a  flat  surface. Use a piece of cardboard, maybe draped with cloth  for a backdrop. For well-defined lights and shadows, use direct light from a window or lamp on your subject.

Play  with  the  placement  of  things,  arranging  overlaps  and  varying heights  and  sizes.  Contrast  your  darks  and lights, including shadows. Fabrics offer pattern accents. Use floral clay or earthquake gel to hold things in place. 

Have fun expressing your personal take on the classic still life!