You Have Too Many Paints: How to Build Your Palette
I don’t like to generalize so allow me to instantly backtrack on my post title: I have too many paints. You, I don’t know. Maybe? How many do you have? Probably a lot and if so I think I can help.
Since I am already being spineless let me also add that what I am about to describe is experimental. This is not a process that has been refined by years of experience. This is not something I’ve been trying for a few weeks. It’s an experiment and I am about to start it. Soon, like, this weekend. By which I mean two weekends ago, if you are reading this when it posts, and some manner of weekends ago depending on when you are reading this. It is likely to be a couple of parts so perhaps it would be best to tuck the idea away until I’ve got some results. This means you probably shouldn’t go ahead and follow this advice. I don’t know, I’m not the boss of you, do what you want and let me know how it goes in the comments.
So what is my great experiment? I want to reduce my palette. I’m not talking about the thing I dump my paints on when it’s painting time. I’m talking about my selection of colours. Hobbyists have a massive selection of colours to choose from. I grew up on Citadel paints and it was handy to have the same colour of paint they used to paint the studio miniatures. Vallejo Model Colour has a huge select of colours for painting military models and miniatures. Having a colour for a specific uniform straight from the pot is extremely convenient and most people look on massive paint collections with envy.
I’m not going to tell you that picture doesn’t make me jealous. However, when I was cleaning my work area I went through my paints and noticed that a bunch of them didn’t look healthy and will have to be replaced. The root cause of this issue is simply not painting enough. I’m still in the middle of a slow period when it comes to painting. Things were really bad for a while, because Dota, and while I’m getting better I’m still not where I’d like to be. This summer will be a big test when both the Mantic Dungeon Saga kickstarter and Dream Pod 9 Heavy Gear kickstarter both start arriving. Well, Heavy Gear is more likely to arrive after December but if I’m finished all the Dungeon Saga stuff by then I will be impressed.
Not all my paints have dried out. The paints I use more than others are fine. It is those neglected paints which have suffered the worse. Acrylic paint is not a solvent based paint. Once it starts to go it’s not likely to recover. The paints are junk and as I looked at them I was struck with how little I cared. Good riddance, I say. I should keep only the paints I use and ditch the rest.
What is a Limited Palette?
First, let me say that my idea for a limited palette isn’t new; Artists have been doing this for years. In the modern world of chemistry we are absolutely spoiled for colours. It wasn’t always like this. They don’t call it Cadmium Yellow because it’s the same shade of a Cadmium flower. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal and Cadmium Sulfide powder was used in paints to make a yellow colour. If you wanted a shade of green that wasn’t obtained through a pure pigment you could mix Cadmium Yellow with Ultramarine Blue, which was made from ground Lapis Lazuli. In addition to limited choices artists were also faced with limited budgets. Artist’s paints are expensive. Lapis Lazuli is a semi-precious stone which for a long time was only mined in one part of the world. Even today my local art store sells Golden Acrylics Ultramarine Blue 5oz for ~$18 and it isn’t the most expensive paint in their line. Keeping a smaller palette reduced the amount of money an artist had to invest in their painting.
So, that’s my inspiration but is it the only reason to dump my collection. Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Pro: Lower Cost
Ounce for ounce, paint is expensive. Vallejo is around $4 for 17ml. That’s roughly $33 for 5oz. When you factor in how many miniatures you can paint with 17ml and how long it would take you to do so it’s not that expensive. However each colour increases the cost. If you only use that colour a few times before it dries out and you have to replace it can be a waste of money.
Con: Not being able to mix the right shade
When I think about throwing away my paints I suffer the same fear I always have when I think about throwing something away: What if I need it? With paints, the question is: What if I can’t paint what I need to because I don’t have a colour at hand. A limited palette cannot mix every single colour in the world so it’s possible that I won’t be able to mix the exact shade I need for a specific project.
Pro: Mastery of my paint
Using the same colours over and over again will allow me to build a detailed knowledge of the behaviour of my paint. Personally, I am most excited about this and look forward to building some colour wheels and other tools that artists have traditionally made for themselves to start getting familiar with my chosen palette. This familiarity will help mitigate the previous con by increasing the number of colours I am able to mix. With the exception of my current product, a model plane, I paint figures and rarely use a colour straight out of the pot.
Cons: Inconsistent Colour Matching
Painting miniatures is not a quick experience. If you mix your own colours you will find yourself having to recreate colours between sessions, sometimes with weeks, months or years in between. Every time I’ve read an article on painting miniatures and models I’m always cautioned to mix enough paint for my project. Some hobbyists buy empty pots to store their mixes. I think this is more important if mixing a colour to paint a large model. Having two mixes side by side on the same surface is more noticeable than when it is spread across multiple miniatures in an army. In fact, I have an army like that and I like the look. Paints and dyes fade and weather differently and sometimes different manufacturers would have different versions. For me, this isn’t such a con. If I’m painting a large surface I’ll be sure to mix a large enough batch. When painting figures I’ll flat a model with a custom mix and come back another day to render it. I don’t worry about matching my flatting colour exactly as the rendering process will cover the flat colour anyways.
Pros: My Own Style
Any palette, no matter how large, will have a limited gamut of colours it can recreate. Naturally a smaller palette will have a smaller gamut. Monet, for example, used a very small palette later in his career. According to him he used “flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.” This gave his paintings a particular, recognizable style. I want to do the same with my painting. I don’t crave adherence to an ephemeral historical accuracy, especially when the further back in history the harder it is to come to an agreement on what the exact colour of a uniform was.
I wrote the bulk of this post when I was thinking about moving to a limited palette. I’ve since done so, using only 11 colours plus any metallics I may need and will share my experiences in a future post.
Leave a comment below if you think I’m crazy. You can also yell at me on Google+ and Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe to find out whether I succeed or fail at my experiment. Here’s a hint: I’ve already killed my first idea on identifying my most used colours by throwing out all the empty paint bottles I had collected.