Recently I was asked, "what is your technique for picking your palette? You seem to always choose the perfect colors and perfect tints."
As you may have read by now, my literal palette remains the same all the time: Winton Cad Red Deep Hue, Winton French Ultramarine, Gamblin Cad Yellow Medium (OR Utrecht Cad Yellow Light--whichever I have on hand), and Titanium White. As for my choice of colors to best represent what I am painting, that is, the color scheme I might use, it is different with each setting or circumstance. This will be difficult to explain, but I'm up for the challenge.
In an earlier post, I told the story about walking down the pier during a paint out, and finding these colorful fish. I am going to use this photo along with the painting done in plein air to try to describe how I choose colors as I painted.
First, I decided what overall color I sense in the scene. Next, I noted the quality of light, its strength and color. Was there more color in the shadows or in the lighted areas? Did I sense a color that just looked out of place that needed to be neutralized or completely left out of the painting? Would it work better as a light and shadow painting or a light and dark painting? There were dozens of other questions to consider, but this was a good starting place.
After I worked out a thumbnail sketch, I made a decision about how to stain my canvas based on my answers to the questions I asked above. In this instance, because my design was based on a light and dark pattern with the majority being dark, I stained my panel with a dark, red violet. This was the color I saw in the darkest darks. You can still barely see this color in the finished painting in the very darkest areas of the pier. Next I wiped out the area for the lightest areas.
Practically every color of the spectrum sparkled on the fishes. Depending on which angle I chose to look at them, I could pick up magenta, blue, green, yellow, orange, violet, and some red around the gills and eyes. Really, in this case, I only had choose which colors neutralize so that I didn't have a total circus going on. With the red violet stain, I knew I could use lots of variations on violet, tones of cool red and warm blue. The next questions I had to answer were, do I continue in an analogous fashion and neutralize some complementary colors I could see? Or, should I use those complements and neutralize the split complements? It was apparent that the stronger colors I could see were shades of blue and green. Choosing to go analogous, I picked up on those colors, while graying the yellow and orange hues.
Finally, I scraped all my used mixing area together. This made a predominantly violet gray. I added white to get that neutral violet tone to the right value, and blended it with a light touch over the stained underneath where the light hit the planks of the pier. I knew I could push the dark pier fairly light, make it light-struck, and it would still appear like a dark-colored wood when compared to the lightest glittery highlights on the fish scales. The closer I got to the "main character," the more neutral and warm I made my light-struck planks. These warm neutrals made the cool, highly saturated colors on the big fish really pop. Since my painting was not about form, but about light and dark and pattern, I could put a few dark accents in where appropriate to show the darks of the eyes.
This is just one way I think about painting a day as described above. IF the day had been overcast, I would have thought about it differently. If it was a still life of analogous elements, I might have chosen another method still. All of this sounds terribly academic. The truth is, once you've done about 10 paintings with this way of "seeing" color, it will come naturally. The longer you do it, the less complicated it becomes. It used to be that every thumbnail I sketched, I also did several sets of color scheme ideas. The thinking was not to make my paintings methodical looking, but instead to help me learn to see color harmony. It has become more intuitive now. It just takes practice.
Try this, using a pack of index cards, make your own set of color scheme ideas. Paint combinations of analogous colors, complementary colors, split-complementary colors, triad schemes, etc. Lay them out and see which ones just don't work for you. Compare them to photos you have, every day scenes you pass on your drive home, colors you see in clothing, in television commercials, etc. Make notes on the back about what you discover. Start to narrow down cards that you might want to try. Keep these in a file box and experiment with a different one whenever possible.