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Color Wheel Redux
The idea gives me chills. For me, painting is all about color schemes and giving the color wheel a workout. It is the kaleidoscopic chroma that draws me in, and I usually spend more time entranced by the colors I’ve mixed on my palette than actually applying paint to my surface.
When I found out that nationally renowned artist and professor Mel Leipzig creates his large-scale figurative paintings with just four colors I was surprised.
I’d seen Leipzig’s works before and never noticed that his palette was limited—likely because his skill as a colorist enables him to use each color in a multitude of ways.
Working with a Limited Palette
Leipzig has always worked with a limited palette. He started with eight colors, but in 1990 cut that number in half to just Hansa yellow medium, cobalt blue, quinacridone crimson, and white.
Given the color wheel deficit, you’d think Leipzig would choose subjects that fit his palette’s capabilities, but he doesn’t. The artist doesn’t seek out low lighting or label his works as “moody” to coincide with the colors he has available.
In fact, he paints solely from life, often leaving the controlled environment of his studio for locations where he has no say over the objects in the scene or the lighting available.
In his painting, Fred Schwartz, NY Architect, Liepzig’s use of a limited palette offers an effective counterbalance to the busy scene. The view stretches back across several bays of windows and into the far expanses of a loft filled with papers, books, and furniture.
Despite the visual cacophony, the whole scene is harmonious, largely due to use of a concentrated few colors.
The viewer’s eye travels through the space, touching on the yellows in the left foreground’s wooden model and brick buildings out the window to the middle ground where the subject, in a warmer-toned shirt of the same color sits against a wall of the same color.
The blue in the posters on the right wall is repeated throughout the scene as well, in the ceiling, support beams, and even the shadows along the surfaces of the objects throughout the painting.
The cohesion in the vast space could have been lost if the artist hadn’t put the palette’s variety to good use, and in the same way the painting could have been boring if Liepzig didn’t create a rhythm with color that leads you through the painting.
I identify with Leipzig’s use of color more than most others who use a limited palette because it really shows the range of possibilities available. His works are rich in design and color, and that is something all of us aspire to in our art.
Your ability to work well with a limited palette starts with understanding what color can do and how design and composition can enhance it. Simplifying Design and Color for Artists is a great resource for doing just that. This e-book approaches color, shape and space together with an emphasis on understanding how the three influence one another rather than on formulaic rules to paint by.
The book also includes 18 step-by-step projects to hone your abilities and adapt them to your own creative practices. If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge of color or invigorating your painting process, Simplifying Design and Color for Artists is a great place to start.