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The artist's palette: Thomas Wharton

Nocturne by Thomas Wharton

One of the things I ask all the artists I converse with and whose work I admire, is to talk to me about their colour palette. Specifically their skin tone palette. An artist's palette is like this unique bag of tricks that they create through trial and error and refine over time to bring their subjects to life. Legend has it that the artist Lucian Freud was so dependent on his use of a particular lead based white paint that when he heard of it becoming outlawed (because of the toxicity of the lead) he ordered more than a hundred tubes over fears it would removed from the shelves. According to this was their Flake White paint.

Colour palettes have become a bit of an obsession of mine and I find myself visiting galleries or examining paintings in friends homes with my nose right up against the canvas trying to ascertain what colours the artist has used. A bit like trying to identify the instruments in a favourite piece of classical music by closing your eyes and listening very carefully. Or likewise trying to detect by taste the ingredients of a restaurant dish you love and never quite manage to replicate at home. I even find myself snooping around other people's colour palettes during the breaks in my art class.

Some artists use only a handful of colours like the Zorn pallete, named after the artist Anders Leonard Zorn who purportedly only used four colours. Others use several and even more. It varies from person to person and also seems to be influenced by the school in which they were taught. I recently watched a YouTube clip where the artist illustrated that you could achieve a perfectly respectable variety of skin tones using just the primary colours of red, blue and yellow (plus white).

As someone that is learning as I go, I confess to being flippant with my colour palette, often picking up and adding new colours if someone whose work I really admire tells me they use them. Aside from my occasional romantic trysts with new colours, I do find myself returning to a skin tone palette that includes Titanium white, (more recently) Michael Harding's cremnitz white, cerulean blue, french ultramarine, cadmium red, lemon or pale yellow, and burnt sienna.

Last year I met the artist Thomas Wharton online after doing an interview with the artist Frank Oriti. Thomas and I very quickly became friends. He possesses the qualities I most value in people: Intelligent and articulate, creative, a quick and witty sense of humour, and he's also tremendously kind and generous. In fact he was so generous and articulate about his process and experience, that I had to split up our conversation into two separate posts because there was such a wealth of information.

When I asked him about his palette I was expecting a list of colour names, but instead I got this incredibly cerebral and detailed set of notes and accompanying pictures that for me warranted a post in and of itself. It gave me the idea of doing a series of conversations with artists specifically about their colour palettes. So here is the artist Thomas Wharton, the very first in this series, talking about his palette and how he approaches colour. These photos of his working palettes (not to mention the time and effort to composite and laboriously label them in photoshop for me!) are care of Thomas Wharton.

October 2015, West Virginia, USA

I lay the palette out the same way for every painting session. On the right are three whites I use. The Gamblin Radiant White is the brightest white I know. I sometimes mix leaded glass into this mixture (with care) which under certain light will add brightness. I use the Cremnitz White when I want body in the paint. The warhorse white for me is Flemish White. I use either the Blue Ridge Flemish White or the Natural Pigments Lead White No.2. The consistency is long and creamy and there is a slight transparency to it that makes it idea for the many layers I use to create the complexity of skin. The palette itself is a sheet of glass over a neutral gray paper.

Going from right to left, the next six colors are purely convenience colors. They save me mixing time, and money in that I use less of the more expensive Cadmiums. I tend to use these convenience colors as a starting point for light to mid-value mixtures and adjust them with the spectral colors and earth colors. As a side note, I’m always a little embarrassed when buying the Caucasian Flesh color… I always get looks at the art store. I wish they’d named it Adobe or something else.

The next eight colors I think of as spectral colors, which to me means more pure, high chroma color. Most of these I use with care as they all have very strong tinting strength. The one I use the least is Cadmium Yellow Pale, which I find very difficult to control. I generally will reach for Radiant White first. But, there are instances when no other color will work as well.

I use the Gamblin Permanent Alizarin Crimson, because I think it is the darkest of any of the permanent Alizarin Crimsons. If I had to pick a favorite color, it would be Alizarin Crimson, and I use it a lot because it is so flexible and in addition to being the basis of a lot of mixtures, it is transparent and great for glazing. Another color to mention is the Williamsburg Ultramarine Blue French, which I use a lot. It has a very low tinting strength, making it easy to use to subtly influence a mixture. I don’t always use the Manganese Violet, but when I remember to put it on the palette I usually find it useful.

I put the earth colors in a separate place, because I think of them differently and tend to use them differently than the other groups. These colors vary a great deal between manufacturers and after much experimenting, I’ve settled on this grouping. I would especially note the Capucine Red, which I find very useful for warm flesh mixtures, the Blue Ochre, which makes wonderful cool grays and is a great modifier, and the Mars Violet, which is a useful color for warm darks when the chroma is important.

I used to use a medium that was a combination of sun-thickened walnut oil, Canada balsam, and turpentine, but developed a reaction to turpentine and had to quit using it. After much trial and effort, I settled on the suite of Winsor & Newton mediums. I usually only use Liquin Original in the early stages, but as I get into more subtle effects, I add the others.

I generally clear the palette after a period of time, because I find that at a certain point I become confused as to what I’m mixing, and if the palette gets confused, the painting does too. I also take breaks every thirty-five or forty minutes. If I don’t I find that my color vision gets dulled and I don’t see the relationships as well. I usually take a ten or fifteen minute break and look at other things to give my eyes a rest.

I go for strong color first. It’s the way I was trained and I find that it is easier to tone things down than bring things up. Usually as the painting develops, I go back and forth with the intensity of the chroma until I find the balance that works for me. My use of color is highly influenced by my studies with Nelson Shanks, and I still refer to studies from his class when I feel I’m getting confused about color issues.

At the end of the day’s work, I put my paints on a glass sheet that fits inside one of the storage containers used by Acrylic artists, seal the lid and put it in the freezer. This little trick has saved me hundreds of dollars in paint. The next day, I take the paint out about an hour before I start, and when I’m ready to prepare the palette, the paint is back to a beautiful consistency.

Going over my mail and notes this evening in order to format this post, I happened upon this little paragraph Thomas had snuck in with his email on his palette. This was back in October and had little to do with what we were discussing in that particular exchange, but it's as if he knew that by me undertaking this journey of becoming an artist, I would some day need it. A bit like the little notes I sometimes send my children in their lunchboxes in case on any particular day things might not be going so well - to remind them that they are loved and valued. Given my current creative struggles, this note from Thomas couldn't have come at a better time:

"One more thing I’d like to add… it’s something that didn’t come up in your list of questions, but is something that I feel very strongly about. ​​I think it is important that artists not mistake who they are as a person with their artwork. Yes, a person’s work is personal and sometimes comes with strong feelings, but your work is not the measure of who you are. ​​​​That doesn’t mean that failure and discouragement aren't experienced. It means that they are experienced in perspective, as are the joys of success and achievement. Without this separation, it is impossible for an artist to maintain the perspective on their life and their work that is necessary for a long career. All my best, T"​​

With thanks, as always, to Thomas Wharton.

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