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I would be the first person to tell you that I love color. I cannot have too many colors. The more, the merrier. I have dozens and dozens of tubes of watercolors and gouaches, acrylics and markers, colored pencils, pens and more. And yet, I find that all of my best, strongest and most successful images are always created using limited color palettes.

If I try to sit down and paint with all ninety-plus of my watercolors, I have no idea what to do. I spend more time worrying about how the colors ought to be arranged than I do making pictures. Heck, even my twelve-color travel palette has too many colors and can be overwhelming, most times.

I’m not a professional painter (yet!) and I am a human. As such, my first instinct is always to find and take shortcuts. The easy answers. So if I am sketching a landscape, my tendancy is to use the green in my palette to paint the grass green. That is the Coloring Book approach. The amateurs’ approach, but I don’t want to be an amateur; I want to be an artist. So I have to consciously fight my instincts.  The professional asks, “What color should that grass be?” or even, “What color could that grass be?” The grass doesn’t control the picture; the artist controls the picture and the grass.

When I limit my color choices, I force myself to control the picture. If I choose just greens and oranges for an image as I did with this diner sketch, I get to make some decisions. “That sky was light blue. I can’t use blue. Should I make it light orange (warm) or light green (cool)? Or should I leave it white or make it a gray (neutral)? Will the other picture elements be warmer or cooler; how will all of these elements push and pull against each other based on color temperature? How un-green can I push the green things and have them still read as being green?” Now I’m thinking like a pro!

The limited palette also forces me to think about image-making fundamentals. I can’t just fill in color like a paint-by-number, so I find I spend a greater portion of time arranging value (lights and darks), planning out where they ought to go, rather than just recording where I see them. Our eyes will tend to spend the most time looking at people and at where the darkest darks meet the lightest lights, so I punched up the value difference in the two faces in the lower portion of my diner sketch. There is plenty of picture to look at behind them, but you spend most of your time being pulled back to those two guys, don’t you? I also find myself more mindful of my line-work, brush-stroke-direction and more. I’m much more present and mindful in the picture-making process. I’m creating things deliberately instead of just winging it.

Finally, my favorite. Using a limited color scheme forces me to get creative. I don’t need to paint a copy of a scene exactly and perfectly. My phone has a camera that can do that way better than I ever could. Way faster, too. But a camera cannot be creative—that’s my edge (and also how we humans will defeat the robot armies of the future)! If I cannot use blue in the picture, I need to come up with some creative solutions to convince you, my viewer, that the green sky I painted reads as blue to your eyes within the context of my whole image. I become a sketching version of Angus MacGyver. Solving artistic problems under duress, armed with nothing more than a red, a blue, a paper clip and two AA batteries (also how we’ll defeat the robot armies of the future).

Unmentioned but included as another example is a gouache painting of my plastic parakeet, Admiral Mr. Kooks (after Illustration Master James Gurney’s late painting partner Mr. Kooks). This painting is primarily reds and blues, despite what other colors had been present in the mall food court where I created this. I spent a lot less time fiddling with color and a lot more time trying to make a hard, thick plastic bird look like a downy, feathery little budgie ready for beak-kisses and neck-snuggles.

Join me in art MacGyver-ing this Holiday season. Go out for a warm drink and a relaxing sit. Set yourself some limitations, color or otherwise. Force yourself into a problem that requires creativity to solve. Grab your remaining favorite materials and your mullet and make creative art that would do Angus proud.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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