Keep It Light!

Tips & Tricks for Setting Up Your Palette for Vibrant, Clean Colors

Make your colors stay alive by following these few handy tips and tricks I’ve learned in the past 15 years of painting – it might just change your paintings for the better…

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When you start painting, and are confronted with a pile of paint tubes, all just waiting to have a say in your artwork, it is really easy to get overwhelmed, and try to put them all out there, just to see the pretty colors.

But keeping them in the right place, will eliminate a lot of maaahem and muddiness in your work – and it will help you focus on what you are painting, instead of trying to remember which color you were using to mix this awesome octarine color you just invented…

Here are some pointers that will help you create vibrant, clean, awesome looking colors that sing:

Use a neutral colored palette.
While intuitively one would love to use a white palette to spread out the pretty colors onto, ultimately it changes your color perception because the contrast is too stark. Same theory applies to a black palette.
Use a gray palette instead, to ensure you are seeing the colors right.
If you cannot find a gray palette, just slap some gray gesso or light gray housepaint, or acrylics onto a wooden palette, and you should be good to go.

• Make clean-up easy: cover your palette!
Would you love to spend more time painting than cleaning? Yup, me too!
The most valuable thing in my studio for that purpose is my roll of Glad Press ‘n’ Seal – maaahvelous stuff, that there. Cover your palette board with it, THEN put paint out – when you are done painting, or when the colors are all starting to blend together, pull off the old, add a new sheet, and transfer your paint to the new palette surface for a fresh start.

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•Keep your colors sorted!
Clean colors are the result of an uncluttered palette – the sooner you make a habit of keeping your colors in order, the sooner you will be able to master the art of adding light, vibrancy, and clean, clear colors to your art.

Keep complementary colors as far as possible away from each other on the palette. Having a color wheel like the one from Daler-Rowney pictured here is quite helpful in getting your colors sorted correctly. And, when you are trying to mix a certain color, the color wheel is a great reference guide for which colors to mix for certain shades of green, for example.

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Starting with your white, lay out your colors in order from light yellow, to medium yellow, to dark yellow, to orange, to red-orange, to vibrant red, to dark red, to mauve, to purple, to dark ultramarine blue, to cobalt blue, to pthalo blue, to turquoise blue, to pthalo green, to sap green, to burnt umber, for example.

You will want to be creating a “progression of color” of sorts – whether you are using 6 colors or 50 – the rule remains the same: keep like colors together in progression towards the next primary color.

•Keep opposing colors for creating neutrals or contrast
Keeping your colors clean calls for a bit of close-minded-ness: keep colors close together when mixing, to achieve vibrant colors, with almost no muddiness.

When you want to mix, say, a vibrant purple: rather than mixing a light reddish orange with your turquoise to make purple (which, in fact will render something that looks like your cat ate it, and didn’t like it either…), try mixing a red that leans towards purple, and a blue that leans towards purple together.
The resulting purple will be vibrant, clean, and quite striking, because you have introduced none of purple’s complementary color: yellow.

Check your color wheel – colors across from each other on the color wheel are complementary colors – they look great when side-by-side, and make awesome neutrals when mixed together for that purpose. But for mixing clear vibrant colors, stay close to your goal color instead.

•Place complementary colors with the intent of creating drama

Complementary colors are great for increasing the “zing!” in your artwork: place orange beside a vibrant pthalo blue  – a vibrant red beside a pthalo green – plop some bright yellow beside that purple grape…whenever you have complementary colors side-by-side, it has a striking effect. Use that to your advantage when selecting your color-scheme.

Painting a moonlit night? Make sure the moon is the right shade of yellow, to contrast with that dark blue/purple-ish sky with twinkly stars.

Painting some yummy strawberries? Make the leaves a juicy green, to make them look delicious!



“SLEEPING BOOTY” by Conni Togel – oils on canvas

• Lighten color the right way!
When making color lighter, to make it look like it is lit by the sun, try using a lighter version of the color you are painting with. Mixing white into your colors will just dull them down and make them bland, instead.
For example: try starting with a stroke of ultramarine blue, add a touch of azure blue to lighten it (Azure blue has some white in it, but is still mainly blue pigment – it is opaque, so this works really well, I’ve found – I use this a LOT).
Or, try starting with a dark alizarine crimson, adding some cad red, then cad orange, then cad orange light, then yellow, then a dab of white.

This is a basic repetition of the layout of your palette – going from darks to lights just like you have them laid out on your palette, will keep your colors from going bland and blah.

Hopefully this was helpful to you – when everything turns to mud, wipe it off, and start again – or wait for it to dry, then drop in some pops of color to make it zing!


“Dry White Whine” by Conni Togel – oils on canvas

STILL Have questions?
Email me at – I always love hearing from people about how these tips work for them!
Remember that I also offer private sessions to learn these tips and tricks in real life – sometimes explaining this first-hand is better than reading it online…shoot me an email to schedule a meetup somewhere near my studio in Upstate South Carolina, or near one of my shows when I am on tour: