A World in Two Colors

"Who told you that one paints with colors? One makes use of colors, but one paints with emotions." Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, “Still Life with Jug, Eggs and Cheese”, oil

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, “Still Life with Jug, Eggs and Cheese”, oil

Sometimes I daydream about walking out the door with a pack on my back, wandering off to sketch my way around the world from Vermont to Timbuktu. I wouldn't take much: a compass, a bedroll, a change of clothes.

I'd only need a few art supplies: a small pad of paper, a brush, a little watercolor palette filled with Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue. That’s it, just a brown and a blue.

Susan Abbott, “Sketchbook, Bahamas”, pen and watercolor

Susan Abbott, “Sketchbook, Bahamas”, pen and watercolor

I'd be in good company carrying just those two tubes of paint. Before the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800’s provided a wide variety of pigments like pink, violet and orange, the great British landscape painters made due with Umber, Ochre and Sienna, colors that came from the earth.

John Sell Cotman, “A Ploughed Field”, watercolor

John Sell Cotman, “A Ploughed Field”, watercolor

When they added a blue pigment for the sky, they had all they needed to paint the world from top to bottom.

“Richard Parkes Bonington, Verona:The Castelbarco Tomb” (detail), watercolor

“Richard Parkes Bonington, Verona:The Castelbarco Tomb” (detail), watercolor

J. M. W. Turner, “Venice”, watercolor

J. M. W. Turner, “Venice”, watercolor

There’s a surprising amount you can do with just two colors, if you chose the right ones, like brown and blue.

Richard Parkes Bonington, “River Scene”, watercolor

Richard Parkes Bonington, “River Scene”, watercolor

Right out of the tube they are potent and intense, but thin them with water, and they transform to delicate tints.

J.M.W. Turner, “Venice”, watercolor

J.M.W. Turner, “Venice”, watercolor

Mix them together and make mysterious, murky darks.

Susan Abbott, “Patio Furniture, Provence”, watercolor

Susan Abbott, “Patio Furniture, Provence”, watercolor

Or brush them pure, side by side, and you've got clean, bright contrasts.

Susan Abbott, “House in Lubec”, watercolor

Susan Abbott, “House in Lubec”, watercolor

I usually prefer Prussian Blue in a limited palette. Prussian is very dark right out of the tube, so it gives a wide value range from light to almost black.

Schmincke Horadam brand Prussian Blue

Schmincke Horadam brand Prussian Blue

And Prussian leans towards green, which is a good starting point for landscape painting

Susan Abbott, “Alexandria Alley”, watercolor

Susan Abbott, “Alexandria Alley”, watercolor

Cobalt and Ultramarine are two other blues that are often used in limited palette paintings.

Schmincke Cobalt Blue Light watercolor (left) and Winsor Newton Ultramarine Blue watercolor (right)

Schmincke Cobalt Blue Light watercolor (left) and Winsor Newton Ultramarine Blue watercolor (right)

They lean towards violet rather than green, and sometimes the landscape does that, too.

Susan Abbott, “Low Tide, Oceanside, Oregon”

Susan Abbott, “Low Tide, Oceanside, Oregon”

On the “earth” side of the pair, painters have the choice of a variety of browns. Burnt Umber is the darkest, and when mixed with blue, gives the most “neutral” black and greys that lean neither warm nor cool.

Burnt Umber watercolor mixed with Ultramarine Blue

Burnt Umber watercolor mixed with Ultramarine Blue

Burnt Sienna is redder in hue than Burnt Umber, and I find it a livelier partner when I’m painting only with brown and blue. Within every color, there’s much variation by manufacturer and by variety. My favorite Burnt Sienna is Daniel Smith Quinacridone Sienna.

It’s transparent, meaning you can see the light of the white paper shining through, and decidedly reddish, which comes in handy for getting intense oranges, and a strong difference between warm and cool..

Daniel Smith Quinacridone Sienna watercolor

Daniel Smith Quinacridone Sienna watercolor

You may be wondering what the words “warm” and “cool” have to do with color. My students are often trying to figure that out, too.

Temperature plays a big role in painting. If you want to create a sense of deep space, the cool of blue retreats into distance.

Eugene Delacroix, “Landscape Sketch”, watercolor

Eugene Delacroix, “Landscape Sketch”, watercolor

The warmth of brown, or orange, or yellow pulls forward. This creates a back and forth against a cool color like blue or violet even in the shallow space of a still life.

Giorgio Morandi, “Study”, watercolor

Giorgio Morandi, “Study”, watercolor

This use of warm and cool holds true in abstraction, too, where temperature differences create a push and pull.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Study”, Collage

Richard Diebenkorn, “Study”, Collage

Temperature differences also create differences in mood. Think how you feel walking into a room with orange walls, versus one painted deep blue. Warm colors are more energetic and extroverted, cool colors are quieter and invite us in to stay for awhile.

Claude Monet, temperature studies, oil

Claude Monet, temperature studies, oil

When I feel overwhelmed by a home full of gadgets and studio full of stuff, I remind myself that I can run away anytime I want to. I’ll carry everything I need, art supplies and all, in my trusty backpack—including those two tubes of color, brown and blue.

Susan Abbott, “Seine and Cloudy Sky”, watercolor

Susan Abbott, “Seine and Cloudy Sky”, watercolor

Your comments are welcome below!