Unfinished painting (detail) using both ultramarine and phthalo blue.
As I mentioned in my last post, I use two blue colors on my palette, ultramarine blue and phthalo blue.
A few years ago, when I first left science and began painting in a serious way, I chose to use two of each of the primary colors (two reds, two blues, and two yellows). This was based on my studies in color theory (I’ll post more about that someday).
But as I painted, I found myself using very little of the phthalo blue. It’s a difficult color. It’s so intense, it just takes over any mixture it’s in. Colors created with it tend to be really bright. At the end of each painting day, I would find myself scraping a nearly untouched pile of phthalo blue off my palette. So I started squeezing out less and less of the stuff, just to avoid wasting so much. Finally I realized that I was fighting the color, and deleted it from my palette. The majority of my New England paintings were painted with only a single blue: ultramarine.
Ultramarine is such a workhorse, it’s not surprising I got along fine with it as my only blue for so long. It “plays well with others.” It mixes with yellow to make some nice vivid greens (which I often toned down with a small dab of red). Ultramarine mixes with alizarin crimson to make the most sumptuous violets and purples you could ask for, other than straight from a tube. Mixed with white, I got the perfect shades for the New England sky, which is a mauve-blue. Who needs phthalo?
Then I moved to California. The light here is quite different from New England. It’s bright and brassy. Even shadows have a brighter tone. That’s the old impressionist trick of using blue in shadows from the sky’s reflected light. Here in California, even the shadows are brighter.
I decided to reintroduce phthalo blue to my palette. The red-toned ultramarine blue I’d limited myself to no longer seemed sufficient to capture the nuances of color I was seeing here.
I still have to be very careful how I use phthalo blue. It’s a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, it certainly expanded the range of colors I can mix. On the other, it still wants to take over. I think of the color as “shouting”. When it shouts too loudly, it drowns out the other colors. And my other colors aren’t exactly shy! So I’m back to using both blues, but it’s a challenge.
My palette evolves as my painting evolves. And that’s a good thing.