These articles were first published by the Watford Area Arts Forum.  Downloadable word versions of the articles are available at the bottom of the page.


Perspective neednít be perplexing! Some painters find it an easy concept to grasp, maybe even enjoy it! But there are plenty more who need a little help, so letís have a look at the basic elements of perspective and unravel some of the mystery. The following break-down will help de-mystify things a bit.

Linear perspective. This is concerned with the way structures appear to get smaller the farther away they are. Single-point Perspective is something we can notice when walking down a straight road. The road seems to be narrower in the distance than near by. And if the road were to be straight for miles, it would eventually narrow to a point where it appears to vanish. This is called the Vanishing Point. The same applies when looking along a straight railway line or down a tunnel. The vanishing point is a theoretical place on the Horizon Line, which is the same level as our eyes. Two-point Perspective comes into play when we look at a building from an angle. The two sides of the building that we can see have the appearance of getting smaller as they recede. Each side has its own vanishing point hence the term Two-point. These points are also on our horizon line.

Diminishing scale. Diminishing scale is similar to linear perspective in that items in a painting have the appearance of getting smaller the farther away they are. But diminishing scale has not always implied distance. In paintings of the Middle Ages, the early Renaissance and some later paintings up until the 17th century, smaller scale figures sometimes indicated lesser importance. For example, the figures of the Holy family in paintings were often painted larger than other characters so as to enhance their moral importance.

Size of marks. The physical size of paint marks can be used to give a sense of recession. Particularly useful in rural and urban landscapes, the scale of marks can be just as useful in other applications. Basically, large marks come forward and smaller marks recede. In grassed or paved areas, this can either be the principal method of creating perspective or simply used as a supporting technique.

Aerial perspective. This is concerned with making distances less distinct than foregrounds. In drawings, this can be achieved by using a harder pencil, say 6H, for distant shapes where 2B has been used for foregrounds.

In paintings, subtle mixing is called for! An easy method at our disposal could be the addition of blue and white to a paint mix; this might cool things down a bit and make them seem farther away. The addition of violets could also be used but this might involve the introduction of an additional, and perhaps incongruous, pigment. A traditional method of creating recession is to use the same colours that are used in the foreground and gradually mix them together, with the possible addition of white. This can be very effective if a good degree of patience is also used in the mix!

This has been an extremely condensed look at the various aspects of perspective. Try not to be perplexed by it all. Remember that in painting, as in all other worthwhile things in life, practice makes perfect.

Learn to Love a Reduced Palette 

I opened a student's paint box recently and found it to contain so many tubes that I lost count after about 120. It made my own normal range of around 15 seem somewhat sparse. These examples are two extremes perhaps, but unless you are involved in work  of an illustrative nature such as wildlife or bus liveries, where true colour imitation is essential, it is far better to have a small number of good quality paints that you understand well than a larger number that you simply fancy the look of. It's more economical too!

If your own paint box has got a bit out of control, why not have a go at painting with a reduced palette that is deliberately restricted to an absolute minimum, say up to five.    My own favourite comprises French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and White (Titanium or, preferably, Flake) but some people like to use a primary red and yellow rather than the earth colours.

French Ultramarine is absolutely permanent and is the only true violet-blue available. When mixed with Burnt Sienna, it will give beautiful transparent darks.

Burnt Sienna comes in two forms. Its natural state is inorganic iron oxide (PBr7) but I find this a rather dull colour compared with the possibilities offered by synthetic iron oxide (PR101). Against other earth colours, native or artificial, PR101 has the most brilliant, clear, fiery transparent undertones.

Yellow Ochre also comes in two varieties, natural and synthetic. Natural Yellow Ochre (PY43) has been in continuous use since the pre-historic cave painters so if you like to feel the passage of history through your brush, that's the one to go for. The synthetic form (PY42) is lighter in tone and makes for slightly brighter oranges and greens. I use either though not together.

I buy Michael Harding or Old Holland Flake White and also have Titanium White in my box. Flake is a pleasant colour to use and is semi-opaque. Titanium can be a bit fluid.

The secret to successfully controlling any palette is to get to know the mixing properties of the pigments intimately. The combinations of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna in varying proportions and by adding white in oils (or differing amounts of water in watercolours), offer an extensive range of grey and brown tertiaries. On their own they give splendid darks that render blacks superfluous. I encourage my students of all abilities to make "Dulux" charts whenever they are stuck and this activity always produces the "wow" factor. Introduce Yellow Ochre to the brew and a fascinating range of hues will emerge.

Do have a go at using a reduced palette; the extra concentration and patience required will pay dividends.

Working with a Limited Palette

In our last masterclass, we looked at the virtues of a reduced palette, which was deliberately restricted to a minimum of colours. I chose French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and White (either Titanium or Flake). A limited palette is normally considered to consist of between five and ten colours and my choice today is for seven, though one or two more can be added if required. Remember, we are aiming to pay more but spend less by having a small number of good quality colours instead of a large number of poor quality paints. Always go for Artists' Quality paints; they contain more pigment and so mix more effectively.

To the colours mentioned above, I would add two reds and a yellow to make a limited palette: Permanent Rose, Cadmium Red and Cadmium Lemon. The Cadmium paints are relatively expensive compared with those we have looked at before. If you are a beginner who is anxious about the initial cost of materials, the following substitutes are cheaper: instead of Cadmium Red buy Winsor Red and instead of Cadmium Lemon buy Winsor Lemon.

Artists normally choose at least two of each of the primary colours, warm and cool, but with a limited palette we can manage with only one blue and yellow. French Ultramarine, which is a warm blue, can be cooled satisfactorily with white and possibly a trace of lemon yellow. Lemon Yellow, which is cool and has a bias towards green, can be warmed up with a trace of Cadmium/Winsor Red.

Beginners often find mixing difficult and end up wasting paint. There are numerous "rules" for artists to consider and most can be happily be interpreted as being simply for guidance - after all, art is art! Here's a good rule that should not be broken: always add dark to light. It works like this. To mix a green, put some yellow, which is light, in the mixing area of your palette and then add a small amount of blue, which is dark. This will give a gentle green that can be progressively darkened by adding further amounts of blue. To mix a green by adding yellow to blue is wasteful because of the large quantity of the lighter colour that would be required to achieve the desired hue. If uncertain, always make up a small trial mix before making up a greater quantity.

A note of caution; Permanent Rose is a very powerful pigment and you will not need to use very much. It gives much more vibrant violets and oranges than warmer reds.

Making a Complete Palette

In our previous master classes we have looked at the virtues of reduced and limited palettes. So far we have explored the possibilities offered by seven colours; French Ultramarine, Permanent Rose, Cadmium Red (or, alternatively, Winsor Red for economy), Cadmium Lemon (or Winsor Lemon), Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and White.

Now is the time to add some further colours. But remember, we do not have to buy all 557 colours offered by one of my suppliers! To date we have only used one blue, French Ultramarine, which is a warm hue and one yellow, Lemon, which is cool. To these we should add Cerulean Blue, which is cool, and Cadmium (or Winsor) Yellow which is warm. I find that the Deep yellows have too much of a bias towards orange, which I prefer to mix myself.

The palette is now becoming really versatile with a warm and a cool of each of the primary colours plus the two earth colours, Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre and White.   (I like the synthetic varieties of Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre in oils - PR 101 and PY42 respectively).

Three more earth colours to add, in order of importance, are Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber and Raw Umber. The synthetic version of Raw Sienna (PY42 like Yellow Ochre!) is a delightfully warm colour especially useful for incorporating with foreground greens in landscapes. Burnt Sienna is very hot compared with Raw Sienna. It is interesting to note that Thomas Gainsborough was particularly fond of using Raw Sienna, sometimes exclusively, in foregrounds and then reserving his greens for middle and distant areas. Burnt and Raw Umber are true earth colours based on natural clays rather than iron oxides and are real browns. Raw Umber has a strong green bias. In oils they dry quickly and should be used with caution. They work well in an underpainting but can cause cracking if applied thinly over thicker layers of slow drying paints. When mixed with white, they can, as with other earth colours, be used for skin tones.

I have not picked any secondary colours so far. This is because I prefer to mix my own from the carefully chosen primaries but there is one made green in my box; Viridian. It is impossible to make this secondary and it is a fantastic mixer. And it has one great property we have not examined yet - it is transparent in oils; as are French Ultramarine, Permanent Rose, Burnt and Raw Sienna. These transparent pigments mix to give amazingly rich, glowing colours. All of which leads me to another limited palette! To these four transparent colours, add Yellow Ochre and Winsor Red, both of which are semi-transparent and should be used sparingly. Cadmium Red is opaque. If you think you couldn't do much with this palette, just take a look at the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper!

I hope you have enjoyed this series on different palettes and found it helpful in your painting.

Download word versions here:


learn to love a reduced palette

working with a limited palette

making a complete palette