Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Color Palettes: The Brown Palette

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "what colors do you use?" so I thought I'd talk a little bit about my colors in a series of posts.

I work with a handful of different color "systems", depending on what I'm trying to do. But whatever "system" I'm using, I typically have the same set of colors on my palette - I may add one or two others as needed, and I don't always use all the colors that I squeeze out onto my palette.

The basic colors are as follows–they're all Gamblin paints, unless otherwise noted;


  • Permanent Red (Rembrandt)
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Transparent Earth Red


  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Ivory Black


  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre

Titanium White

Basically, it's a variation on the primaries palette. I mix my greens, oranges, and violets instead of using tubed secondary colors. There is a warm, a cool, and a low-chroma version of each of the primaries.

Transparent Earth Red is Gamblin's name for Transparent Oxide Red. Each brand has its own name for this one.

I consider Ivory Black to be a blue. A very greyed down blue, but a blue nonetheless.

Sometimes I use Cobalt Blue instead of Ultramarine, Prussian Blue instead of Cerulean, and Paynes Gray instead of Ivory Black.

Sometimes I use Indian Yellow instead of Cad Deep.

Sometimes I use Asphaltum instead of Transparent Earth Red.

OK so those are the colors on my palette, most of the time. Now let's talk about the brown palette, which is what I used for this painting. This is your basic earth tone palette that the pre-impressionist guys used; Velazquez, Duveneck, et al. Mind you, I don't know exactly which pigments the masters used, but the system is a simple one. For the core colors, I use Ivory Black, Transparent Earth Red, and Yellow Ochre for the three primaries, plus White. I don't have some of the classic earth tones like umbers and siennas.  Nothing wrong with umbers and siennas – after all, they were good enough for the Old Masters – but mine is just an earth tone version of the simple primaries palette. I believe that the modern Transparent Oxide Red is a synthetic color as opposed to having been made with natural iron oxides, so they (the TOR) have much more intensity and are cleaner (less muddy, both visually and literally) Most of my painting I'm posting today is done with just these four colors.

The few bright colors used as accents - the green jacket the woman is wearing and the dark blue-green of the seat back has some Prussian Blue in it.

I may have used a tiny bit of Permanent Red for the man's jacket and the server's ear...and there's a spot of red on the table, and again on the bow-tie guy's cheek. But just about everything else is painted with Black, Trans. Earth Red, Yellow Ochre, and White.

This "brown" palette system works very well for old-school tonal paintings like this, especially interior scenes where there isn't very much ambient light.  Without much ambient or bounced light, the shadows become very dark, and these dark shadows are painted very thinly and transparently.

I don't particularly think that transparent shadows work very well if it's lighter in value or if you can actually see lots of color and detail in that area. There are stylistic considerations of course, but for "traditional" representational painting, I tend to reserve transparent shadows for very dark areas, and this brown palette interior genre is full of them.

You can see that the shadows in this painting are so dark they're practically black. You can also see that these dark areas connect with one another, and there are no details or color information in these areas.

There are just a few areas where you can actually see anything in the shadows - the server's apron has some shadow patterns which are lighter than the dark receding shadows so that they're visible. It's only because the apron's local value was so light to begin with that I thought I should keep it visible even in the shadow areas.

In this type of set up, you don't have a lot of colorful impact, and it would be a mistake to try to impose color contrasts into it–the brown palette is not very good at accommodating impressionist temperature shifts. You can try it, but I think you'll find that the more you do it, the less convincing the light and shadow relationship will become.

The brown palette is really good for–surprise!–brown paintings. Seems obvious, but I see students trying to combine this tonal palette with high key color temperature shifts all the time. In fact, I've tried to do it (despite my instructors telling me not to) for years before I finally came to the conclusion that may be my instructors were right.

So we can't rely on color contrasts to provide impact. But we can rely on, and get away with, value contrasts! In fact, you have a much wider value range to work with than when you're working with lots of color. You can't easily get away with huge value ranges when working with color temperature shifts, because, quite simply, the saturation of colors diminish to nothing when you approach the extremes of value (black and white).

If I were painting this scene with a more impressionist approach, you can be sure that the server's black vest and white shirt / apron would not be painted in these values; they'd be much closer in value, and taking advantage of the saturation ranges available in the mid values.

The bright(ish) colors I do use in this painting are just spot colors, or accents. They're used sparingly, and if saturation is emphasized, it's still the local color that's pushed, not the color of the light source(s).  Consequently, even if you do see light and shadow on a brighter colored area, temperature shifts therein is minimized or nonexistent. I might even say that temperature shifts are almost irrelevant in this context.

Did I already say that the dark shadows are painted transparently? OK, yes. The opposite is true of the lit areas, which are all painted opaquely. That's kind of a simple rule of thumb. But what about the shadow areas which are still visible, like the shadows on the apron? That's painted opaquely too, but not as thickly as the lit area. Plus, I dragged some transparent paint over it (glazing) after it was dry, so that it relates better to the rest of the dark shadows.

Another exception is the background, where it's a little lighter (upper right corner). That was part of the underpainting where I took a paper towel and wiped off the dark paint. I left it like that because it seemed to work as is. Thin paint doesn't jump out like thick opaque applications, so in this case it worked well even though the area is not a dark receding shadow.

Next I'll talk about the single-color-themed tonalism.


  1. I love the work in the upper right hand corner, where you used a paper towel to remove some of the dark. It seems that by lessening the shadow, rather than trying to add painted light, it fits in naturally and doesn't draw undue attention to itself. Instead, it adds a warm glow to the room, even a bit of mystery. Well done!

  2. Love that you posted your palette, something to be said how one artist makes their color choices.

  3. Replies
    1. Hi Kim~ and thanks! Happy Holidays!

  4. What a great article,thanks for the info..