It has been said that one is the loneliest number. It has also been said that one, if it’s the right one, is all you need. In the wake of the current and understandable trend of downsizing and embracing extreme minimalism, what with an increasing number of people moving into increasingly tiny homes, traditional gallery spaces turning into living rooms or even a set of shelves, and widespread purging of “stuff”, I thought I would take a moment to put a spotlight on the ultimate form of minimalism in watercolor painting: the Single Pigment Palette.
The most basic, minimal palette is a single color palette. If you are drawn to monochromes (works of art created from just one color), this may appeal to you. If you relish the idea of a functional palette the size of a postage stamp because you are just that minimal, you’ll probably love this idea. If you prefer a more traditional style, either in painting or in life, you may learn new skills you can apply to your normal palette by taking some time to dabble in the monochromatically colored pool.
Using a single color to create a painting will force you to use value to define the different elements of your painting. It is a paradox that has proven true many times over: limitations stimulate creativity. Many people become so overwhelmed by the options in their paintbox that it can become so difficult to know where to start that the painting is never begun and creative experience is ruined. I eloquently refer to this affliction as ‘artistic constipation’. Learn where to limit yourself to avoid getting overwhelmed and grow in new ways artistically.
Value, brushstroke, and layering will become the newly sharpened tools in your box.
While you can use any color for your single color palette, some lend themselves a little better than others. In making your choice, it is useful to take into account the characteristics of the different colors: tinting strength, intensity and value range, granulation, variegation, opacity, staining, etc. You can tell a lot about a color just by looking at a swatch laid out from darkest to lightest.
Choosing a color with a lot of dimensionality will allow you more flexibility in your painting. For example: a color with a good value range will allow you a wide range of lights and darks. Some colors, such as Mayan Blue, go nearly black when used at full concentration, but can of course be diluted to the point of near invisibility. Remember here to think of the white of your paper as a color in your palette as well, another tool in your chest. For this reason, it is important to take staining into account. It can be difficult to lift a color that stains. (Lifting is the technique of “erasing” watercolor. It lifts color off the page and can return an area of your painting to white or near white.)
Here are some examples of quick sketches done with just one color:
Starting in the upper left and moving clockwise I used: Magnetite, Azurite, Violet Hematite, Mayan Red, and Graphite.
What each of these pigments has in common is a wide value range and color characteristics of interest.
Magnetite– The particles are manipulatable with a magnet, allowing you to create interesting lines and textures. It also has a great value range, going all the way to an intense midnight black.
Azurite– It has a nice value range, larger particle size, granulating qualities that add interesting texture, and some variegation that can cause it to appear as a sky blue, cerulean, cobalt, even ultramarine, and sometimes have a greenish quality. Many artists enjoy starting their work with an ultramarine underpainting or a blue pencil sketch. These can be beautiful works of art in and of themselves.
Violet Hematite– It has a wide value range, intense tinting strength, and nice variegation, going from a deep, nearly black stormy violet to a soft rich plum. I enjoyed using it in an abstract composition because allowed the unique qualities of the pigment to create both detail and interest (read: it does all the work for you!).
Mayan Red- It is a higher chroma color (very bright) but still has a buildable value range (middle-of-the-road tinting strength = nice buildability). I was able to create depth through multiple layers.
Graphite– While able to be quite dark, it has a softness and a shimmery quality. It can bring magic to any pencil sketch.
Wishing you Happy Painting!