Techniques and Tips

Oil Palettes for Landscapes and Figures

Oil Palettes for Landscapes and Figures

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In the November issue of Magazine, Costa Vavagiakis goes into detail about his oil palettes, comparing the one he uses for figures and the one he uses for landscapes. See his reasoning below, along with several of his stunning figures. If you enjoy this excerpt, make sure to subscribe to Magazine for 10 full issues of inspiration, tips, new ideas and instruction, and more!

By Costa Vavagiakis

I use all kinds of palettes, from rectangular and oval wooden ones, to rectangular glass palettes, as well as gray and white disposable paper palettes. I favor a glass palette for its transparency, smoothness and ease of cleaning. I have a board underneath the glass that has a white and a gray side. When I’m working on a white ground, I use the white side; when I’m working on a toned surface, I switch to the gray. I do my initial mixtures on the large rectangular one laid flat on a taboret. During the painting session I’ll transfer the mixed paint to my oval palette, which I then hold in my hand to get closer to the painting, sometimes working at an angle. Occasionally, I’ll transfer the paint to my disposable paper palette and tape it to the easel or even to the painting itself. This process brings the mixed paint progressively closer to the painting.

I experiment extensively with different brands of pigments in order to find the properties of each color that best suit my techniques. I work with faster-drying colors in the beginning and then slower-drying ones for the later layers. I also work with mediums in sequence from faster- to slower-drying—linseed oil with drying accelerators like lead or alkyd in the earlier layers to walnut oil in later layers.

My color arrangements have evolved over the years as well. I use different arrangements of colors for my figure and my landscape palettes, which I set up so I can mix in the most versatile and economic way. My figure palette is set up with colors right to left in a color wheel sequence and includes a warm and cool pairing for each hue. Since I’m right-handed and white is my most-often-used pigment, I place white on the far right, closest to my canvas, where it’s easiest to reach. I place earth yellows below the white from lightest to darkest (i.e. Naples yellow, Mars yellow, raw sienna). I find this arrangement best for mixing skin tones. I mix most of my base skin tones with earth yellows, white, cadmiums or burnt sienna, dulled down with Davy’s gray and various umbers, greens or blues. I also mix a more pink-based skin tone using cadmium yellow and Florentine red or permanent rose.

Painting Outside

When I paint landscapes outside, I value expediency. I tend to work on a small scale, usually no larger than 9×12. I work with a variety of field easels (French, pochade, Soltek) and, in order to lighten my load, I transfer my 35 ml paint tubes to 15 ml tubes, or I buy paint from manufactures that sell 15 ml tubes (Mussini, Charvin, Holbein).

Here, I place white in the middle of my palette with warm and cool, light and dark pairings of blues and greens to the right of the white. I arrange the rest of my pigments in a color wheel sequence to the left of my white. This arrangement allows me to mix sky colors quickly and keep them bright and light.

I mix colors with painting knives to see the mixed hue quickly and accurately; this also saves wear on my brushes and allows the mixing of large quantities of paint. I premix colors on my palette and set up light, middle and dark values of each color. It’s important to remember that every premixed color is only a beginning; I further adjust a mixture—this time with a brush—in order to accurately match an observed color note. Typically, I start with the high-chroma hues and then slowly dull them. This insures maximum brightness. I also consider the effect of a color’s viscosity and its opacity or translucence when mixing colors. I use complementary hues to create neutrals, mixing them with white to make various grays. I further mix neutrals and tertiary colors, carefully calibrating them in terms of value and temperature. When I finally apply the color note to my canvas, I may even mix it some more on my painting in order to insure an exact result.

Figure Oil Palette

(colors from right to left): raw sienna (Michael Harding), Mars yellow (Williamsburg), genuine Naples yellow light (Michael Harding), lead white no. 2 (Rublev), titanium opaque white (Mussini), cadmium lemon (Winsor Newton), cadmium orange (Winsor Newton), cadmium red light (Williamsburg), cadmium barium red deep (Grumbacher), Mars orange (Holbein), burnt sienna (Old Holland), Venetian red (Michael Harding), Indian red (Holbein), permanent rose (Winsor Newton), Florentine red (Mussini), cobalt blue (Old Holland), ultramarine blue (Williamsburg), cerulean blue (Williamsburg), mesa verde (Vasari), viridian (Sennelier), burnt umber (Old Holland), raw umber (Old Holland), Davy’s gray (Holbein), Mars black (Old Holland)

Landscape OIl Palette

(colors from right to left): phthalo green (Michael Harding), permanent sap green (Michael Harding), permanent green light (Williamsburg), cinnabar green light (Williamsburg), ultramarine blue (Williamsburg), cobalt blue (Old Holland), Scheveningen blue light (Old Holland), lead white no. 2 (Rublev), titanium opaque white (Mussini), brilliant yellow light (Vasari), cadmium lemon (Winsor Newton), Indian yellow (Winsor Newton), cadmium orange (Winsor Newton), cadmium red light (Williamsburg), burnt sienna (Old Holland), Florentine red (Mussini), raw umber (Old Holland), Davy’s gray (Holbein), Payne’s gray (Winsor Newton)

If you enjoyed this excerpt, make sure to subscribe to Magazine for 10 full issues full of inspiration, tips, new ideas and instruction, and more!

Meet Costa Vavagiakis

Winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2006, a Gregory Millard Fellowship, a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and many other awards, Costa Vavagiakis has taught at the Art Students league of New York and the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art. Vavagiakis has also been featured in Drawing Magazine. To see more of his work, visit his website at To watch his videos, visit

Watch the video: Limited palette plein air landscape by Andy Dolphin (August 2022).