Monday, July 24, 2017

What Duotone Palettes Teach Us

"Eyeshine", a trading card sized watercolor painting of three owl-like creatures in an old tree, and color samples mixed from the duotone palette used for nearly all of the picture (phthalo blue red shade and yellow ochre).

I remember reading about sparse palettes used by old-age artists, from Velázquez in the 1600s (yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue) stretching back at least as far as Apelles in 370 BCE (lead white, yellow ochre, red ochre, carbon black).

And of course, 15,000-year-old cave paintings relied on carbon black and red ochre on light yellow limestone.

These days artists have access to hundreds of pigments, natural and synthetic, so why should we limit our palettes at all, much less to such small numbers of pigments? Also, if you're going to use a three-color palette, why not use a middle red, middle yellow, and middle blue, for more flexibility?

And why in the world would you use a palette of just two colors?

For me, as someone who loves the artistic experimentation and discovery found in adjusting color mixtures, the reason is to really, really get to know color combinations.

Just as pure monotone studies can allow us to know all the different hues and character we can get out of a single pigment, duotone studies do the same for color mixing a pair of paints.

A biju watercolor sketch of a tree against a forest and sky, entirely done in yellow ochre.

You can really deepen your knowledge of the two pigments involved—not just how to mix them to get all the colors you can, but also how they relate to each other in comparison in a picture. For instance, yellow ochre can become orange simply by being placed next to a deep blue.

Detail of a watercolor sketch where the original reference had a red-orange roof. Here, yellow ochre can play the role of the red-orange roof when placed directly next to pure phthalo blue red shade.

My tutor's challenge to me when I came to them with a proposal of concentrating on a tritone palette for a while, was to try just two colors before adding a third.

When I came back to my tutor with my phthalo blue red shade and yellow ochre painting of a post office building, my tutor once again challenged me to not use pure phthalo blue in any part of the next painting. They didn't want me to simply rely on using the blue to get shadows or the sky, you see.

So my next painting had no pure phthalo blue anywhere. And because of this restriction, I managed to extract near blacks and even browns based on additional glazing instead of simply mixing the two colors together.

"Eyeshine" uses no pure blues for shadows, not even in the dark tree hollow. The eyes and subtle light highlights were still done with white gouache. The general mood of the piece is a creepy late afternoon.

Going beyond what I thought was available to me, that sense of discovery—not just pleasantly euphoric, but also incredibly useful for future art (as well as determining what I want in my palette box).

I still use duotone palettes to explore new colors I receive in my palette. For instance, this is done in only phthalo blue red shade and permanent brown (Daniel Smith, PBr25):

My 2017 rendition of "Sugar and Cream" from 2016. It's probably noticeable that I don't use masking fluid. The neutralized blues and browns create a subdued, calm atmosphere.
The only place where a pure version of either end of the duotone palette is used is in the wood design of the counter.

Duotone palettes have a lot of potential when you have one cool and one warm color, but sometimes you can just blast out a duotone palette where both ends are in the warm range and see what happens:

"Beasts and Blood Trees at Sunset" uses yellow ochre and quinacridone rose (Daniel Smith, PV19). I have no idea what this mood is, but sometimes it feels a bit ominous to me.

I'm pretty pleased with my duotone pieces, because wringing out the mood out of a mere two colors. Also it's easier to clean your palette afterwards.

For more about what biju are, see Biju.

The Amazon links give me a small affiliate fee at no cost to you if you buy the items through the link; this helps me stay alive.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.