Hazel Soan’s Art of the Limited Palette

Most watercolour books will have a section on working with a limited palette and there have been previous volumes on the subject. Those, however, have tended to base themselves on the author’s specific and unvaried selection. Yes, you could probably buy a set of them – how convenient.

I have never seen a Hazel Soan branded product and I doubt I ever will. This is not a book about what you should do half so much as what you can do. The difference is both subtle and vast and anyone who’s familiar with Hazel’s work will understand immediately. She’s an artist and writer who leads by example, inspires and gently guides and this is what has won her so many fans.

The paintings here are mostly done with between three and five colours, but they’re not prescriptive and Hazel varies them depending on the subject, so you might get the unsurprising Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Permanent Rose where a blue shirt is the key hue in a simple composition. Then, a few pages later, you’re working on a summer landscape with Aureolin, Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson. The point being eloquently made is that it’s the subject that guides you, not the paintbox. These are pictures, not technical exercises.

Even more interesting are the sections where we’re down to just two colours. These are not clever tricks, but rather a way of achieving a particular result in a particular part of the work. You’ll be aware, for example, of how good Hazel is with shadows and reflections. So you’ll find yourself making a pre-mix of two greys, one red- and the other blue-shifted. Yes, there are five colours involved here, but they come down to two and depict those shadows and reflections in a rain-soaked street scene perfectly.

As much as anything else, this is a book about thinking about colour. The limited palette forces you to avoid the tendency to reach for yet another shade from the dozens you have in your box (yes you do). Hazel begins with some studies that look at how different combinations enhance and set each other off – blues and yellows (obviously), but also yellows and reds, reds and blues. She also explains, with well-chosen examples that make the message abundantly clear, how to make secondary colours quickly and easily. There’s a look at the earth colours as well as the use of both related and opposing shades.

There’s so much here that this becomes one of the most comprehensive studies of and guides to colour there is.

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