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September 2013



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Playing with muted primaries...and simplifiying!

Once again on the recent trip to Nevada I carried way too much--it's light at home, but when you're trucking from one end of an airport to another to find your gate, it gets HEAVY. So I'm experimenting to see how little I can get by with.

If I'm going out to paint plein air, seriously, I don't mind taking the backpack and "the whole catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek said. But traveling alone in airports? I'm getting too old!

So I decided to try out several re-purposed or retrofitted boxes to see if they'd work for me. There are no end of nice little commercial sketchboxes, mind you, but they all assume you want as many colors as you can possibly jam into the space alloted, which means tiny little pans of paint and seriously limited mixing areas. I like full pans and plenty of room to mix, so I'm happy to experiment with fewer colors.

In this case, muted primaries--indigo, Quinacridone burnt sienna, and gold ochre, though I may have to switch the latter out for raw sienna or yellow ochre. Can't quite get the lovely transparent shade I'm after.

There's room in this box for a 2-piece Sakura waterbrush or a travel brush (or a WC brush with the handle cut short), a stub of a pencil, a small pencil sharpener, a bit of an eraser, and a folded tissue or paper towel...pretty amazing in that small space.

Today, after I hit the hardware store (again--the house rehab is endless!), I headed for the country with this tiniest, simplest paint box, and a couple of small surface options, a 5 x 7" watercolor block and a Clester watercolor postcard pad.

This is a closeup of the tiny Altoids box I re-purposed for a paintbox, using empty full pans (that sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?) that I could fill with my own colors. (It's sitting on a highly tempting cookbook my dear friend Laura Frankstone sent me--the colors were too cool together--thank you, Laura!)

Muted primaries mini-MINI set

Naturally I had to paint the inside of the box white, to make a good mixing area. I used rust-resistant spray enamel that takes a good 24 hours to really dry, then when that was thoroughly dry, painted the outside with gloss black, the same stuff--how Winsor & Newton, eh? (I am not the most patient soul in the world, so waiting 4 days for paint to dry was NOT easy!)

On the pans in this box, I used self-sticking magnetic tape to hold them relatively steady, but my more successful set made use of good old rubber cement to hold the pans in place. A dot on the back of the pan and one on the inside of the box, let them dry a bit, then press them together and allow to dry thoroughly, and they're pretty stable! (Contact cement works even better, but I thought I might want to trade out the pans if I decide one color needs to be replaced.)

I added a medallion on both the little repurposed Altoids tins to help me tell them apart in a hurry...(and since Vicky asked--the medallions are left from my forays into polymer clay--I've got a whole drawer-ful of them that I use on things like this and on my journal covers.)

Altoids watercolor boxes

It was warm in the car this afternoon, with the sun pouring in the windows...too cold outside the car to sit in the wind but lovely, inside, with the window down. The cloud shadows were proceeding with great dignity across the field by the road, and the distant hill was a lovely shade of indigo when the clouds covered it.

Here's the result, below:

"Cloud Shadows" with Muted Primaries

And wouldn't you know, I almost ran out of water in the little waterbrush--it really IS tiny. I tried pouring water from my 2-ounce travel spray bottle into it, but the surface tension kept resisting--I guess you need more of a forceful stream of water! I ended up with more water on the floor and down my arm than in the brush handle...

So for the next painting I dragged out my two Niji waterbrushes...and they were both almost empty. Less than a teaspoon of water between them.  The second painting was smaller, by necessity, despite the fact that it looks larger here!

"Winter Cedar" with Muted Primaries

Even so, it's my favorite...I think the muted primaries worked just as I wanted them to, they're subtle and they help unify the sketch...I love the colors that cedar trees attain in the winter, that deep reddish green...

And when I got home, I filled ALL my waterbrushes, my flask, and a 1 pint water bottle and put it in the Jeep!  "Be prepared"...a little late!



I love these tiny things! You're giving Faberge a run for his money, Miss Kate! And the paper with the color notations is a little masterpiece of color and texture all on its own. As soon as I get disciplined and clearheaded (don't hold your breath ;D), I'm going to try your various triads. There's a whole lot to be learned by working within such strict limits, I'm absolutely certain.
What fun to see the egg book peeking out from among the paints.
The ARE wonderfully light, Miss Xoxa! As you know, the dried paints are often so dark you can't tell WHAT they are--the color sampler's a help!

And yes, I agree, working within limitations is highly educational, and a real stretch. I like to explore how little I can get by with and still produce something I can feel halfway good about.

I knew you'd like seeing the book! It's SOOOO pretty...thank you again, you're so considerate and sweet...



Kate, I am convinced that you could paint with a matchbook and spit and have the result suitable for framing! This is incredibly beautiful -- simple, fresh, clean, spontaneous, filled with energy ... I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT!


I have painted with spit, actually...*G* And thank you, very much!


Love your ingenuity - and your sketches!

When it comes to art materials, I'm torn between loving DIY improvised home-made items and the thrill of acquiring brand new professionally-made equipment ... In an ideal world, I would have lots of time to adapt items to my own needs, AND an equivalent luxury shop-bought version of each! :D

E-J http://rose-anglaise.blogspot.com/
Oh, wouldn't THAT be lovely! I really love found art supplies, but yes, sometimes the luxury of a special item is pure pleasure...

I think all the little travel sketchboxes are cute as can be, but I just don't like half pans much!
This is very cool info! (When you've worked out any bugs, this info would make a great and useful ebook.)

The paintings are lovely, too!
I haven't had any experience with e-books, Ais! I'd probably think in terms of a CD...

I really can't take credit for the Altoids-tin craze--I resisted it for a long time because it HAD become such a craze, like Moleskine sketchbooks, which I still haven't tried. But looking for small, light, and full pans, I thought what the heck!

And thank you!
Ebooks are easy. I'll have to write an article about this, because there are many options, depending upon your marketing plans and your starting budget.

Basically, write and illustrate the book in Word, save it as a PDF, and place it somewhere for sale, such as Lulu.com Lulu also handles free ebooks--saving you bandwidth--if you just want to give it away.

(Ebooks are on my mind right now. I'm currently on page 11 of my ebook that will show people how to build their own websites using the same free stuff that I used for The Business of Art. I hope to have it online by the end of the week.)

I resist trends, too, btw. On my before-the-trend Altoid tins, I used spray-on appliance paint. It's just a little more durable than the standard rustproof paints. (It also stinks far more and takes several days to dry.)

Yours look gorgeous!
Hi Ais...thanks for the information and encouragement! As always, you're an inspiration. I'll have to consider e-books! (And you know me, I give away articles and advice, but to make a living I need to sell books...alas!)

I'll bet the appliance paint worked well, though--no idea how mine will hold up with the rustproofing paint. (They really took a couple of days to dry, too...)


Supernice, Kate! I´ve made one of these too, for my gouache colours. I may have to try one more, for four or five watercolours and a pencil... Looks really neat, and you get very far with your three colours. Beautiful paintings, as usual. Eyecandy!
/nina j
I thought I'd seen one on your blog, in the past! I still have to try out the little purer primaries plus Payne's gray and white set I made, too--they're here: Pure primaries mini-set

It will be brighter and cleaner, but not as subtle, though of course I can ALWAYS make mud if I want to!

I wish I could find some of those skinny little pencils like they use to play bridge with...

Edited at 2008-03-23 05:48 pm (UTC)


Your watercolors are beautiful. I am amazed and impressed by your minimal palette. I am very new to adding watercolor to my drawings and self taught. I think I need 24 pans of colors (plus those Prang glitter watercolors...). I would like to try your method when it gets warmer and I can venture outdoors to sketch. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

You're very welcome, Jennifer! It certainly does keep things lighter and simpler--no worry about which green to choose, just mix one up quickly! If it needs to be lighter and yellower, add more yellow. Darker and cooler? Add blue. Subtle, olive-y? A bit of red in the mix gets it there...


Thank you so much for the informative post, Kate. I love your limited palette sketches ~

I'm glad you're enjoying them, Serena! The discipline is good for me, and so is exploring.

All art work

That's great! I love it...
Thanks! This is my relaxation stuff...