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Using a color sketch to lay out your palette

The secret to Alla Prima painting, or painting fast and accurately, is to be organized from start to finish and know exactly what you are doing.

Having an organized palette is key to this, especially for pastel. Many pastelists have thousands of pastels, yet we will only use a small handful for a given painting. The trick is to figure out which pastels get into that elite group!

A color sketch will help you make that decision and work out any techniques or problems ahead of time. Below is my value sketch which gave me the composition. Underneath the value sketch is my color sketch which helped me lay out my pastels in the easel tray below.

I organized the pastels in order from dark to light, according to 5 values. That way I can start with the 5's block in my darks, move to the 4's develop the forms, 3's get the local color then 2's for reflected lights and 1's for highlights. Its as simple as that, and usually takes an hour to 90 min. to complete a painting from direct observation when you layout your palette and work methodically from dark to light.

THe color sketch below helped me decide which pastels to use for the painting process

Here's the finished painting which was a demo painting for my Beginning Pastel Class yesterday at Dunedin Fine Arts Center. You can see how the color sketch informed the final painting and how I stuck to the palette I laid out in the color sketch.

I do this religiously.

I know you think I'm crazy, but we all have our tricks. This is my secret weapon.

I even do it in plein air. Below is a sketch from my Weds. Plein Air Adventure class which you can see the sketch in the book, and the palette laid out in the box from dark to light 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Value sketch and color study to lay out palette in box

Note in the above palette that there are multiple 4's, most were the darks in the foilage. You can have multiple colors in each value. As you paint, you use each color in turn until you are done with that value. So you use all the 5's first, all the 4's next, etc. You are done quickly and accurately.


1. Do a 10 min. value sketch

2. Repeat the sketch but with a light line drawing, no values.

3. Test colors as you go to see if they are the correct value by comparing to the value sketch. Start with your darks.

4. WHen you find the right color, lay it in a tray at one end for 5's

5. Move to the next value; 4. Find all the 4 values and line them up in the tray next to the 5s.

6. Keep testing each color as you go until you have all 5 values laid out.

7. A color sketch should not take more than 15 mins.

8. Its a simple tonal sketch with no details.

9. Use the sketch as a place to test techniques. Figure out backgrounds, foregrounds, focal points and patterns of darks and lights.

10. Use this sketch to lay out your palette and don't take it very seriously.

Give it a shot, and tell me what you think!

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