michael rocco palette
Source: Painting Realistic Watercolor Textures by Michael P. Rocco. North Light Books, 1996. © 1996 Michael Rocco.

16 : cadmium lemon (PY35), cadmium yellow (PY35), yellow ochre (PY43), cadmium orange (PO20), burnt sienna (PBr7), cadmium red (PR108), alizarin crimson (? PR83), phthalocyanine blue RS (PB15), cerulean blue (PB35), hooker's green deep [hue], olive green [hue], raw umber (PBr7), warm sepia [hue], sepia [hue], payne's gray [hue], neutral tint [hue] • Rocco's paint selection is a good example of a "photorealist" palette within the scope of 16 paints developed around the "primary" triad footprint.

Looking first at the overall distribution of paint choices, it's apparent that the split primary palette is the basis for Rocco's palette design. The yellows, blues and reds are anchored by a pair of colors at approximately the yellow, cyan and carmine locations of the color wheel.

If we look at Rocco's palette in terms of the four fundamental palette limitations — feeble darks, limited chroma, pigment qualities, and mixing inconvenience — then Rocco's chief concern is with the dark values. He anchors the extreme dark neutrals in his paintings with five dark shades of paint, including raw umber, which in most brands of watercolor paint is a very dark deep yellow, close to gray. This signals the photorealist's emphasis on complete control of the value structure of the painting.

These dark shades are grouped in turn along the warm/cool contrast: three warm (dark brown) and two cool (neutral tint is typically a dark violet, payne's gray a dark blue). Excepting raw umber, these are all convenience mixtures made primarily of carbon black mixed with a tinting pigment. This allows Rocco to manipulate the value gradations and at the same time bias the darks (shadows) toward warm or cool.

I explain elsewhere that the split primary palette tends to bias the color range along the warm/cool axis, and Rocco emphasizes this by limiting his most intense blue colors to the greenish blue span of the hue circle, while expanding the saturation on the warm side of the hue circle by selecting exclusively cadmium pigments, which are among the most saturated and lightfast available.

Rocco's interest in saturated warm hues is also signaled by his choice of a cadmium orange, to extend the chroma of mixtures in the red orange to deep yellow span of the hue circle. These hues are typically rather dull when mixed from cadmium red and yellow paints.

The blue paints are limited to cerulean blue and phthalocyanine blue. These lean toward the the green side, provide a broad range of value and a limited range of texture, and in general restrict the variation in blue mixtures. They also sharply restrict the saturation of violets mixed with alizarin crimson, sharply restricting chroma in the magenta to blue part of the hue circle.

The green side of the space is augmented with hooker's green deep, which is typically an especially dark valued middle green that can be modulated by mixture with the cadmium yellows, yellow ochre or olive green. All these mixtures will be opaque and therefore rather dull, which implies that Rocco does not do marine, tropical or ocean paintings.

Because of his choice of opaque pigments Rocco's red, yellow and green mixtures are all relatively opaque. The major implication of his paint choices will be in the painting of shadow colors. Shadows can be laid down using the opaque carbon black shadow colors, but these will be considerably lightened and strongly tinted when painted over with the opaque cadmiums or green mixtures.

The fact that he has chosen a relatively dull pigment (the fugitive alizarin crimson) for his "cool" red, and a greenish or "lemon" yellow for his "cool" yellow, implies that Rocco visualizes the focus of the warm/cool contrast in natural light along the yellow rather than the red orange axis of the color wheel. This is consistent with his use of an olive green, which is basically a dull green gold or lemon yellow. These choices imply he prefers bright daylight subjects rather than ruddy sunsets or candlelit interiors.

Despite these features of Rocco's palette, the demonstration painting includes both a bizarrely purplish sky color and a relatively light valued, chromatic green river. These are unnatural light effects, and they suggest that Rocco intended a meretricious "color design" stylization of his image. You can see what I mean in the image below, which shifts the sky away from violet and the waters toward a duller, darker green — more natural light effects and color choices, given the color biases of Rocco's palette and the realism of his painting style.

Rocco's typical motifs include farmyard and landscape pictures. Instead of tidal pools, flesh or florals his subjects include rusty machines, old boards, tall grass and leaves. Clearly, he has designed his palette to render these subjects most effectively.