Color Palettes of Iceland

Every country has its own, place-specific palette, but Iceland has some of the most unique colors of them all.


It is constantly a challenge to get the camera to capture colors accurately, which is why I always recommend palette studies if you want to remember the true colors of a place. From direct observation, the colors were both more chromatic and leaned slightly more green than this photograph.

Blue Lagoon Palette

The Blue Lagoon is world-famous for its milky-blue waters. As an artist, I wanted to discover how that milky-blue effect is created. How can the water be both blue and milky?

From a purely visual perspective, the key is to understand its coloring is that the Blue Lagoon is not just one color. It has many colors that are adjacent to each other that together create the visual effects that delight the eye.

The local color of the Blue Lagoon water is a chromatic blue. Its hue is ever so slightly green, and the value of the color is in the middle range – perhaps a 5 or 6 on a 9-step value scale.

But what makes the water seem milky is that there is an additional color that appears directly next to the more chromatic blue. This second color is lighter in value (just like milk is light in value). It is still blue, but it is slightly more neutralized. When placed adjacent to the more chromatic local color of the Blue Lagoon, it makes a milky blue effect.

The dark volcanic rock surrounding the lagoon also enhances the chromatic feeling of the water. By being both dark in value and low in chroma, these rocks create a color foil for the lighter value, chromatic lagoon water.

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Iceland Volcano Palette

An active volcano in Iceland made for an even more chromatic palette. One of the most wondrous aspects of seeing lava with my own eyes, less than a few feet away from me, was discovering how chromatic a color can truly be. I cannot recollect any other subject I’ve seen coming close to the chromas of lava. No tropical flower, no synthetically dyed fabric, nothing I have viewed with my own eyes was more chromatic than the lava.

What was particular special about the chromas I saw on the volcano were how the colors were both dark in value and simultaneously incredibly chromatic. Often, chroma is sacrificed when making a color darker because black is needed to bring the value down, and black is fairly neutral. Darkening colors often robs them of their intensitites.

But the Icelandic lava was both extraordinarily reddy orange, and yet also dark in value – as dark as values 7 and 8 in some areas – without sacrificing an ounce of the intensity. It was an incredible visual phenomenon to behold.

Sadly, my pigments – even those on my drawing tablet – could not come close to the true intensities I saw in nature. In order to emphasize the intensity of the colors, I placed the color studies on a darker background. (This is an old artists’ trick for helping colors feel more chromatic when the pigment alone cannot do it justice.)

I loved the contrast I saw in Iceland between the cool color notes of the Blue Lagoon and then the deep fiery chromas of its active volcano. Iceland is a striking country with unique colors worth studying all on their own.

Have you ever made a place-based palette before? What was the most surprising color you discovered? Let me know all about it in the comments below.

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