7 Benefits of Painting with a Limited Palette

Achieve a greater balance through your painting.

7 Benefits of Painting with a Limited Palette

My youngest son is a genius. He asked me, “Dad, how come you are having a sale in the store, and while trying to sell more paint you write about painting with fewer colours?”

Using less colours means you are spending less money but you will paint more when you see the results. The goal of a limited palette is to gain more control and get rid of the frustration and confusion. You can always expand your repertoire once you learn to paint efficiently.

7 benefits of painting using a limited palette...

I recently went “thumb-box painting” with Scott Gellatly of Gamblin Artists Colours. Jammed into the close quarters of the Tundra, we both needed to pack light and paint frugally. Restricted to using a very limited palette, I was reminded of the fun and benefits of this simple exercise.

  1. A greater balance through your painting.
  2. Easy colour harmonies.
  3. Less chance for over mixing.
  4. Faster way to paint.
  5. Forces you to think about tone and composition.
  6. Having to utilize warm and cool colours works more effectively to achieve contrast rather than adding more colour.
  7. Easier to pack and cheaper to buy.

In short, a limited palette is more efficient. If you use just three or four colours on your palette and use them consistently, you gain more control over your colour mixing. It simplifies the thought process.

monet limited paletteMonet loved to use a limited palette to paint some of his amazing outdoor impressionistic work. He achieved more luminescence by having to utilize more mixes rather than from a variety of colours. He used just three colours, a warm and cool of each.

  • Cadmium Yellow Lt. - Cool (toward green) opaque light yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Med. - Warm opaque yellow
  • Cadmium Red Lt. - Warm (toward orange) opaque light red
  • Alizarin Permanent - Cool (toward blue) transparent red
  • Ultramarine Blue - Warm (toward red) transparent blue
  • Cerulean Blue - Cool (toward green) semi-transparent blue
  • Ivory Black - mixing black with moderate tinting strength
  • Flake White - warm white, thick and stringy.

Just about any palette with a combination of three primaries will be workable. The simplest of palettes that gives you maximum colour mix potential is Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light; plus a white.

Another favoured limited palette to travel with for painting landscapes is Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Quinacridone Rose and Ultramarine Blue; plus mixed white (titanium and zinc mix). It's basically two warms and two cools, where the orange is the modifier.


 For a a great watercolour travel palette, try the following:

1. Raw Sienna; (transparent) for yellow
2. Burnt Sienna; Winsor & Newton “light red”, or Indian Red for red
3. French Ultramarine Blue

Then, near the end of the painting I add a few extra touches of colour. I use these sparingly, for those hits of visual eye candy accents. I also have them around in case I really must mix an intense secondary colour like orange, violet, or green.

4. New Gamboge; for yellow
5. Cerulean Blue; for blue
6. Vermillion; for red

(A neutral dark can be made from burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.)


zorn palette limitedThis is a self portrait of Anders Zorn, the Swedish painter, with his palette of vermillion, yellow ochre, white, and black. This extremely limited palette is sometimes referred to as the Zorn palette. It works really well with flesh colours, particularly in Zorn’s hands, and tones of the figure in the back. The astonishing thing about this palette, is when the black is mixed with white, it reads as blue in some passages. He picked lamp black for this palette which has a beautiful slight tendency towards blue. Adding a little ochre to this “blue” gives us a green. When the red is added to the “blue”, you get a CP Railway yard smoky violet. Mixing the ochre and the vermillion produce a fairly snappy orange.

Magazine illustrators in the 1920s and 30s were often required to paint in as little as two-colour palettes. Editors know that simple sells every time and if you want to catch a reader’s attention, less is definitely more! The limited palette of Mead Schaeffer, shows the resourcefulness of the old illustrators.

Here are a few more palette ideas...

Limited Warm Palette:

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Transparent Red Oxide
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Ivory Black
  • Titanium White

Limited Cool Palette (Great for foggy day truck painting.)

  • Raw Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Titanium White

Though a limited palette makes you think a little harder it’s a fun challenge to see how much you know about colour and how much has turned to old habits. Fewer colours means less chance for mistakes. Corb Lund says it best in his song, A Game Like This In Town - “Cuttin’ back your losses is just another way to win.”

Stay classy SanDiego!

Your Friend in art,
Doug.

PS: Share your thoughts and your favourite limited palette below. 

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